Joshua Gonzales is always trying to get me to listen to him talk about booze. Well, not just talk, but recount the finer points of the hours of education (though I think "edutainment" fits better as a label) that he and his fellow dedicated bartenders and owners go through for the betterment of the bar experience. This time, he was onto rum, which he learned at a recent intensive rum education camp in Puerto Rico, is actually America's true "native spirit."
"A lot of people think of Bourbon when they think of real American spirits, but in reality, it's actually rum." The sugar-cane based spirit was at the root of everything from piracy to slavery, as the colonizers rapidly ate up ecuatorial growing zones for the commodity plant. The rum trade's triangular cut through the oceans became the avenues by which slaves were brought to America, rum and molasses to Europe, and finally survival supplies for African colonizers from Europe. Don't get it twisted either: the slavery and rum trades were not just happenstance neighbors in this trade; by the late 1600s, Americans' thirst for the stuff meant cane plantations needed more labor, and so American and European producers started to import slaves to prop up their massive profit margins. Essentially, the cane trade created slavery. Without an ever-increasing taste for the hot climate commodity plant and its byproducts, it seems unlikely that slavery as we know it or the Civil War would have ever happened.
In fact, sugar-rich land was so important and profitable, the British government sent the majority of their military to the islands to protect them. In the process, the British were unable to prevent the breaking away of 13 little American colonies that eventually became back-to-back World War champs.
Most of the refinement was being done on America's east coast, and by 1760, the state of Massachusetts alone had over 63 individual rum distilleries. Most had closed their doors by the mid 1800s with the abolishment of slavery. The cane trade is still responsible for the majority of sugar production globally (about 65 percent, with the other 35 percent produced from sugar beets grown in temperate climates). Now, however, there is a revival of interest in the art of rum distilling, thanks mostly to the variety within the liquor genre.
There are few rules for what does and does not make something "real" rum, but the different styles are set apart by the nation for which the rum was currency. But unlike most other spirits, there is no set "proper" distillation process, and rum can be produced from a variety of starting ingredients with either pot or column distillation.
Know your rum
English-speaking islands and countries are known for darker rums with a fuller taste that retains a greater amount of the underlying molasses flavor and color. More than likely, if you've had rum, you've had this style of brown or golden rum as one part of a long list of poor collegiate decisions.
French-conquered islands are best known for their earthy rums. The name, agricole, is French for "agricultural," and it's made entirely out of sugar cane juice. That means it retains much more character from the plant itself, and an overall more botanical flavor.
Spanish-conquered islands and countries traditionally produce añejo rums, which get their smoothness from aging in casks, or sometimes bourbon barrels. These are sippable and for the grown-up palate.
Got all that? Good. Now you're ready to make some rum cocktails.