The Rum Down

If you’re anything like I am, a rum-based cocktail conjures up images of tropical escapes and maybe a little bit of swashbuckling. This makes sense: rum originated in the Caribbean. But it wasn’t always about mai tais and mojitos—rum’s origin story has darker associations, as it was first distilled on sugarcane plantations in the seventeenth century by slaves who realized that molasses, left over from sugar refinement, could be turned into alcohol. This news quickly spread to the American colonies. In 1664, the first rum distillery was set up on what is now Staten Island.

Rum’s association with seafaring originated in 1655, when the Royal Navy captured the island of Jamaica. With the new availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the seamen’s daily liquor ration from French brandy to rum. When the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, King George withdrew all Letters of Marque (the documents that made privateers legal pirates, essentially), but many former British privateers stuck with what they knew. They continued capturing ships, but without the legal sanctions, so they officially became privately-operating pirates. Shiver me timbers, aye?

In the mid-1700s, rum was used in lieu of currency in what was known as the “triangle trade” with Africa and the West Indies. Sugar from the Caribbean (often in the form of molasses) was traded to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum. The profits from the sale of sugar were used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to West Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then brought back to the Caribbean to be sold, and profits from those sales were used to buy more sugar, perpetuating the cycle all over again.

A field of sugarcane

Despite its somewhat questionable history, rum has persisted as a popular spirit. But all rum is not created equal: there are significant differences in flavor profiles between the many types we now enjoy. A single standard for what constitutes rum today doesn’t really exist. Instead, the spirit is defined by the rules of the nations producing it, according to varied criteria like proof, minimum aging, and even naming standards. The spirit is always made from fermented sugarcane, but variations in the aging process produce different results. For our purposes, we’ll divide it into four main categories:

Light/white rum is distilled in white oak barrels and has nearly no color and a light flavor, since it’s not aged for very long and is filtered multiple times to remove any impurities. Its simple profile, with subtle hints of almond and vanilla, is great in mojitos.

Gold/amber rum is aged in charred oak barrels to give the spirit its signature color and sweeter, richer profile. Flavor varies depending on the distiller, but generally you can expect distinct caramel and toffee notes with hints of toasted almond, banana, and—yep—an oaky finish. Go ahead and give it a try in a Rum Runner—or, of course, this month’s amber rum cocktails!

Black/dark rum is aged the longest of any type, in charred oak barrels that contribute to its color and deep, sweet flavor. Vanilla and caramel overtones give way to a smoky, intense finish, so the more robust flavor is ideal for matching with similarly flavorful ingredients, like the citrus and grenadine in a Planter’s Punch.

Finally, spiced rum typically is aged for the same length of time as black rum, but spices or caramel coloring are usually added to give it a sweet, spicy taste. Spicing rum used to be a cheap way of masking poor-quality spirits with overpowering flavors, but that’s not the case anymore. The possibilities are endless, from fragrant herbs to sweet caramel and citrus fruits, all of which complement rum’s natural butterscotch tones. For chillier nights, this concoction may help warm you up.


And something fun for those fellow word nerds out there: the exact origin of the word rum is unclear, and all sorts of explanations—and other words—have been used to describe the spirit throughout history. Among my favorites: rumbullion, rhumbooze, Nelson’s blood, kill-devil, demon water, pirate’s drink, navy neaters, Barbados water, and screech. No matter what you call it, though, I say: drink up, ye maties! Yo ho!

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