Subtraction by addition

05 June, 2017

Jan Warren sings the praises of properly made, flavourful rum.

Once upon a time, some brave soul in the Caribbean decided that his industrial waste could be turned into a cash crop. Maybe the sun had gotten to him. Maybe the heat had cooked his brain, but he was convinced that the foul smelling muck left over after boiling cane juice to make crystallised sugar could be fermented, and the resulting liquid distilled into a purer liquid, high in alcohol.

Greek alchemists were using the process of distillation as early as the first century AD, with the Chinese on basically a parallel timeline. We see the alembic as early as the third century, but it takes almost another thousand years for some intrepid Italians at the University of Salerno to make alcohol proper, again, with the Chinese perhaps independently on the same path. We first see a reference to ‘burned water’ served as a beverage in Germany in the 15th century, but it is likely that both Germany and Ireland were serving potent distillates as early as the 12th century.

The tradition of fermenting sugar cane juice into a wine or beer-like liquid came down from Chinese and Indian antiquity, and when the technique of distillation caught hold in the world, you can bet that any and all fermented liquids were passed through an alembic, somewhere. We don’t know exactly where fermented cane juice or molasses was first distilled, but you can be pretty sure it was in the new world, and likely either Brazil or Barbados. By the mid 17th century, rum was beginning to be made as far north as Staten Island and Boston. The world caught fire with the desire for rum. Why? Because the liquid, squeezed out of properly grown cane, artfully fermented with wild yeast, batch distilled in pots or small columns, and carefully aged (and sometimes blended), is as quaffable as the finest whiskies, mezcals, and eaux de vie.

Admittedly, and my fiancée will confirm, I spend a little too much time on social media, and the internet in general, trying to learn as much as I can about various types of alcohol. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of rum, as that story is directly tied to the saddest and most shameful segments of my country’s own.

In my learning process, I’ve been lucky enough to stumble on to Richard Seale. In the early days of my crush on rum, I travelled to Barbados, and while I was there, happened on to a bottle of rum in the shape of a crumpled leather bag. I thought it was interesting, and I bought it. The liquid inside was the best rum I had ever had. It wasn’t close. I really had only been familiar with the lighter and more commercially available Spanish style rums, and the depth of flavour in that bottle wowed me. It was called RL Seale and I was awestruck.

I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of stuff written by Richard Seale, and one of his constant mantras is that rum should be made the right way. That means not continuously distilled in industrial facilities that produce a neutral liquid upwards of 90% alcohol. That means not tossed into barrels with actual sherry left in them so as to flavour the rum. That means not adding sugar syrup in the blending process. I’m a bartender. I make a damn good cocktail, and I’d prefer to use spirit that doesn’t come pre-mixed with sweetener.

There are rums out there that have been lab tested and shown to have up to 98g/l of sugar. For a little reference, Coca-Cola comes in at 108g/l. I’d have to believe that adding that much sweetness must take away from the actual flavour of the distillate.

For my part, I’m just happy that people are out there making rum that I think is delicious, and with methods that can be considered traditional and authentic. The market for more neutral rums won’t be going away anytime soon, but the market for flavourful liquid with an honest method behind it is expanding rapidly in Europe, and coming to America soon. Thank you Mr. Seale!





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Hamish Smith

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