Rum For All

The history and production of a popular spirit


Tuesday, March 27, I had the pleasure of attending Rum For All, a lecture and tasting led by spirits authorities F. Paul Pacult and Sean Ludford at Keen’s steakhouse in Manhattan.

This informative discussion explored the history and production of rum, as well as a chance to taste through a wide range of styles and origins. In attendance were some of the top area bartenders, spirits professionals and writers, who were free to chime in and provide additional insights.

The lecture began with Pacult wielding a large stick of sugar cane (procured with some finesse from Chelsea Market), explaining how stalks like this are the foundation of all rum production. Cane has ancient roots in Asia’s Indus Valley and was encountered in India by Alexander the Great, who remarked upon the “grass that gives honey without bees.” In the 8th century, sugar cane migrated west into Spain via the Arabs and to the Caribbean in the 15th century thanks to a certain Cristoforo Colombo, spreading throughout the islands from there with other explorers and settlers.

All photos courtesy Daniel Krieger Photography
Rum also played an important role in British naval history. In 1730, conditions on board ships during long voyages had become so harsh, it became standard issue for all officers to be rationed an exact measure of 288 ml of rum PER DAY to ease their stress. Keep in mind these rums had very high alcohol percentages, 100 proof and up, and drinking probably started very early. This is why overproof rums are often referred to as “navy” strength.

Ludford pointed out that rum has “suffered” more than other spirits, losing its prestige by the mid-20th century. Rum played a large role in the resulting prefab cocktail trend that accompanied the rise in convenience products like TV dinners, canned meals and box mixes. Mixers and frozen concentrates transformed elegant cocktails such as Mai Tais, Coladas and, as mentioned in a previous article, Daiquiris, to syrupy sludge, often in radioactive colors. Luckily, that tide is turning back to fresh ingredients that showcase rum’s true flavors.

Rum is made either from molasses or sugar cane juice, the latter category known as Rhum Agricole. There are some consumers that insist molasses-based rums are inferior to agricoles, much like the debate over single malt whiskies vs. blends. One of the main points of the attended discussion was to acknowledge the beauty of all types of rums and the ways to convey to consumers that one isn’t “better” than another, just different.

Women are involved in rum production more than any other spirit and several producers have women in the top role of Master Blender. Plus, there is a huge selection of value-driven products with many of the highest quality in the $40 and under range.

The takeaway? This is a great time to be drinking rum!

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