It’s that time of year, folks. The shorts and patio furniture are away, and our thoughts once again drift to warmer climates. No doubt, many of you will probably be heading south to the Caribbean over the next several months to escape winter. If you’re one of the fortunate to do so, you best prepare your palate for the ever popular imbibe of the islands – rum.
Rum is an alcoholic beverage distilled from the fermented juice of sugarcane, sugarcane molasses or other sugarcane by-products. Since sugarcane is grown widely throughout the islands of the West Indies, rum is in abundance, and all have their own individual character. Although most islands produce several different styles of rum, each is known for a specific one.
There are three main classifications. The very dry, light-bodied style is generally produced in Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. Medium-bodied rums are best from Haiti, Trinidad and Barbados. Big, full-bodied, aggressive versions hail from countries like Martinique and Jamaica.
Following are some keys to keep in mind when purchasing rum down south. For starts, colour is usually an indication of body and most wording on labels will correspond. Lighter, drier styles will say ‘White’ or ‘Light’ and for the most part, will be clear and colourless. Medium-bodied rums might utilize the words ‘Amber’ or ‘Gold’ on the packaging and actually appear more of a golden colour. Full-bodied styles will most likely be dark in colour and make use of the words ‘Dark’ or ‘Heavy’.
Darker coloured rums usually achieve their tint from the addition of caramel, which doesn’t usually affect the flavour since rum is a sugar-based product. Sometimes additional wood aging can also add colour as well as round out the palate. Some rums are spiced and indicate as such on the label. Others are ‘over proof’ meaning they contain more alcohol. Beware of these and use sparingly. They’re potent and will have you dancing with a lampshade on your head in no time. Alcohol indication on bottles in the Caribbean is usually in ‘Proof’. Simply divide by two to get the ‘percent of alcohol by volume’. Thus, rum labelled ‘80 Proof’ is equal to 40% by volume. Perhaps best of all, if you purchase rum where it is actually produced, it is incredibly inexpensive. Most commercial offerings on the islands range from $3 to $6 for a 750 ml. bottle.
As for methods of consumption of this popular island spirit, there are many. Those of you with a bit of the pirate in your soul might like it straight up or on ice. Most locals on the islands consume rum neat. However, more people enjoy it in mixed drinks. Punches with fruit juice and ice are very popular. Cocktails and exotic drinks like Daiquiris, Mojitos, Pina Colada and Cuba Libre are on many folk’s hit list. The ten best rum mixers in my mind are as follows. Club soda (mixed with cola helps reduce cola’s dominant flavour). Add a little lime for pizzazz. Lime juice – fabulous with fresh mint and soda water. Coconut water – a great mixer, especially with lime juice. Coffee – dynamite with heavier rum. Orange juice – the most popular fruit juice mixer. Pineapple juice – the essence of ‘tropical’ and grand in a Pina Colada. Try it with Amaretto for a real treat. Grapefruit juice – mixed with OJ is a delight. Cranberry juice (one of my faves) – much lighter and divine with mint leaves and club soda. Passion fruit juice – grand with white rum and a touch of coconut juice or lime. And for something completely different, try ginger beer. It shakes things up.
The versatility of rum doesn’t end in a glass either. It’s also used in making sauces, desserts, ice cream and candy.
So if you’re in the Caribbean in the next few months, be sure to try the local imbibe and maybe even visit a rum distillery to see how it’s made. Consider bringing a bottle home to recapture the taste of the islands.
Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge & consultant