Ask the bartender: Thank Alexander the Great for rum

Categories: Booze

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Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions.

After last week's discussion of Cachaça, I received several questions about other types of rum. So in this installment, I'll cover the wonderful world of rum:

Rum is the category for spirits produced from the plant officially known as SacchaRUM OfficinaRUM, but commonly known as sugarcane. It's a common misconception that sugarcane is native to South America and the Caribbean; it actually originated in the Far East. When he found it in India around 300 B.C., Alexander the Great called it "the grass that gives honey without bees." He brought it back to Greece, and soon Europeans were planting it as well.

It was Christopher Columbus who introduced sugarcane to the New World. The warm, humid climate and fertile soils of the Caribbean proved a perfect fit for the plant, and it quickly became the principle export of the region.

Rum is one of the world's oldest spirits -- if not the oldest. It's believed to have first been distilled in what is now Pakistan around 150 B.C.; India was soon producing a sugarcane distillate called Bengal Arrack. The first known rum produced in the New World originated in Barbados in 1651. By 1700, rum was in high demand across the American colonies and in Europe.

There are four major styles of rum:

The English Style: Produced from the by-product of making sugar and molasses, English-style rums are distilled in pot stills and are heavy and funky. They are produced mainly in Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Australia and India.

Rhum Agricole and Cachaça: Both are made by fermenting fresh-pressed cane juice. They retain the traditional rum funkiness (known as Hogo) but are lighter in body than the English-style rums. Rhum Agricole must be produced in Martinique and Cachaça must be made in Brazil.

The Spanish Style: Don Facundo Bacardi introduced the column still, charcoal filtering and barrel aging to rum distillation in Cuba; the result was a molasses-based rum that was lighter and more elegant than the English-style rums. This style spread throughout the region, particularly in Puerto Rico. To this day, Puerto Rican rums retain that same light character with hints of sweetness and vanilla.

The Modern Way: Made from molasses in column stills, modern rums hardly seem like rums at all to me. They have fallen far from the English style and most are over-distilled, producing a spirit that is closer to vodka than traditional rums.

There are many ways to drink rum; I like to sip a nice, aged rum. The most traditional way is in a Daiquiri (not the frozen strawberry kind, which isn't a Daiquiri at all). The Daiquiri gets its name from a beach in Cuba. In Martinique, the way to drink Rhum Agricole is in a Ti' Punch, which has the same ingredients as a Daiquiri, but in different ratios. (See last week's entry for the Caipirinha, the traditional way to drink Cachaça.)

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Robert A. Burr
Robert A. Burr

Nice article. Well researched and well written. You might include rums of Guyana and Trinidad with your English styles. The old wooden pot still in Guyana still produces an important component long identified with Naval rum. As micro-distilleries pop up like mushrooms after a good rain, the styles will begin to blur a bit more with various stocks used, fermentation methods and types of stills, not to mention endless variations in aging and blending.

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