Your Mojito Is Muddled With Fresh Mint and a History of Centuries of Slavery
“There are so many kinds of rum nowadays. What are they made from? And what are the differences among the various kinds?”
Rum is the general term for alcohol distilled from the juice of the sugarcane plant, a tall (upwards of 15 feet), reedlike tropical grass filled with sweet sap, or juice. Depending on whom you ask, 95 to 99 percent of what we think of as traditional rum is “rhum industriel” or “rhum traditionnel,” which is made from molasses—a byproduct of sugar processing—that has been fermented, distilled, and aged in a process that dates to the 17th century.
The remainder is made from fresh-pressed free-running sugarcane juice, which is also fermented, distilled, and aged. When it’s designated “rhum agricole,” that means it’s produced in the French West Indies, primarily in Martinique, and if the words “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” appear on the label, that signifies it’s been awarded a certified geographical designation by the French authorities, just like a terroir-specific wine (Champagne) or cheese (Roquefort).
Cane-based agricultural rums without the “h” are produced elsewhere in the Caribbean, on the islands of Réunion and Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean; in parts of South America; and in the United States.
Rhum agricole and its variants are extremely appealing to consumers who want to spend their money on products with a close connection to the land and its workers. In flavor, rhum agricole is not necessarily superior to rhum industriel, but it is definitely different—grassier, earthier, and cleaner—and more linked to the raw ingredient, sugarcane juice. As with molasses-based rum, cane-based rum ranges in style from colorless to dark.
So, Why Should You Care? As with all products that come from sugarcane, rum has a history that stretches around the globe and is haunted and heartbreaking. In Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, historian Peter Macinnis lists what he calls the four curses of sugar:
1. Sugarcane is capital-intensive, and it requires large amounts of money to establish plantations.
2. Sugarcane requires immediate processing when ready for harvest, as it deteriorates rapidly. Generally, cane juice needs to be processed by boiling within 16 to 24 hours of harvest to destroy enzymes and maintain sucrose.
3. Sugar production consumes enormous amounts of fuel, resulting in deforestation.
4. Sugar production is labor-intensive, and therefore the growth of sugar meant the growth of enslavement.
Sugarcane, which likely originated in Papua New Guinea, has been cultivated for thousands of years. “No one knows whether cane moved by man, by weather, or by spontaneous generation, but cane was growing in India by about 550 B.C.E., and possibly in China by approximately 200 B.C.E. It was in India, though, that the sugar-bearing reed gained importance and became one of the first plants to inspire humans to technology,” writes food historian Jessica B. Harris in the recently published Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the many contributors to the encyclopedia, which explores the ways in which our taste for sweetness has shaped, and been shaped by, history.)
“The Dutch plantation system was brought to Barbados in the 1640s,” Harris goes on to explain, “and within two decades what came to be known as the Sugar Revolution had begun in the Caribbean.” Along with British colonists, indentured servants, and exiled undesirables, African slaves began to arrive, imported by sugar planters. According to Wayne Curtis in And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, the population of Barbados—an island 21 miles long and 14 miles wide—swelled from just 80 in 1627 to more than 75,000 by 1650.
But while sugar was big business, rum was very much an afterthought. “The first mention of rum in English is in a letter from the colony of Barbados in 1651, which states, ‘The chief fuddling they make in this island is Rumbullion [meaning a great tumult] alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot hellish, and terrible liquor,’ ” writes Richard Foss, a curator for the Museum of the American Cocktail, in the Sugar and Sweets entry on rum. Local sugar planters began experimenting with molasses, which wasn’t as perishable as sugarcane juice, and a sugar-refining by-product that was either used as a sweetener by slaves or dumped into rivers. “The economic advantages of using it were obvious,” notes Foss. “As it happened, the caramelized flavor of molasses made more desirable rum, with a smoky sweetness to balance the harsh spirit.”
The islands weren’t the best place to produce rum in volume—there wasn’t enough timber to fuel the distillery fires—so as demand for the drink grew, planters shipped their molasses to fellow British colonists in heavily forested New England, and rum became one element in the sordid (and enormously profitable) triangle trade.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the rum market has expanded far beyond its colonial antecedents. Today, many producers around the globe are distilling premium and super-premium rums that appeal to connoisseurs of single-malt Scotches, small-barrel bourbons, aged tequilas, or cognacs. With the craft booze boom in the U.S., domestic rum production has gone not only legit but high-end. I emailed James Rodewald, author of American Spirit: An Exploration of the Craft Distilling Revolution, for his thoughts on stateside rum. “St. George Spirits [in Alameda, California] is probably the most interesting and funky,” he replied. “They use sugarcane and approach it the way eau de vie producers do because that’s their background.”
The following glossary will help you navigate the rum selection at a liquor store but does not do justice to the complexity of one of the world’s great spirits. Although I’ve mentioned just a few rum drinks below, if you get your hands on a top-drawer rum in any category, try sipping it on its own, neat or on the rocks.
It’s easy to presume that these clear rums are raw—that is, not aged—but a taste test with a fresh-outta-the-still West Indian white overproof rum will set you straight. Instead, they’re typically aged for up to 12 months and carbon-filtered to remove any trace of color. “Carbon filtering can also remove some of the congeners or impurities, yielding a drink with less hangover potential,” observes Ed Hamilton, an authority on the spirit who runs the Ministry of Rum. Extremely versatile, light rums play well with fruit and herbal flavors in summer cocktails such as the Mojito—reason alone to cultivate a Cuban mojito mint patch in the garden.
With deeper color and flavor that comes from the addition of caramel, longer aging, or aging in charred barrels, these rums are mellower and richer than light rums. They also work well in fruity cocktails, especially the daiquiri, named for the little village on the southeastern coast of Cuba where it was created more than 100 years ago. If you find yourself in possession of some lusciously ripe mangoes, then you may need to whiz up a batch of Mango Frozen Daiquiris and throw a party. Tiki torches optional.
A quick note on cachaça: In Brazil, cachaça is a spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice, and rum is a spirit made from fermented molasses. In the U.S., as of 2013, cachaça is considered a type of rum.
Now it’s time to stop reading. Go fix yourself a drink and find a porch.