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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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