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Made popular by the intrepid sailors and lawless pirates of the 17th-century Caribbean Sea, rum has developed into a truly global spirit, now enjoyed by sea dogs and landlubbers alike. And this sweet, versatile spirit played a surprising role Australia’s own history.
''There are four main styles of rum, each with a distinct taste, but overarching all will be an unavoidable sweetness, making itself known in caramel and toffee notes.''
If you were forced to choose the spirit of Australia – not in the Qantas sense, but rather in the liquor sense – which would you choose? To many, perhaps most, the answer is obvious.
While Australia was certainly not the first to produce it, the fact that rum is made from sugarcane meant that the warm, humid climate of tropical and sub-tropical Australia was almost purpose-built to produce the drink. But while the Australian connection runs surprisingly deep, the rum story stretches far beyond the sugarcane plantations of Queensland; right back, in fact, to the beginnings of the Caribbean slave trade.
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
“The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
So states a 1651 document from Barbados, referring to the island’s sugarcane plantation slaves using molasses to make alcohol. It’s likely that this practice began at the beginning of the 1600s, as evidence of distilled, purified rum – similar to what we know as rum today – is recorded as early as 1620. The plantation owners, it seems, saw what the slaves were doing, and stole the idea. The more you hear about these chaps, the less you’ll like.
Soon rum was the drink of choice for traders in the area, leading to the drunken sailor reputation that it struggles to shake to this day. With English, Spanish and Portuguese nationals operating in the area, it quickly spread up to Colonial North America and throughout Europe.
And by the time the first fleet sailed into Botany Bay on that fateful day in 1788, the importance of rum was cemented with ocean travellers who formed the fledgling colony of New South Wales.
A nation shaped by rum
Early Australian history is indelibly linked to rum, in more ways than many realise. With a distinct shortage of pound sterling, in the colony’s first decades it was often used in place of currency.
It also triggered what is known as the Rum Rebellion, the only military takeover of government in our nation’s history. In 1808 Governor William Bligh tried to fix an issue of drunkenness within the colony by outlawing rum as currency. Hearing the news, the New South Wales Corps marched into Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The Corps controlled the colony for two years. It’s fair to say that we’ve always taken rum rather seriously.
Despite this, young Australia didn’t make its own, instead importing it from Java or Bengal. But when a crisis gripped the Queensland sugarcane industry in the 1880s, a couple of shrewd businessmen decided to move into the rum game. Before long local distilleries like Bundaberg and Beenleigh began to get a foothold in the market, and the Australian rum industry hasn’t looked back since.
Sugar and spice, and all things nice
There are no clearly defined rules for making rum, and production methods can differ from region to region, but they generally follow the same basic framework. You begin with a by-product of sugarcane processing, most commonly molasses, but sometimes cane juice or cane syrup. Water and yeast is added to turn the sugars into alcohol. Lastly the mixture is distilled into its purer, more alcoholic form. Couldn’t be easier.
There are four main styles of rum, each with a distinct taste, but overarching all will be an unavoidable sweetness, making itself known in caramel and toffee notes:
- Light rum: Sometimes called “Spanish-speaking” style, light rum is aged in steel tanks, making it neutral and mild – the perfect mixer.
- Gold rum: Aged in oak to give it a nutty taste and gorgeous glow, gold rum is sweet and medium-bodied, and can either be enjoyed neat or as a more impactful addition to cocktails.
- Dark rum: The charred oak that dark rum is aged in makes it full-bodied and rich. This time referred to as “English-speaking” style, dark rums are perfect for sipping on their own.
- Spiced rum: Spiced rum is aged rum infused with additional spices to enhance the natural flavours, and is fantastic on ice or in cocktails.
Rums to pillage and plunder
So where should you point your sloop in search of the world’s best rum? While brands such as Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Havana Club might have extensive histories and global recognition, such is the Australian affinity with rum that we needn’t leave our own shores to find the finest drops.
Hoochery Distillery, source of the famous Ord River Rum, has come to represent the pinnacle of Australian small batch distilling. But not to be outdone, the likes of The Grove Distillery and Archie Rose are also offering up stunning local takes on the full gamut of global rum styles.
- During a period before the American Revolutionary War, Rhode Island rum was so highly prized that it joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe.
- Founded in 1703, Mount Gay in Barbados is the world’s oldest rum brand.
- Despite the reputation for drunkenness, records show that alcohol consumption of an average early colony member was less than that of an average Briton of the same era.