When it comes to rum and other spirits, age matters. Generally speaking, older rum is considered to be of higher quality than its younger counterparts, and for good reason: the overall taste and texture of rum improves with age. However, the reality is that there are many factors that play into the aging of good rum, from the type of wood used for rum barrels to the charring process, to the flavors added during aging. Truly, this process is an art form, practiced for centuries all over the world by rum connoisseurs.
These days, rum is wildly popular, whether it is enjoyed neat, over ice, or in a frothy Pina Colada. However, many people miss out on the nuance of their favorite beverage, because they are unaware of the depth of care that goes into every single bottle of rum that is produced. Let’s take a look at the art of aging good rum.
But first, a little history.
Rum was first discovered in the seventeenth century, quite by accident. Caribbean sugar farmers of that day produced sugar by crushing sugar cane, boiling it, and leaving the solution to cure in clay pots. While this process did result in sugar, a thick sticky residue would seep out of the clay pots during curing. That residue we now know to be molasses, but at the time, it was considered a highly undesirable substance. The farmers had no use for it, and some even dumped it in the sea. Thankfully, the oceans were saved by the realization that molasses could be fermented and distilled to create the flavorful spirit that we now enjoy as rum.
Barrels were first used as simple storage devices to transport rum from the Caribbean on seafaring vessels. However, it didn’t take long for the sailors to realize that the longer their rum sat in the barrels, the better it tasted. This fortunate realization led to the barrel aging process that is now used all over the world. Rum barrels were thus elevated from mere storage containers to wooden catalysts for depth and nuance of flavor.
By the 1700s, rum had made its way across the sea to the Americas, and it quickly became the beverage of choice for the American colonists. In fact, George Washington gifted 78 gallons of rum and rum punch to his constituency while running for the House of Burgesses in 1758. By that time, the beverage was more available than Whiskey and enjoyed greater popularity.
Sadly, just a few years later, American rum consumption came to a screeching halt when the King of England passed the Sugar Act of 1764, which prohibited the import of molasses and rum into the colonies. Perhaps in protest of the crown’s unreasonable demands, colonists began to encourage the drinking of whiskey, distilled from American grown grain. This trend continued until the 1900s when rum once again began to grow in popularity, particularly as used in the cocktail culture of the Prohibition era. Today, rum barrels full of the sweet spirit delight consumers not just in the United States, but also around the world.
While the overarching term “rum” encompasses a vast array of similar spirits, there are two basic types: light-bodied and dark, full-flavored rum. Of course, each of these has nearly infinite variations, encompassing a rainbow of amber liquors, produced with unique and flavorful techniques in countries all over the world.
Dark rum is native to Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana, and is created by mixing molasses with the skimmings left over from sugar production. That sticky liquid easily attracts yeast spores from the air, resulting in slow, natural fermentation. The lengthy fermentation process is what develops such deep flavor and full body in this type of rum. The resulting liquid is distilled twice in a simple still and then aged in oak rum barrels for at least five to seven years. It is the barrel aging process, along with the addition of caramel or brown sugar, that gives dark rum its signature deep amber color. Dark rum is generally high in alcohol content and full of flavor. Black and premium aged rums fall into this category.
First produced in the 19th century, light-bodied rum is primarily sourced in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Unlike its darker counterpart, light rum is produced using cultured yeast, which is a faster process that generally results in dryer rum. White rum is essentially clear and mild flavored. Gold rum boasts a light amber color and more developed flavor acquired by the addition of caramel as well as a longer aging period in rum barrels. Lighter rums tend to be used in mixed drinks; however, they can still be enjoyed neat or over ice.
Most rums are bottled between 80 to 100 proof (40-50% alcohol by volume). However, some labels are intentionally bottled at higher alcohol concentrations. These rums are known as “overproof,” and can reach proofs upwards of 169. Since the United States generally does not allow the import of proofs over 155, a number of overproof options sit in the 150 range.
So how does a simply distilled spirit made from sugar cane offer such infinite variation and depth of flavor? Short answer: the aging process seems to impart some intangible magic. And while the chemistry of that process is not fully understood, distillers have somehow managed to harness its enchantment and perfect the art form of creating fantastic rum.
Years before they are ever used for the noble purpose of aging good rum, young oak barrels undergo a process where the inside of the staves is charred. Generally speaking, the darker the char, the more flavor or “spiciness” is imparted to the spirits held therein. Once charred, these barrels are filled with whiskey, bourbon, or even cognac. After several years of experience aging these spirits to perfection, the barrels are scraped, sometimes re-charred, and repurposed to serve as rum barrels. Due to their previous usage, these barrels may impart learned flavors to the new rum.
Once filled, the question is often asked: how long should the rum barrels be left to age? While the general principle is that a longer aging period leads to darker, more developed flavors, the answer is more nuanced than that. In actuality, where the rum ages matter almost as much as how long it sleeps there. Generally speaking, warmer climates (like the Caribbean, where rum found its origin) seem to contribute to faster aging and deeper flavor within a particular time frame. Higher elevations can certainly be home to excellent rums, but the aging process may take longer. Thus, depending on the circumstances and the intention of the batch, distillers may opt to let their rum age for more or less time.
While the rum rests in storage, it happily draws lovely, oaky tannins from its vessel. Over time, it may begin to pick up some vanilla esters, as well as hints of coconut, almond or citrus. Depending on the composition of the barrel, where the wood came from, how it was crafted, and how it was previously used, each barrel offers a truly unique essence. After several years of waiting, the amber nectar has mellowed and grown to superiority and is ready for bottling. Sitting at 70-80 proof, however, it is too strong for most palates. Water is thus added to dilute the rum. At this stage, caramel is often added, as well, to adjust the color.
Fascinatingly, there is yet another factor to consider before bottling. In fact, the specific taste of the rum can be affected by where the rum barrels were located in the warehouse! For this reason, many distillers opt to blend their rums with other batches. This imparts the unique characteristics of various barrels into a single bottle, leading to deeper, more complex flavors. Once the blend has been perfected to the master’s satisfaction, it can be sealed and sent off for the masses to enjoy.
While the process of distilling and aging good rum is certainly an art form, more and more individuals are discovering the joy of delving into the process for themselves. Whether due to mere curiosity or to the desire to produce a truly unique blend, people are opting to create their own home distilleries. For this reason, used rum barrels have gained a new market and a loyal following.
Interested in taking the plunge into crafting your own rum or other spirits? At Rocky Mountain Barrel Company, we stock a wide variety of used wine barrels, whiskey barrels, rum barrels, and even some cognac and sherry barrels! By carefully choosing the perfect vessels for your aging needs, you can be sure to develop the exact flavor profile that you desire in your own batch of homemade rum. Come in for a tour today, and discover how our team of experts can match you with the perfect rum barrels.