Rum is a curious spirit. It’s wild, enigmatic and often unregulated, with as many different flavors as there are rum brands. It can be sweet, spicy, cane-forward, citrus-y and hundreds of other things, all depending on where and how it was created.
That’s not to say that rum is unknowable. To begin to understand rum, you must start with the category’s origins.
The modern history of rum starts with a sugar craze in 17th-century Europe. The production of sugar left Caribbean colonies with tons of molasses, the byproduct of sugar refinement. The thick, sticky and sweet substance wasn’t very useful to anyone and was often thrown out—until enterprising people discovered it can be fermented and distilled.
Different colonies were soon refining their own styles of production and distillation. The personality of each island, from its people to its plants, became intertwined with the flavor of its rum. It’s a terroir-driven spirit (soil, weather, water, traditions and laws all playing a part), so no two places produce an identical rum.
For instance, while all rums begin as sugar cane, the traditional process of making Jamaican rum yields a unique, delicious and funky flavor. It’s a completely unique flavor bartenders love to utilize in cocktails, and the only place to find it is in Jamaican rum. Appleton Estate is a particularly good example of a high-quality premium rum.
The category is diverse, and aside from Jamaica, much of rum isn’t as standardized as other spirits. So how do you know what you’re tasting? One quick way to identify styles of rum is to look at the colonial origins of the place where it’s produced. You can tell a lot about rum from the language spoken where it’s made.
The most common style, at least for casual American drinkers, is rum from Spanish-speaking islands, particularly Puerto Rico. You can expect these rums to be made with molasses and often distilled in column stills. The white spirits will usually feature a clean and bright flavor profile, while the aged spirits have a fuller flavor with sweet golden raisin notes.
French-speaking countries skip the molasses and produce rhum agricole directly from sugar cane juice. Rum from Haiti and Guadeloupe tastes grassy and fresh when unaged and mellows and rounds as it spends more time in the barrel.
English countries have a tradition of pot distilling that puts molasses front and center, celebrating the flavors it brings to the spirit. The resulting rum has a full-bodied flavor with character and depth. Rum from Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados is a prime example of this style.
Jamaica, while English-speaking, is the exception to the rule. Rum from Jamaica is most similar to the other English rums, but its signature funk gives it a flavor that defies comparison or categorization. This standout flavor is why bartenders, at craft cocktail bars and lively dives alike, consider it a must-have.
Rum is a category you can—and should—get lost in. Of course, reading about rum can only tell you so much. You need to go out and try all these styles. Soon, you’ll be tasting the difference between the islands.