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What is Rum?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Rum is a hard alcohol made from fermented sugar. This process usually includes the fermentation of the juices of the sugarcane plant, as well as of molasses and other by-products of sugar production. Rum is one of the major liquors in the world, with a history steeped in the myths of piracy, the Caribbean, and slavery.

The first true rums were made in the Caribbean during the early 17th century by fermenting the molasses left over from refining sugar into a heady liquor. Barbados is held by many to be the birthplace of this liquor, and for many years the Caribbean rums were known for their low quality and fiery taste. Not much later, much of the production moved to New England, which used imported Caribbean molasses to produce their liquor. By the end of the 17th century, rum was New England’s most produced commodity and played a crucial role in the establishment of the region's early economy.

Eventually, rum helped establish what became known as the triangular trade, a three-part loop of international trade that endured until the late 18th century. Because of the popularity of New England rum throughout the Old World, more sugar plantations were needed in the Caribbean. With the increase of sugar plantations to produce sugar for consumption and rum making, more labor was needed to work the land. Slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean, where they were traded to plantation owners for molasses, which was brought to New England and traded for rum, which in turn was sold in Europe to generate more wealth to purchase more slaves.

Rum was a hugely popular drink both in the Americas and in Europe — so much so that, for a time, some New England rum was used alongside gold as an acceptable currency. Nowhere, however, was it more popular than at sea. As the British Royal Navy became active in the Caribbean, rum replaced brandy as the standard liquor ration — a rationing that continued until 1970. With the dawn of the great age of piracy in the latter quarter of the 17th century, rum became the drink of choice for pirates and privateers operating in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa.

One of the most ill-defined of the world’s major liquors, rum standards differ drastically from nation to nation. In general, however, light rums are low on flavor and primarily used in mixed drinks, golds are slightly higher-quality and aged somewhat, and dark ones are aged even longer and have a very rich and full flavor. Many rums are also flavored with spices, coconut, and various fruits. The liquor may be enjoyed on its own, in cooking, or in a mixed drink, though most connoisseurs hold that a rum should be aged and drunk alone or on the rocks.

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Discussion Comments
By anon155895 — On Feb 24, 2011

FernValley, before Slovakia entered the European Union we had many "rum" bottles in the stores. After joining the EU we had to change all those bottles to "Um" or "R" because EU says that only a sugarcane distillate can be called RUM. Pre-EU Slovakian rum is pure vodka style alcohol with a huge amount of flavorings! Great for cakes though.

By DentalFloss — On Jan 11, 2011

Rum, even when cooked into something, seems to retain its taste and potency more than some other hard liquors. I don't drink, and around Christmastime I was given a candy that was called "Rumba". Not thinking, I bit into it and was hit by a huge shot of rum. That simple half of a candy made me woozy, and I had to throw the rest away- it was that potent.

By FernValley — On Jan 10, 2011

In some countries, such as Slovakia, hard alcohol has to be produced under a certain set of purity standards in order to be called by name. Because of this, cheaper varieties have to label themselves by other names- for example, less pure versions of rum can be called "Um" on the bottle in stores or on the menu in restaurants.

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