“Of all the spirits in your home, rum is the most romantic,” wrote bon vivant James Beard in 1956. He was right, of course. A single sip can bring to mind tall palm trees and tiny umbrellas, exotic vacations and colorful, complicated history. But romance is the opposite of fact, and rum has thus proved a fertile breeding ground for myths, which have taken root and spread like bougainvillea.
Here are five I heard while researching And a Bottle of Rum and since, with correctives:
Rum is always sweet.
Yes, all rum is made from sugar. No, that doesn’t mean it’s sweet. Yeast diligently converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide before it goes into the still. A white rum can be as dry as any liquor. And aging in oak adds tannins and other wood flavorings that can produce dark rum as puckery as Scotch.
Rum is best mixed with fruit juices.
Rum has traditionally been a cheap spirit, and so it was often mixed with cheap juices for frat parties. But a good rum holds its own in classic cocktails like a rum Manhattan or a rum Old Fashioned. The finest aged rums are best appreciated neat, like cognac.
Rum is a Caribbean/West Indian spirit.
Rum’s commercial birthplace may have been the sugar cane fields of the islands and the tropics, but prior to the American Revolution, dozens of rum distilleries existed in New England. Today, rum is again a North American product, with craft distillers making distinctive rums from Hawaii and New Orleans to Boston.
Pirates always drank rum.
Pirates drank whatever they could plunder, and in the early days, that was chiefly Spanish wine. Contemporary accounts of the dreaded Captain Morgan—the real one—don’t even mention rum. It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that pirates started to drink rum, concurrent with the rise of the West Indian rum trade.
“Rhum” is a French affectation (or a typo).
You’ll often see “rhum” on the labels of rums from French-speaking areas, especially the island of Martinique. This is not just French contrariness. Rather, it typically distinguishes rum made from fresh sugar cane juice from rum made from molasses. In white rhums especially, you can expect a funkier, grassier flavor.
Learn more about rum and get lots more cocktail recipes in our rum guide.
Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He is also host of the site Slowcocktails.com.