So, with that in mind let’s take some of the more commonplace Rum classifiers and try and make a little more sense of them (spoiler alert: Malibu is technically not considered a Rum).
All freshly distilled alcohol is clear. So white Rum could be a pure pot still Rum with a full, intense flavour profile or it could be a light, modern Rum produced on an efficient multi-column still with a flavour profile that is more akin to Vodka. It could be a blend of both. Further to this, it could be unaged, or matured and then colour stripped using clever filtration. It might even be a blend of all the above.
The only thing that you can guarantee is its clarity. Oh… hang on... Actually, some of the white Rums do have a little bit of colour remaining. A hint of gold if you will. Plantation 3 Stars Rum is a great example of that.
Sometimes it’s desirable to have a clear spirit to use in Rum cocktails, and I certainly prefer my daiquiris or mojitos to have a nice translucency. But if I want my daiquiri to taste a certain way, then just asking for white Rum really won’t cut the mustard.
A huge number of brands designate their expressions as white, silver or platinum and I guess they pre-suppose that you the consumer will know more about the brand and the sort of flavour profile to expect. At first glance, the only difference between Bacardi Carta Blanca and Wray & Nephew Overproof is a difference in bottle strength – of course if you’ve sipped them you’ll know this really isn’t the case. If you knew how they were made, then you’d be a lot further forward.
Suffice to say, a lot of white Rums are really quite flavourless, which is a shame. Take your time and find something with character – if the new make Rum is lovely, the aged Rum should be even better!
Categorisation by colour is a bit of a bug-bear of mine as you might be starting to realise.
The problem is that the pre-existing condition of the barrel is very important – is it brand new or has it been used a lot of times before? Has it been deeply charred or lightly toasted? Not forgetting the type of wood used in its construction (French vs American Oak, or even Amburana for example). All of these factors will change the way that the Rum picks up colour, but also how the Rum will mature flavour-wise.
It’s about this time that we need to introduce caramel into the equation. Spirit caramel is often used in batch to batch colour adjustment. A little caramel goes a long way and some producers use more than they should to give a false image.
It’s an absolute truism that older does not always equal darker and that darker does not equal better. When the world realises this and that batch to batch, there could well be some colour variation (and this doesn’t matter because colour is not flavour), the world will be a happier place.
Also – any company marketing their products as ‘Black Rum’ really should be consigned to the furthest reaches of Hell. Dante actually wrote of the 10th Level of Hell in his Devine Comedy* – other levels might have been for more commonplace sins such as Lust or Gluttony, but the 10th level was for all marketing people who refer to their Rum as ‘Black’. Apparently, he decided to not publish the 10th level as the punishment doled out was just too terrible to commit to paper.
*This isn’t true 😉
The British Royal Navy had a thirst for Rum that lasted from the late 1600’s through to the 31st July, 1970 (Black Tot Day). It was such a key element, that the ‘right and privilege’ of the sailors was serious business.
I’m not sure where the notion of adding caramel colouring came in, but these days a lot of brands claiming to be ‘navy style’ tend to heavily colour their Rums. Rums with excessive amounts of colouring tend to have a bitter edge to them, because caramel is actually burnt sugar and not at all sweet. When it comes to navy Rums, the colour is irrelevant - a proper navy Rum should be high proof (perhaps even Overproof) and a blend of different marques of Rum.
The less imaginative brands use little more than sugar and vanilla. The better brands use ‘actual-honest-to-goodness’ spices and macerate them in real Rum. This process is more time consuming and you’d expect the human effort and cost of production to result in a more expensive product. Synthetic, or natural flavourings are easier and quicker to work with.
The disappointing thing about spiced Rums is the tendency to bottle below the minimum level of alcoholic strength that would designate them as a ‘Rum’. Here in Europe this is 37.5% ABV and many Rums are 35% or lower, sometimes much lower. Malibu is only 21% and many retailers list it as ‘Rum’ when it is really on a ‘spirit drink made with Rum’.
Spiced Rums get mixed into a Rum and Coke a lot, but if you're looking for fresh ideas on how to drink spiced Rum, you're in the right place.
That said, ‘English’ style Rums tend (and I’m generalising quite a bit) to be either pure pot still or pot/spirit column blends, resulting in a medium to heavier flavour profile. You can genuinely expect Rums from Barbados (Mount Gay), Jamaica (Appleton), St Lucia (Chairman’s Reserve) and Guyana (El Dorado) to be ‘English’ in style.
The Rums produced there are not made from Demerara sugar. Demerara is a nice tag, but it’s doesn’t really mean anything in itself. The good part about the notion of Rums produced by DDL is that they might contain Rums produced on any one of a number of heritage stills, such as the Port Mourant, the double wooden pot still, or the Enmore, a wooden Coffey still that help to give the Rums such a distinctive profile.
Cuban Rums (and I’ll include Cuban-style Bacardi within this) will use ‘heavier’ (less rectified) Rum, from a lower plate on the still as a part of the Rum blend. Without spending a long time talking about distillation, it’s a way of approximating the fuller flavour of a pot still. It’s only an approximation, but it does add a certain something which sets it aside from the very light rectified spirits of some producers.
You could expect Rums from Nicaragua (Flor de Caña), Panama (Ron Abuelo), Puerto Rico (Don Q) and Trinidad (Angostura) to be classified as ‘Spanish’ in style.
Solera is perhaps a somewhat confusing system of maturation and therefore much misunderstood. Perhaps it’s the notion of an implied age statement by the prominent use of a number on a bottle's label that’s the point of contention. But once you see the word Solera, don’t go looking for an age statement. You know it’s going to be a blend of young and old Rums. The rest is down to your palate, and your wallet.
Some examples of Solera Rums are Botran, Zacapa, La Hechicera, Santa Teresa 1796 and Ron Montero.
Rum produced from cane juice can exhibit a very different flavour profile – fruity, grassy, and vibrant those produced from molasses.
The vast majority of Rhums produced in Martinique are governed by an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which means that in order to conform, the Rhum has to have been produced in a certain way. This might lead you to think that they will all taste the same, and whilst there are shared characteristics, the AOC is open enough to allow each brand to develop its own style.