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Posted: August 27, 2018

Behind the Spirit: Rum 101

If your experience with rum is limited to the speed rail basics then you're really missing out. Rum can be just as sophisticated and nuanced as a great whiskey. We sat down with Dan Davis to learn more about what makes a great rum.

MS: What would you consider to be the major styles of rum? What makes them different from one another?

Dan Davis DD: In my mind there are only two types of Rum; Rhum Agricole and the Rum that the rest of us make. Rhum Agricole is made from pressed sugarcane juice and since sugarcane juice is low in sugar content it can’t be shipped. Sugarcane juice will rot in transport due to the natural bacteria in sugarcane.  So, if you want to make Rum from sugarcane juice you have to set up your distillery right next to a sugar refinery. Here in Maine, and in most of the world, that’s just not practical.  So, we make our Rum from molasses. Molasses is very concentrated and high in sugar content and natural osmotic pressure prevents bacterial growth so you can ship it all over the world.

Rhum Agricole fans will tell you that there’s nothing better but I’m not convinced. In my experience, much of the Rhum Agricole has a very strong and unrefined flavor and aroma that reminds me of some backyard moonshines that I’ve had that were made primarily from white sugar. If that’s your thing, there’s nothing wrong with that. My preference is a more refined Rum.

MS: What are some flavor characteristics that are unique to rum? What types of cocktails showcase rum's strengths?

DD: Rum, like many spirit categories, varies widely from one producer to the next. One of the flavors that many people associate with Rum is a sweet artificial vanilla since some of the bigger brands rely on this to cover up the flavor of some pretty low-grade base Rums. If this is what you have at your disposal, mix it with some coke and get your ya-yas out.  But, if you get your hands on some nice sipping Rum then use it in cocktails that are spirit forward and don’t cover up the flavor of your Rum. I like to go to the classic dark spirit cocktails.  Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Alexander, just substitute a nice, dark Rum and adjust as needed. There’s a reason that a cocktail becomes a classic.

MS: Does rum age similarly to spirits like whiskey? Does rum age differently in different regions? When looking at an age statement, what factors should a consumer consider? 

DD: Rum does, in fact, age similarly to whisk(e)y but there’s one very important difference. The raw whisk(e)y that comes off the still tastes nasty and it takes many years in a barrel for the char in the oak to adsorb the oily, high boiling point alcohols and convert other compounds that come from the grains with the organic molecules in the oak. Rum, on the other hand, tastes good right off the still. When it comes out of the still it already has an agreeable flavor so putting it in a barrel simply enhances the flavor rather than trying to tame it.

Most people have probably tried a Bourbon that is only 2 or 3 years old and it is pretty obvious that it needs more time in the barrel to knock down some of the raw odors and flavors. With Rum though, after a year in a barrel, it starts to really collect the vanilla, caramel, banana, and oak flavors and since it doesn’t start with objectionable flavors to overcome, it tastes pretty damned good. Of course, a few more years will bring out some more nuanced flavors so it may be worth waiting for a couple more years but unlike whiskey, there’s really no reason to wait decades to drink your Rum.   

There are many variables that affect the aging of spirits. Temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure all affect the outcome. Many Europeans will swear that if you store your barrels anywhere other than a damp, dark, cool cave then you'll ruin the spirit. Meanwhile, some folks in Kentucky swear that the best barrels come from the topmost, hottest part of the rickhouse.  Generally speaking though, spirits age faster in hotter temperatures. This makes sense since much of the aging is a chemical reaction and we all learned in high school chemistry class that chemical reactions happen faster at higher temperatures. Humidity directly affects the proof of your barrels because in high humidity conditions the water is impeded from evaporating from the barrels but the alcohol can evaporate just fine which can lower the proof of your barrel. In low humidity conditions the water evaporates quickly which can increase your barrel proof over time. 

MS: What kind of rum would you recommend to someone looking for something really bold and interesting?

KOPI coffee flavored Rum is a real crowd pleaser. We make it with an infusion of cold brewed, custom-blended 100% Sumatra coffee from Shipwreck Coffee in Farmingdale and the flavor is just right. It’s Rum first so it has a great, smoky, dark Rum flavor with just a hint of coffee. Until it hits the back of your tongue, then you get a big hit of coffee aroma that lingers just a bit, then its gone. This one is a favorite at all of our tasting events but the people who really go crazy are the mixologists and bartenders who try it. They’ve just gotta have it because there’s really nothing out there anything like it.     

Find Dan's Sebago Lake rum and other fine, sippable rums using our Spirits Finder and the links below

A photo of a delicious looking adult beverage as seen from above.
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