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What Bartenders Should Know about Rum

Rum is a mainstay for most bartenders. Caribbean rum has been exported out of the islands for hundreds of years, linked to the tropical and subtropical climates where sugar cane thrives. It was Christopher Columbus himself who first brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from the Azores. But the origins of rum are far more ancient, dating back, most experts say, more than 2,000 years.

Sugar cane grew rampant in parts of southern China and India, and Alexander the Great, after conquering India, brought with him to Egypt “the weed that gives honey without the help of bees.” The Islamic people from the Middle Ages, known as the Saracens, passed on their knowledge of distilling sugar cane to the Moors, who made arak (cane-based proto-rum) and planted sugar cane in Europe sometime after AD 636.

Columbus brought sugar cane to Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493. Later, Ponce de León, the first Spanish governor of the island, planted the first cane fields in Puerto Rico, which were soon to become vital to the local economy and to the world's palate for fine spirits.

Some historians speculate that Ponce de León's legendary search for a mythical fountain of youth was, in fact, a much more practical search for a source of pure water to use in his distillation of rum.

The first sugar mill, a precursor to the Puerto Rican rum industry, was built in 1524, when the product of cane distillation was called brebaje, the word rum being a later addition brought by crusading English seamen.

The popularity of rum continued to spread during the early 19th century. Distilleries prospered and grew in Puerto Rico. In 1893, the first modern column still was introduced to Puerto Rico. With this innovation, the foundation was laid for the island to produce a more refined, smoother-tasting rum at a dramatically increased pace.

Distilleries relocated from vast, outlying sugar plantations to more accessible sites and soon became centrally organized and managed. The first Puerto Rican rum for export to the continental United States was shipped in 1897 — some 18,000 gallons.

During the Prohibition period in the United States, most Puerto Rican rum distillers stayed in business — not by being rumrunners but by producing industrial alcohol. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Puerto Rico refocused on the potential of the American liquor market and slowly began to rebuild its shipments to U.S. ports.

The island soon took steps to upgrade its rum production, and through special government funding and research, the island's rum was catapulted to the forefront of the world's rum production.

With the onset of World War II, manufacturers of U.S. distilled spirits were ordered to limit their production and manufacture of industrial alcohol for the war effort. However, because the territorial mandate didn't apply to Puerto Rico, demand for Puerto Rican rum increased.

Sales were phenomenal throughout the war years, with Rum and Coke being the national drink during World War II. In 1952, about 100 different brands of Puerto Rican rum were on the market. Today, there are just 12.

Rums from Puerto Rico are the leaders in rum sales in the continental United States. A staggering 77 percent of all rum sold on the mainland comes from Puerto Rico.

How rum is made

Rum is distilled from molasses, a sticky syrup that results when sugar cane is boiled down. When first distilled, the crude rum is between 130 and 180 proof. This rum is then aged for two to ten years to mellow it.

This aging process determines whether the rum is light or dark: Rum aged in charred oak casks becomes dark (caramel and other agents are added to affect its color). Rum aged in stainless steel tanks remains colorless.

Most light rum comes from Puerto Rico. Most dark rum comes from Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique.

Storing and serving suggestions

You can serve rum straight, on ice, or mixed as a cocktail. The good old Rum and Coke is a popular choice. It's called a Cuba Libre when you add a lime. Store an unopened bottle in a cool, dry place. After opening, a typical bottle should have a shelf life of at least two years.

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