The classification of rum is a constantly evolving topic, with little agreement on a proper system for defining different style of rum.
The only real consensus is that classifying rum by colour is completely useless.
White rum alone is already a broad class of sugar cane spirits that includes powerful Jamaican Overproofs, vegetal Agricole Blancs, and aged Aguardiente that’s filtered to clarity.
Similarly, gold rum might get its metallic hue from the influence of a charred oak barrel, caramel colouring, or both.
Referring to the Rum as Gold Rum or White Rum really says nothing useful about the actual product.
The Regional Rum Classification or Colonial Rum Classification has gained more prominence recently. It attempts to define different styles of rum by how the Political and Economic decisions of various European powers influenced rum production in their territories.
The major issue with the Regional Rum Classification system is that it’s an oversimplification and upon closer inspection, many inaccuracies emerge. Either way, it’s still useful. As the brand ambassador for Mount Gay Rum said during the 50th Anniversary celebration of Black Tot Day “It’s still relevant for people just getting into the category”.
1) English Caribbean Style Rum
The English Caribbean style of rum has traditionally been associated with distillate produced in pot stills from molasses. While more modern column stills are prevalent within this style, rum makers have recognized that the pot still provides a rich, deep flavor and have insisted on using it even though it’s the least efficient method of distillation.
This style can be further divided into two sub-styles; Jamaican Rum, and Barbados Rum.
1A) Jamaican Rum
Jamaican rum is identified by a powerful fruity and funky flavor. It’s worth noting that the early drinkers referenced the character as reminding them of a bird. In one case, of dry-aged pheasant, and in another, of a vulture’s rear-end. Thankfully, the prominent flavours that most people now associate with Jamaican rum are over-ripe bananas and mangoes, along with candied orange peel.
The flavor profile is a result of extended fermentations that often last for months in the case of distilleries like Worthy Park or Hampden Estate. Wild yeast strains are also introduced; either through the addition of fermenting acidic cane juice, or simply because over the course of weeks, yeast and bacteria in the air ends up in the open fermentation tanks.
The flavor compounds created during the fermentation of Jamaican rum finds its way into the final product through the use of artisanal pot still distillation. Larger companies like Appleton Estate and Monymusk use more efficient and modern column distillation methods, but almost reluctantly.
1B) Barbados Rum
Barbados rum follows a similar method of production, but the focus on extended fermentation and wild yeast is not there. Fermentation for Barbados rum uses yeast strains developed for spirit production that’s only added to the molasses and allowed to ferment for a few days.
Both pot stills and column stills are also used, but the Barbadian approach to the column still is different. Instead of seeing continuous distillation as a compromise in producing more rum, they praise it for the balance that it brings to the heavy pot still rum by adding floral flavours via lighter rum.
A distinct element of the Barbados rum style is only seen in their longer aged rums; the use of European Oak for ageing the rum.
This is significant because the vast majority of the world’s aged rum is matured in barrels that previously held Bourbon. This is because of legislation in the American whisky industry that limits how often a barrel could be used before being discarded. The barrels aren’t thrown away, they’re simply shipped to the Caribbean where they’re filled this rum.
In Barbados, they honour a tradition from centuries ago when ships leaving Europe would have casks of wine from Portugal in their holds and then return with those same casks filled with Barbadian rum.
Doorly’s 12 Year Old Rum is a blend of rum aged for twelve years, and while the majority of the rum was aged in Bourbon barrels, there is a small amount of rum aged in Madeira Wine Casks. Similarly, both Doorly’s XO and Mount Gay XO are initially aged in American white oak, but the final third of the ageing is in European Oak barrels; ones that held Oloroso Sherry, and Cognac respectively.
2) French Caribbean Style Rum
The French style of rum is generally understood to be a spirit produced directly from the juice of the sugarcane, rather than from the molasses. On the surface, it may seem like the French preferred this method because of their familiarity with making Brandy from fruit juice, but in reality it’s a bit more complicated.
Economic and political factors in the 1800s lead France to focus on the sugar beet industry in Europe and move away from cane sugar supplied by her Colonies.
As the demand for Caribbean cane sugar slowly decreased, farmers had to find a new use for their crop and began crushing the cane stalks and making rum on their estates. Incidentally, at the same time an insect pest was decimating the European grape industry and the reduction in the availability of brandy lead to a market for the newly emerging rhum agricole.
The rapid spoilage of sugarcane juice presented a problem, but the emerging continuous distillation technology allowed for rum to be rapidly produced during crop time.
Just like with the previously mentioned English Caribbean style, this style can further be divided into two sub-styles; the Rhum Agricoles of the Lesser Antilles, and the rum scene Haiti where the situation is dominated by two very different forces.
2A) Rhum Agricole
The rum produced in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Marie Galante can be summed up as being produced from cane juice, fermented from the yeast that naturally lives on the cane juice stalks, and distilled in a single column still.
Production in Martinique is governed by the same institute that controls production of Bordeaux and Burgundy Wine, along with over forty French cheeses.
The result of this is a series of codes that controls a variety of factors that controls the way that sugarcane is cultivated, as well as the distillation and maturation of the rum. Even within the tight specifications of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for French Agricole Rhum, the terroir allows for a wide variety of flavour profiles across brands, something that can easily be observed in the unaged Agricole blanc that reflects the flavor of the field where the sugarcane was grown.
Clement Canne Bleue is a vintage from a single harvest of a specific sugarcane varietal and every annual release reflects a unique character. Similarly, Trois Rivières Cuvée de l’Océan is crafted from sugarcane grown near the coastline so that there is a slightly saline note to the rum.
Limited editions from Trois Rivières like their Rhum Vieux de l’Océan and a series of aged rums named after the rivers that flow through the estate all honour the element of water. Similarly, other brands like Neisson and Saint James all have a theme to their rhum styles.
The rhum produced in Guadeloupe and Marie Galante operate outside of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée so differences in the style of rum producers on those islands include longer fermentation times, and higher alcohol strength at distillation.
2B) Haitian Rhum
Barbancourt is Haiti’s largest and most well-known rum brand. Although initially founded with the intent of following Cognac production methods, the company has modernized much in recent years
They loosely follows the principles of Rhum Agricole but their distillation process is far more modern resulting in a lighter distillate that’s then aged almost exclusively in Cognac casks.
While Barbancourt is the most familiar name in Haitian Rhum, the market share on the island is dominated by a sugarcane spirit far different from the long aged, luxuriously smooth spirit produced in Haiti’s largest distillery.
Martinique Agricole represents the most stringent legal enforcement on rum production in the Caribbean. At the other end of the spectrum is Haitian Clairin, a little known spirit that’s slowly gaining popularity.
Haitian law enforcement typically turns a blind eye to the hundreds of distilleries that operate all across the country making a diverse range of sugarcane spirits. Some producers use pot stills, while others use small column stills, some use fresh pressed juice, while others use syrup.
What they have in common is the use of indigenous, organic sugarcane that’s harvested and transported by hand.
Once only available within the village where the distillery is located, Italian company Velier has recently embarked on a project that involves bottling and distributing the sugar cane spirit internationally while also protecting the principles of Authentic Clairin production.
3) Spanish Caribbean Style
The story of Spanish style rum begins in the late seventeen hundreds. Before this period, rum distillation was banned by the Spanish Crown because they feared that the sugarcane spirit would threaten Spanish Wine interests. Spanish moonshine was distilled, but it was entirely illegal and naturally, unrecorded.
In 1787, the first sugar mill on the island of Trinidad was built, this date is honoured in the name of Angostura’s most premium rum.
It was a few years later in 1796 that rum production was finally allowed in territories like Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. The rest of the rum making Caribbean had a head start of over one hundred years so the Spanish Caribbean embraced the most modern techniques in rum production in order to catch up.
These techniques included fast acting yeast strains, and the most sophisticated distillation methods available, the modern multi-column still. This type of still is capable of producing vast quantities of rum, but a problem is that the rum lacks a certain depth of flavour.
The solution to this was to make ageing in oak mandatory so that the lighter rum evaporates while the heavier rum is smoothened by the silky notes of charred wood.
Rum produced in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba is required to be aged for at least one year, but a minimum of three years is common. Similarly, all exported from Trinidad is at least three years old.
The large volume of rum produced allows companies to set aside stocks to age for decades. Small portions of this long aged rum can then form the base of lighter rum blends.
Havana Club in Cuba decants some old rum in each barrel before filling it with fresh distillate. Flor De Cana in Nicaragua practices a blending method where they strive to approximate the character of a seven year old rum by combining a variety of rums including twelve year old rum and five year old rum. They claim that the average age of the rum is seven years old, but the lack of a clear age statement is often criticized.
Don Q in Puerto Rico does this in the most interesting way. They maintain a Solera system of Sherry Casks that would include rum as young as four years as well as rum that would have first entered these casks over five decades ago.
The Spanish Style of rum production dominated the world of rum for decades and many distilleries conceded that the world likes crisp, clear rum and developed their own offerings to suit.
Also, unlike the English Caribbean Style that often relies on indigenous yeast, or the French Caribbean Style that depends on proximity to a cane field; no strong sense of place is required for the Spanish Caribbean Style. Bacardi, a brand born in Cuba now produces the same rum in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and at one point even Trinidad.
In summary, while over-simplified and incorrect there are merits to understanding this system of rum classification. This approach to categorizing styles of rum is useful because it says something about the character of the rum, and it opens the door to a better understanding of rum.