An Introduction to Rum

Explore the sweet taste of the various styles of rum

A bottle of rum, limes and mint

SarapulSar38 / Getty Images

Rum is one of the most popular liquors and it is used to create many of our favorite cocktails, including the daiquiri and mojito. The sweet taste of rum makes it a versatile mixer and it is essential for any well-stocked bar. It can be used in anything from the great tropical drinks of the tiki scene to the warm drinks that keep us toasty all winter long.

There is a variety of rum available today and it is fun to explore everything that this distilled spirit has to offer.

What Is Rum?

In its simplest definition, rum is a liquor distilled from sugar. The sugar may be either pure cane sugar, a syrup, or molasses. No matter the base, the underlying flavor profile of rum is a sweet, toasted sugar.

That is just a general description and, as you begin to explore the world of rum, you will find that there are distinct differences. Rum is produced throughout the world and each region and country have different laws and traditions that are used in its production. Each of these will give the individual rum various and distinct characteristics.

As is the case with whiskey, there are a number of styles of rum produced. Light, gold, dark, spiced, and flavored rums are among the most popular. There are also origin-specific styles like cachaça and rhum agricole available.

The History of Rum

Rum is one of the oldest distilled spirits and it has one of the most colorful histories of any alcoholic beverage. Entire books have been written that detail rum's history and Wayne Curtis' "And a Bottle of Rum" is one of the best available. We will only touch briefly on its expansive history here.

Columbus introduced sugarcane to the West Indies in 1493. The first rum was produced in Brazil, Barbados, and Jamaica, making rum the first distilled spirit of the New World.

By the mid-1700s, rum was being made throughout the Caribbean and South America. It soon became popular in New England and was produced there as well. Today, rum is produced throughout the world.

The rum sling was made of rum, sugar, water, and lemon juice and is argued to have been the first American cocktail. However, in a recent finding by David Wondrich—which is detailed in the second edition of his book, "Imbibe!"—it may actually have been the mint julep.

How Is Rum Produced?

The use of sugar cane distinguishes rum from all other liquors. In most cases, molasses is used. This is a by-product that results during the conversion from raw sugar cane to the crystallized sugar we use all the time in our kitchens.

Many of the early Caribbean rums were produced with molasses and "skimmings" from the production of sugar. The skimmings were obtained from the boiling of the sugar cane and were mixed with molasses and "dunder" (leftover sediment in the still). According to Wondrich, this gave rums like those from Jamaica their signature "funky" flavor.

The use of molasses alone began in Colonial America and this produced a milder rum flavor that is similar to the majority of rum we know today. Some styles of rum, such as cachaça and rhum agricole, begin with freshly-pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses.

The molasses or cane juice is then fermented and distilled. Pot stills are used in many of the traditional rums, though most now use continuous column stills.

Many rums are then aged in wood casks. The type of wood used is often the determining factor on the color of rum produced in the end. It is important to note that climate plays a significant role in how long any distilled spirit is aged for and rum is no exception.

The rums produced in tropical climates will generally be aged for a shorter period of time than those in cooler climates. That is why you may see a dark Caribbean rum aged for just three to five years while a North American rum of similar color and oaky flavor may be aged for around 10 years.

Many rum distillers will also use old bourbon barrels for aging because they cannot be reused in that whiskey's production. This can add some underlying whiskey-like flavors to the rum, something you'll also find in many tequilas.

The majority of rum is bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof). There are some exceptions, including overproof rums which can reach 151 proof. The higher alcohol content makes these a popular choice for lighting drinks on fire.

Light Rum

Light-bodied rum is sometimes referred to as white or silver rum. It is the most common style of rum and is a very subtle liquor, much like vodka with a sweet tooth.

These rums are generally aged in stainless steel tanks for up to a year and filtered before bottling. This process gives light rums their clean, light flavor. They are the most popular rums to use for cocktails like the Cuba Libre and among the most affordable rums on the market.

Gold Rum

Medium-bodied rums are often called gold or amber rum. They are often quite rich and surprisingly smooth. This taste profile is a result of either the production of congeners (organic compounds produced during production) or the addition of caramel.

Gold rums are often aged in oak casks, which also contribute to their dark, smooth characteristics. Many of these rums make a smooth sipper and can be used in place of light rum in some darker cocktails.

As with all rum, quality and price vary greatly from one brand to another. It's always a good idea to read the labels so you know what you're buying, especially when it comes to the potential of additives.

Aged Rum

Similar in color and body to gold rum, aged rums should be distinguished from their counterparts because these do not include any additives. The majority of "dark" rums fall into this category as well.

Similar to an añejo tequila, aged rums will obtain their golden color from the barrels that they are aged in. Because these rums are in contact with the wood for a longer time, they naturally pick up the flavors and colors of the barrel.

Almost any aged rum can be mixed into drinks and many can stand on their own and enjoyed straight. They vary greatly in age, with the older rums costing more than younger bottlings.

Dark Rum

Heavy-bodied or dark rums are typically used in rum punches. It's also common to find them mixed along with a light rum in many tiki cocktails such as the popular hurricane.

These are the richest rums that receive their flavor from aging in charred oak casks. Besides adding a rich, sweet flavor to cocktails, dark rums are the preferred sipper of the rum family, especially fine rums like Angostura 1824.

A subcategory of dark rum is those called blackstrap. These are produced from the darkest molasses produced during the third boil while refining sugar. The resulting rum is equally as dark, rich, and thick. You could even think of them as the desserts of the rum world. Look for bottles like Cruzan Black Strap and Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum.

Overproof Rum

Overproof or high-proof rum is often only used as a float in cocktails. This potent rum is 75 to 75 1/2 percent alcohol by volume (150 to 151 proof) and can be as dangerous to drink as Everclear if it is not diluted in some way.

This is a popular rum for creating flamed drinks because the high alcohol content makes it easy to burn. If you are already drunk, don't try to play with fire in your drinks. Also, never use overproof liquors of any kind in cooking or near an open flame because they are highly flammable.


The Brazilian rum known as cachaça differs from others because it skips the molasses and instead uses pure sugar cane juice in the distillation process. By law, cachaça must be produced in Brazil.

Cachaça is one of the sweetest rums available, though many people—particularly in Brazil—don't like to categorize it as a rum. Instead, it's often thought of as a unique distilled spirit that is its own category.

While cachaça was once only available in South America, it's enjoying worldwide fame today. There are many fascinating brands available to explore and they run the gamut of price and quality. Many distillers, such as Novo Fogo, even play with different types of exotic woods that impart unique flavor profiles to the spirit.

The most famous cachaça cocktail is the caipirinha, Brazil's national drink. Yet, it is a fantastic mixer for a variety of cocktails, including those that typically use a standard rum.

Rhum Agricole

Similar to cachaça, rhum agricole is also distilled from pure sugar cane juice. While rum generally does not have tight regulations on its production, rhum agricole is an exception.

Rhum agricole must be produced in the French territories, most commonly the island of Martinique, and it is governed by an AOC (appellation d’origine controlle), similar to Cognac. It is distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice using a Creole continuous column still. The cane can only be harvested in the dry season and the juice must be extracted within three days.

Rhum agricole is noted for its grassy, sweet taste because sugar cane is a grass. The purity of the juice imparts a special flavor to this style of rum. Like most rums, it can be mixed into almost any cocktail you can think of.

Flavored Rum

Flavoring rum by adding spices and aromatics during distillation became popular in the latter part of the 20th century. Coconut rum and spiced rum are the most popular and have been around the longest. Yet, today we have mango, strawberry, and many other flavors to choose from. The variety has grown to rival the number of flavored vodka options available.

Many commercially produced flavored rums will use artificial and natural ingredients to add the desired flavor to a white rum base. On rare occasions, a natural infusion of fruits or herbs is used. However, just as with vodka, it is very easy to make your own infused rum.