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A Brief History of Rum for National Rum Day

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Celebrate National Rum Day (August 16) with a little history.

Let’s talk about rum—but first we need to discuss garbage. Caribbean sugar farmers of the 17th century had a serious industrial waste problem. As Wayne Curtis recounts in his enjoyable history And a Bottle of Rum, these planters produced sugar by crushing sugar cane, boiling the resulting juices, and then leaving the boiled syrup to cure in clay pots. A viscous liquid would seep out of the pots, and sugar would be left behind.

That liquid was molasses. Today we know molasses as a delicious enabler of gingerbread and shoofly pies, but as Curtis notes, in the 17th century, planters couldn’t give away the cloying liquid. Slaves and livestock ate some of the molasses, but for the most part, it was an annoying bit of industrial waste. Production of two pounds of sugar yielded a pound of molasses, so colonial planters were swimming in the sticky trash. With no export market or practical use for it at home, planters resorted to dumping unwanted molasses into the ocean.

Luckily for the planters, someone eventually figured out a use for this molasses. By mixing it with the liquid skimmed off of cane juice during its initial boiling and fermenting it, one created a serviceable starting point for distillation. And although the exact etymology is still murky, the liquor this process yielded became known as rum.

The rum picture is obviously a little rosier today. Molasses is no longer unwanted industrial waste, and rum sales in the U.S. alone are north of $2 billion a year. Still, when I raised the idea of doing a piece on rum in the mental_floss office, the response was less than enthusiastic. Noses turned up. Eyes glazed over. The editorial team flashed back to throwing down too much rotgut rum and Coke during college.

Aged rums can be beautiful things, though. The best examples are as delightful to sip neat or over an ice cube as any whiskey. And compared to whiskey, they’re for the most part blessedly inexpensive; you can pick up quite a few world-class options for under $40. Eventually, the rest of the staff relented and agreed to taste some rums.

As we sampled more and more brands, the rest of the team seemed to slowly come around on my “Rum is delicious!” stance. Or maybe they just got tired of me yelling “Rum is delicious!” and decided to nod politely. Either way, after extensive taste testing, we narrowed in on 11 brands that would be a great addition to any summer hootenanny.

El Dorado Special Reserve 15 year old

This gem hails from Guyana, and at just $40 or so a bottle, it may be the best bargain in your liquor store. The thick body coats your mouth with strong flavors of raisin, caramel, and the hard top layer of crème brulee that’s really all anyone wants from crème brulee.

Gosling’s Old Rum

At around $65, this wax-dipped Bermuda bottle isn’t cheap. But it’s worth a splurge. It’s incredibly viscous and rich, with a ton of molasses flavor and spice. The flavor is so deep and complex that we talked about what we were tasting—Leather? Lemon? Allspice? Cheeseburger? Not cheeseburger—for a solid 10 minutes.

Ron Vizcaya VXOP

If you’re not used to drinking neat spirits, this one could be a great starting point. Very balanced and smooth enough to not overpower, there’s a nice mild sweetness backed by a pleasant lingering bit of orange.

Sugar Island Spiced Rum

If mermaids had to pick a rum of choice, it would probably be this one. Caramely sweetness is cut with natural spices and nuttiness, giving the drinker the feeling that they're enjoying a liquid slice of pecan pie. 

Brugal 1888 Gran Reserva

Dominican stalwart Brugal recently introduced this gem, which has spent part of its life aging in Spanish sherry casks. The sweet sherry influence comes through on the nose and the flavor without overpowering the cinnamon and vanilla notes. Despite the sherry aging, this one really reminds us of bourbon. If you’re a bourbon drinker looking to branch out into rum, start here.

Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 year old

If you doubt a rum can pack a lot of chocolate flavor, grab a bottle of this Guatemalan. The nose almost smells like hot cocoa mix, and the chocolate comes through in the flavor with a little maraschino cherry in the finish.

Pyrat XO

The problems with those gummy candied orange slices are that a) they don’t contain any booze and b) you can’t drink them. This squat bottle comes close to solving both issues. Strong, sweet orange flavors could almost trick you into thinking this one’s a liqueur and make it all too easy to throw back.

Mount Gay Black Barrel

The newest product from Barbados’ Mount Gay is another great introduction to rum. It’s well balanced and could easily slot into a cocktail without overpowering it. Nice little bit of mint in the finish.

Don Q Gran Anejo

If you’re looking to buy American, look no further than this treat from Puerto Rico. It’s lighter in body and more delicate than most of this list, but packs in a lot of tropical fruit flavor, a solid punch of vanilla, and a lightly smoky flavor.

Cruzan Estate Single Barrel

Another bargain at just $25, Cruzan’s single barrel is on the drier end of the spectrum, but it’s got a lot of nutmeg, clove, and spice with just a bit of raisin in the flavor.

Bacardi Anejo

Not as thick or sweet as most of this list, Bacardi’s anejo finds a nice middle ground between the familiar light rums and the richer, heavier rums. Lots of banana flavor in this one. Nice enough to sip neat, but it really shines in cocktails.

What did we miss? Tell us what other rums we should be trying in the comments. I’ll start: it’s unconscionable that I couldn’t wrangle a bottle of Appleton Estate 12 year to share.

This post originally appeared last year.

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Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid Is Like a Keurig for Cocktails—and You Can Buy It Now
Bibo Barmaid
Bibo Barmaid

To make great-tasting cocktails at home, you could take a bartending class, or you could just buy a fancy gadget that does all the work for you. Imbibers interested in the hands-off approach should check out Bibo Barmaid, a cocktail maker that works like a Keurig machine for booze.

According to Supercall, all you need to turn the Bibo Barmaid system into your personal mixologist is a pouch of liquor and a pouch of cocktail flavoring. Bibo's liquor options include vodka, whiskey, rum, and agave spirit (think tequila), which can be paired with flavors like cucumber melon, rum punch, appletini, margarita, tangerine paloma, and mai tai.

After choosing your liquor and flavor packets, insert them into the machine, press the button, and watch as it dilutes the mixture and pours a perfect single portion of your favorite drink into your glass—no muddlers or bar spoons required.

Making cocktails at home usually means investing in a lot of equipment and ingredients, which isn't always worth it if you're preparing a drink for just yourself or you and a friend. With Bibo, whipping up a cocktail isn't much harder than pouring yourself a glass of wine.

Bibo Barmaid is now available on Amazon for $240, and cocktail mixes are available on Bibo's website starting at $35 for 18 pouches. The company is working on rolling out its liquor pouches in liquor stores and other alcohol retailers across the U.S.

[h/t Supercall]

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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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