Rum is the name given to a wide range of distilled spirits made from sugarcane or molasses. Like whisky and vodka, two other globally popular spirits, the raw ingredients for rum production are first fermented, then distilled. However, unlike these other two, it is sugars, rather than starches, which fuel fermentation in the rum production process.
There are official, legally enforceable definitions for whiskeys such as Scotch and Bourbon, and some brandies (Cognac, Armagnac, Grappa di Amarone) are governed by internationally recognized appellations, but there are few such controls on rum. The styles of rum we know today are governed almost entirely by age-old tradition and modern-day branding. The European Union defines rum as "a spirit drink produced exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation, either from molasses or syrup ... or from sugar cane juice itself, and distilled at less than 96% vol (and has the) specific organoleptic characteristics of rum".
Most rum is aged in oak barrels, which deepens its aromatic profile and color. The longer a rum spends in barrel, the darker it gets. Dark rum (which includes brown, black and red rums) has the deepest color, and is generally aged in barrels which have undergone heavy charring. At the opposite end of the scale, white rum (also known as 'silver', or 'light' rum) is sometimes filtered after aging, to ensure its clarity and lack of color. Terms such as viejo (old) and añejo (aged) are used to distinguish those rums which have been aged for an extended period.
Rum's history is firmly rooted in the Caribbean region of the 17th century (although brewed sugarcane-based beverages were made hundreds of years before), with the first distilled rums being produced on plantations owned by Dutch, French and British colonists. Rum soon monopolized alcohol production in the Caribbean; there was an abundant supply of sugar by-products there and the climate wasn't suitable for growing grapes and/or grain.
There was also a high demand for alcohol, among both colonists and sailors – there were unprecedented levels of naval activity (both merchant and military) in the Atlantic and Caribbean at that time and rum was the ideal alcohol for life on board. Its high alcohol content gave it several advantages over wine or beer: it could spend months at sea without spoiling, it was potent enough to be watered down when necessary (making it ultimately more efficient to transport) and it was less susceptible to water-borne diseases.
Some rum is flavored, infused with flavors including coconut (as in Malibu), lime, orange and banana. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger and pepper are also commonly used, and a style of 'spiced rum' is now recognized as a category in its right. Chili peppers have also been used to spice up rum, although this is rarely done on any significant commercial scale.
Rum, particularly in its lighter forms, is a classic cocktail ingredient. It is used in a number of the world's most famous and most exotic cocktails, such as the Daiquiri, the Caipirinha, the Cuba Libre, the Mojito and the Pina Colada. Dark rum is used less often than light rum in cocktails, but has proved popular when mixed with cola drinks.
Food matches include:
Europe: Pannekoeken (Dutch-style sweet and savory pancakes with bacon, syrup, sultanas and apple)
Asia: Honey sesame chicken
Americas: Jamaican jerk beef; Chocolate fudge cake (Sweet)
Australasia/Oceania: Honey and soy marinated chicken wings; chocolate rum balls (sweet)