When I asked my manager Dan about rum, he told me that the Caribbean, and rum by extension, was the Wild West of the liquor world (compare this to France, which is its polar opposite. More on this later). Most of the countries in the Caribbean tend to have pretty lax regulations on what “rum” is and how it’s made, which makes for some really interesting variations, especially among different rum-making traditions (English, French and Spanish). The exception to this is Martinique, which is an overseas territory of France and has to submit to obsessive French scrutiny.
A brief aside about the French:
One thing I will say about the French is that two things will survive the pending apocalypse: cockroaches and the French desire to follow all of their traditions to the letter for as long as possible without changing them. To give credit where credit is due, the French are really consistent in the quality of their products, since their gastronomic traditions have more or less been preserved in amber since the 1800s. It’s why cognac and armagnac have been far surpassed in terms of total sales by spirits like whiskey and tequila, where there is much more of a tradition of change and boundary pushing. It’s also why French food is always best in France, since the recipes have so little room for errors or change.
Back to rum:
Once again, I should probably draft up a little FAQ section, which is by no means a compilation of frequently asked questions, but more questions that I asked Dan and can remember the answers to.
Q: What is rum?
A: Generally speaking, rum is a distilled spirit that comes from sugar. I can’t really get more specific than that, since there are traditions of rum that are distilled from molasses (especially the English, so think Jamaica and Barbados) or sugar cane juice (this is called agricole and is generally associated with the French tradition).
Q: You keep mentioning different traditions? What’s that all about?
A: Basically, the three big European colonial powers in the Americas (England, France and Spain) started making rum in the Americas. The English normally made rums that had a lot more of that molasses flavor remaining from the base distillate. This, combined with the light aging, creates some really strong, funky rums. The French are mostly known for agricole, or rum whose base distillate is sugarcane juice instead of molasses. This results in an earthier, grassier rum. The Spanish, like the English, also primarily used molasses as the base distillate, but tend to age their rums a little bit longer (ron añejo), resulting in a smoother finish, more wood character and less molasses character. They tend to be sweeter and less funky than English-style rums.
Now for the actual tasting! This is Rhum Barbancourt, which is a Haitian rhum agricole. Let’s get into it.
-Call me Old Gregg because I have the FUNK
-Some sort of citrus peel note
-Definitely has a hot nose, the booze comes through here
-Sweet. The sugar definitely comes through here
-Definitely more of that bitter orange peel flavor that came through in the orange
-Maybe cinnamon? Not sure, definitely an earthy spicy flavor that wasn’t quite sweet enough to give me ginger
-The alcohol is actually a lot less potent in the palate than the nose, which is a strange sensation but not wholly unusual (truth be told, it probably just means I nosed it too close to the rum, since you’re generally supposed to smell it at a distance where the booze doesn’t come through too much).
-Burnt, dark sugar
-Definitely a bit of an earthy spiciness to it
This was a really cool rum! I don’t necessarily know if it was for me (I think the orange mixed with the booziness in a way that didn’t sit well with me), but it’s definitely a good rum that I could see someone who likes sweeter liquor enjoying (I have the same issue with tequila).
*I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the gruesome history of rum in the Caribbean and all the colonial atrocities that came with it. Sugar (and the rum that came from it) was so immensely profitable that it was cheaper to throw Black bodies at plantations and literally work them to death than actually provide liveable working conditions. Rum single-handedly brought triangular trade to its peak, and became so ubiquitously associated with slavery that higher-proof rums were made specifically as a currency to purchase slaves. Rum’s history in the Americas is deeply entwined with that of slavery.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of the series “No mom, I don’t have a drinking problem.”