From Barbados to Blighty: everything you need to know about rum

World Best Bar

May 08, 2020


From Barbados to Blighty: everything you need to know about rum
Rum is evocative. It is synonymous with the Caribbean, with tropical climes and beaches. It summons images of pirates sailing the seas and island life. But it is so much more than that. This iconic spirit has a colourful history that spans continents and should not be reduced to something you merely mix with coke.

If you want to talk about the origins of rum, you have to talk about the 17th-century sugar cane plantations that covered the Caribbean. With the production of sugar came molasses, a thick, viscous liquid that for a long time was considered waste. It couldn’t be sold, so plantation owners dumped the excess in the sea because there was so much of it. Thankfully, some bright spark discovered that if the molasses were mixed with some of the liquid from the sugar cane’s initial boiling, it could be fermented into alcohol. The result? A half-decent starting point for distillation. And this was the beginning of the rum we know today. However, it didn’t take long for the drink’s popularity to skyrocket in Colonial America. As a direct consequence, rum formed a cornerstone to the triangular slave trade. This higher demand increased the need for sugar, which in turn lead to a higher demand for slaves. It was so popular that, for a time, it was even an accepted form of currency and eventually replaced wine and brandy as the tipple of choice for British navy sailors. Even George Washington was a fan; he requested a barrel of Barbados rum at his inauguration.

Whatever your personal preferences, there will be a rum to suit you. So, if you fancy something earthy and grassy, why not try a rhum agricole made with fresh sugar-cane juice from French-speaking Martinique. Or, if fruitier, more caramelised flavours are up your alley, you should plump for a molasses-based rum from Puerto Rico or Cuba. Both varieties are aged in oak barrels that once held whiskey or bourbon because they round out the flavour. While filtered white rum dominates the English-speaking market, you should take some time to discover the delights of golden and dark rum. A good rule of thumb to follow is that the darker the colour, the older it is and the more complex the flavour. Rich, dark rums tend not to be used in cocktails because they are usually made for sipping. Think of a post-dinner digestif in the same vein as whiskey or brandy. Drink it neat or on the rocks and allow flavours such as vanilla, banana, butter and cinnamon to wash over you.

Of course, we’re not saying to disregard rum-based cocktails, far from it. The Papa Doble daiquiri was the signature drink of everybody’s favourite literary soak, Ernest Hemingway, during his time living in Havana. If you want to try it then brace yourself, the original recipe calls for 90ml of rum! It’s said that Hemingway could knock back as many as twelve of these bad boys in an afternoon at his favourite haunt, El Floridita. If you find yourself in Havana, you can still pop in to soak up the atmosphere and try a Papa Doble for yourself. Rum cocktails such as Mojitos, Daiquiris, Piña Coladas, and Mai Tais are staple favourites of any happy hour and can bring a touch of sun to your post-work drinks. They’re fruity, sweet and easy to drink so it’s no wonder that they’re so popular.

Naturally, you don’t have to travel all the way to Havana to sample some of the best rums in the world. London has several offerings but the Merchant House on Bow Lane may well be one of the best. Merchant House pays homage to rum’s mercantile past and strives to tell the story of Empire through alcohol. You can find all the usual suspects on their cocktail menu but if you want something a bit different, why not try the Ale & Vice. It mixes ale and Jamaican rum with golden syrup, egg and a dash of bitters to create a cocktail that’s rich in flavour but still manages to retain an element of delicacy. They also cater to those of you who want your rum neat, and with hundreds of fine, rare and vintage rums to choose from, you are sure to find something that tickles your fancy. 

Now that you know a little more about this spirit, go out and discover it for yourself. Put down the big-name brands and seek out the more independent brewers. If you don’t know where to start, there are many bars out there that will hold tastings, so you can not only find out what you like before committing to a whole bottle, but you can also get more recommendations from your bartender. The world of rum is brimming with possibilities.

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