Rum - The Spirit With a Spirit
From light and sweet to dark and stormy, raise your glass to spiritual perfection in the form of fine Caribbean rum.
Words by Juliet Austin. Photos Courtesy of Authentic Caribbean Rum.
For the tipple that has toppled every one of its rivals in the spirit world, one unequivocal truth prevails: not all rums are created equal. Synonymous with the Caribbean, the convoluted rags-to-riches story of how the region’s liquid gold conquered the world is a page-turner of epic of proportions. Filled with romanticised tales of rebellion and intrigue, it documents the ascent of a “hot, hellish and terrible” brew along a centuries-long path to becoming one of the world’s most legendary and luxurious libations. “There’s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion” - Lord Byron Intractably tethered to the history of sugar and the golden era of exploration, rum is a bottled chronicle of the political, economic and cultural histories of the Caribbean. Antecedents date back to antiquity with the ‘brum’ of the Malay people used to cure colds and sterilise wounds. In the fourteenth century, Marco Polo described a, “wine made of sugar,” however, it was Christopher Columbus who in 1494, on his second voyage to Hispaniola, introduced sugarcane to The Tropics.
Nevertheless, it would not be until the seventeenth century that plantation slaves in Barbados, discovered that molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol to create the first true rum – a foul-tasting liquor originally known by the dubious moniker, Kill Devil. Within a few short years, rum had begun its reinvention and left its fiery genesis behind. As one Dutch sea captain wrote: “The spirits are now smoother to the tongue and have acquired a gold colour during the voyage.” By 1663, Mount Gay Distillery in Barbados, still the world’s oldest operating rum producer, kick started the rise of rum in the region making it the epicentre of the rum empire – a role it would never relinquish.
Transforming itself from what rum historian Wayne Curtis calls, “swill to swanky”, rum ascended from “the gutter to the great room”, and in doing so became the unsuspecting currency of the transatlantic slave trade; the original global commodity in a complex alcoholic web of trade and credit. In response to insatiable demand, the notorious triangular slave trade facilitated the unprecedented growth of the rum industry into the New World and beyond. Taken by the spirit, records suggest that by 1763 there were 159 rum distilleries in New England alone, producing a staggering 2.7 millions gallons of rum to a populous unable to quench their thirst for a taste of The Tropics.
Inevitably, trading by English privateers became piracy on the high seas, signalling the beginning of the drink’s swashbuckling associations with buccaneers, smugglers and the rumrunners of the Prohibition years. Legend says that Blackbeard himself liked to mix rum with gunpowder, lighting it before swilling, while the British Royal Navy introduced statutory daily half pint rum rations for all sailors. Even Admiral Horatio Nelson is rumoured to have been partial to more than just the occasional tot. The story goes that after his fall at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of rum during transportation back to England. Unfortunately, sailors could not resist drilling holes and draining the rum inside, hence the term, ‘Nelson’s Blood.’
Yet, despite being dealt a rum hand with such tales of ill repute, the refinement of rum-making techniques enabled it to evolve alongside the rich and diverse heritage of the region until its amber nectar reached the distinction of being the only spirit worthy of accompanying a Caribbean sunset.
Having spent nigh on two centuries perfecting the art of distillation, aging and blending from harvesting and milling to the ‘sugary sorcery’ of fermentation, master blenders from some of the most exalted names in Caribbean rum now produce their own incarnations of pure liquid heaven. Reliant on the particulars of climate, geography, personality and passion, most are aged in oak barrels in a process lasting several months to extended periods of thirty or so years. The spirit is then left to breathe, acquiring its intensity, colour, flavour and character. Not all are blended, however, and it is these more refined vintage single cask rums that have become the most revered and highly sought.
Now considered the height of sophistication, rum has become the new cognac of the millennium. Infused with a riot of tropical flavours including aromatic spicy vanilla with hints of peppery tobacco and silky smooth fudge cinnamon with a buttery sweet caramel fade, colours vary from light to mellow amber and full-bodied dark red, engaging all the senses in a pure liquid ecstasy. Driven to drink, savvy imbibers tend to consume their ‘poison’ neat and unadulterated, savouring the drink’s manifold complexities in a salute to spiritual perfection.
As Lord Byron stated, “There’s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion,” and as generations of tipple-takers can attest, having sipped this golden elixir that makes taste buds swoon, once imbibed this spirited sunshine in a glass is bound to become a religion. Cheers!
comments powered by Disqus