Unloading molasses at Malibu, Barbados.
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The molasses comes from the dock in these tankers.

St. Vincent Distillery.
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Bananas have replaced sugar cane in St.Vincent

From Cane to the Bottle

Rum
is made mainly from the by-products of sugar manufacturing, molasses, or in the case of the French Islands from fresh sugar cane juice.
The sugar cane plant (saccharum officinarum) is one of the tallest members of the grass family and originated in Southern Asia and can grow up to 14 feet tall. It slowly spread out west to India and then to Africa.
Christopher Columbus was responsible for bringing suagr cane to the Caribbean on his second trip across the Atlantic in 1643. He selected cane growing in the Canary Islands which he picked up on his trip across the Atlantic. He bought it to the Island of Hispaniola or as it is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Here the cane flourished in the tropical climate of the Caribbean.
Harvesting of the cane takes place by cutting the cane as close as possible to the ground. In some places, the fields are first burnt to clear away the dead leaves and to drive out the snakes. Hand cutting with machetes is still widely used today.
When the cane arrives at the mill it is chopped and the passed through a series of rollers and grinders that squeeze out the juice from the stems. The remains of the crushed cane, the bagasse are often recycled as fuel to heat the boilers and stills.
The green coloured cane juice, the vejou, which has been extracted from the raw cane is heated and clarified before being pumped into evaporators which suck out the excess water. It is then cool-boiled in a vacuum to create a syrupy mixture from which sugar crystals are extracted. The brown thick liquid that is left is called molasses. This process is repeated twice more to extract the maximum ammount of sugar. The remaining molasses is called blackstrap, the stuff from which rum is made and contains about 55 percent of uncrystallised sugar along with various minerals that give us the flavour in rum. Approximately 1.5 gallons of molasses are needed to make one gallon of rum.
Now the molasses is ready for fermentation. It is first diluted with pure water to create a "live wash" to which the yeast is added to begin fermentation. The longer the fermentation the more flavour the rum will have,  so a short fermentation is usually applied to light rums. On completion of fermentation the "dead wash" has an alcohol strength of between 5 and 9 percent.
This "dead wash" is then distilled to become alcohol. During distillation the water that was added during fermentation is now removed along with any undesirable flavouring agents such as esters, aldehydes, congeners and acids, while retaining the favourable ones.
There are two main methods of distillation used in rum production: pot still distillation and column or continuous still distillation. In both the principle is the same, when the wash is heated alcohol vaporises at a lower temperature than water and these fumes are collected and condensed to give the spirit.
The pot still is the more traditional method of distilling and is usually reserved for the production of premium rums and small batches. Each batch of wash has to be heated up seperately, so the process is slow and quite costly.

The dead wash is fed into a circular copper kettle which helps to remove impurities. Heat is then applied and after about an hour the alcohol begins to evaporate. The vapour is piped into a seperate cooler and condensed to give the spirit, that in most cases is distilled a second time to purify and concentrate it further. This distillate can contain up to 85 percent alcohol by volume. The art of the distiller is important in this process as the first and last of the vapours that come off (the "heads" and "tails") contain many volatile poisons and unwanted fusel-oils. The distiller has to judge when to collect the safe "heart" of the distillate.

In contrast to pot distillation, column distillation allows alcohol to be distilled continuously. This method has been used in the Caribbean since the turn of the twentieth century. It produces a more pure and stronger spirit and is far more economical than the pot still method.

The construction of a column still comprises of two columns called the "analyser" and the "rectifier". The design of the still allows the wash to be broken down into its constituent vapours (analysed) in the analyser and the vapours are selectively condensed (rectified) in the rectifier.

The strength of rum can be controlled in a continuous still because the condensate can be drawn off the rectifier at various heights. The higher up the stronger the spirit and a distillate of 95 percent alcohol by volume is easy to obtain. As in the pot still method the distillate is a clear white colour when it comes out of the still and any colour in the finished product (rum) comes from ageing in oak barrels or from the addition of caramel.

After distillation is finshed the spirit is either bottled as unaged rum or mostly stored in oak barrels for a few years to add colour and flavour. White rum is often aged in barrels aswell and then carbon filtered to remove any colour and bad flavours.
The ageing process in oak barrels was discovered by mistake when rum was shipped off to Europe in barrels. It was found out that after a long voyage of several months at sea, that when the barrels were opened the rum had changed colour as had the taste of the rum, usually for the better.
Exactly what takes place during the ageing process remains one of nature's best-kept secrets, but the marriage between spirit and wood is magical. The rum saps tanning, flavour and colour from the wood and, because wood is porous, it allows the rum to breathe, causing complex oxidative changes to its chemical make-up.
The age of the barrel seems to make a difference and what it has been used for in it's previous life. The most popular are once used bourbon barrels which are usually re-charred on the inside. The reason for the popularity of once used bourbon barrles is due to the fact that bourbon can only be aged in new American Oak barrels. As a way of keeping their costs down, the bourbon makers ship their used barrels off to the Caribbean and beyond to begin a second life. The smaller the barrel the greater the influence of the wood, usually American or French oak.
Usually light type rums are aged from one to three years, while heavy type rums are aged for a minimum of three years in the barrel. With each passing year the contents become softer, smoother and more mellow and can be aged up to 20 years before starting to lose flavour. Rum ages much faster in hotter, drier environments than it does in cooler damp climates. Age statements on a bottle label often have to be taken with a pinch of salt as there are no consistent laws within the Caribbean, unlike wine or whisky. However it is usually safe to say the older the rum the more likely the better the flavour.
While the rum is ageing in dark, cool warehouses some rum is lost to evaporation. This is often called the "Angel's Share" or the "Duppy's Share". This donation to the angels can be as high as 6 percent or more in the warm Caribbean, as opposed to 2 percent in cooler climates such as Scotland. To slow down this evaporation many producers will dillute the new spirit to about 80 percent alcohol by volume before ageing. This also tends to improve the effects of the oak on the spirit during the maturation process.
The vast majority of rums are created from a blend of rums of different types and ages, and in the case of some of the large volume international brands, may be made up of rums from different countries of origin. Caramel, spices and flavourings are also added at the blending stage if desired. Caramel is the most often used additive. This is used to produce a consistent colour and flavour to a particular rum.
This is where the expertise of the master blender comes into play. His or her unenviable job is to ensure that the contents of every single bottle are consistent in terms of quality and flavour. This process is often a well guarded secret only known to a select few in every company.
Once the varoius constituents of the blend have been selected and bulked together, they are allowed to "marry" for a while before being reduced to bottling strength by the addition of pure water. The quality of the water is of upmost importance for the final blend, and in the case of the Caribbean it has usually been filtered through limestone or coral.



History of Caribbean Rum


Once it was found that the cane would grow well in the the Caribbean a large source of labour was needed to grow and harvest the raw materials. As the Spanish soon found out the native Indians were not disease resistant to the new European diseases as well as the deadly ordeal of slavery. A new source of labour was needed to farm the plantations and this was found mainly on the West Coast of Africa.
Unfortunately as history has shown us, the sugar cane plantation fortunes were built on the misery of slavery. There were no big machines available to harvest the cane, it was all done by hand and the vast majority of these hands belonged to African slaves who themselves had often been traded for rum, bought from distilleries in New England, one of the points of the famous "Slave Triangle".
The majority of the population in the Caribbean Islands today are direct descendants of these African slaves.
Slavery was later abolished and another cheap source of labour was needed to replace
the freed slaves. Here the plantation owners "employed" indentured labourers from Far East countries such as India and China. These were workers who were promised pieces of land once they had finished their employment contract, but were usually treated just the same as the slaves. Once again descendants of these workers can be found in some of the islands today, especially in countries such as Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica, who all have a strong Asia influence in their culture.
The plantation owners became very wealthy off the sugar cane plant, at the expense of the freedom of millions of slaves. Sugar was fetching high prices in the Colonial countries of Europe, mainly Great Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal and France.
Rum was a by-product of the sugar production, when the waste molasses was often left to naturally ferment in the hot tropical sun.
The navies of the colonial powers were some of the main customers for this raw rum. The plantation owners were only too glad to have these navy ships visit their islands, as this would protect them from possible invasion from other colonial powers or from the many pirates drifting around the Caribbean looking for booty.
It was these navies that were the first people to age rum in oak barrels. This was found out by accident, as was the first fermentation of rum. The navies carried the rum around the world in oak casks. After several months at sea, often the oak kegs were opened to find out that the rum had changed colour and for some reason had become much more mellower than the original, raw tasting rum that came striaght from the still.
Rum was one of the first spirits to travel around the world, due to its love by the sailors of the navies. It also travelled better than beer, which went sour quickly on the long naval trips across the Atlantic. The British Navy even issued a large daily "tot" of rum to its sailors, this was slowly diluted in more modern times and final abolished on July 31st 1970, when it was decided that sailors should not be drinking large ammounts of rum while operating modern machines of warfare.

 

A Dead Wash Tank at the Appleton Estate, Jamaica.
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A Restored Windmill on the East Coast of Barbados.
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Windmills were the main source of power on sugar plantations.

Once it was found that rum could be sold for a profit, hundreds of distilleries opened up all over the Caribbean, wherever sugarcane was grown.
Molasses was being banned from being imported into the USA and so instead of dumping the mollasses into the nearest river or sea it was distilled into the early form of rum called rumbullion, kill-devil or rumbustion, just to name a few. This was a raw spirit, straight from the still, with no ageing or filteration used, similar to today's moonshine rums available widely in some Caribbean countries. The smell alone of these rums can knock you off your feet, never mind the taste. They are often full of little "gremlins" and have oils and other UFO's floating on the surface. 
The fermentation of rum in the Caribbean was often discovered by mistake. The waste product of sugar production, we call molasses, was often just dumped outside. With a little rain water and some natural yeasts that are present in the atmosphere, the molasses would begin to ferment all on its own. It was discovered that this became a weak form of alcoholic beverage and was often distributed amongst the slaves. The plantation owners were above drinking this raw spirit and instead stuck to their fine imported drinks from Europe. It has taken centuries for the stigma of rum being a poor mans drink to finally wear off. Only now in modern times is rum finally being appreciated by the masses.

Cutting cane by hand is still widespread.
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The machete is still the tool of choice today.

It was the European's who had emigrated to the Caribbean that bought with them their knowledge of distillation. Along with their knowledge and expertise they often bought simple pot stills for distilling the fermented molasses into rum.
These rums were shipped all over the world by the colonial navies and merchant ships and often the rums were traded for much needed goods and more slaves to keep the plantations running. Not only was rum the drink of the Caribbean it became the drink of America and Europe and spread further afield as the Colonial powers spread their wings.
More and more plantation owners began distilling rum as a means to make more profit for their absentee owners. Distilleries large and small sprang up all over the Caribbean.
Rum became the drink of the region and today is still embedded in Caribbean Culture.
Rum is used for all sorts of purposes, from baby christenings, house warmings, voodoo ceremonies, to medicinal cure-all, just to name a few. When you visit the Caribbean you cannot escape rum or sugar cane. Many islands have miles of deserted railway lines, abandoned plantations, derelict sugar mills, sugar cane fields growing wild, decrepit windmills, piles of rusty machinery and steam engines. Memories of sugar production are everywhere, you can't avoid it.
Unfortunately the region has gone from having thousands of distilleries and sugar plantations to very few in more modern times. With the introduction of sugar beet and the falling price of sugar cane, many islands switched from growing sugar cane and tried other crops such as cotton, tobacco and bananas. As a result, many modern distilleries now import their molasses from other countries, mainly from South America.

A Sugar Cane Truck Returning Empty.
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This truck was going the wrong way to Appleton Estate, Jamaica.

Sugar cane is still grown widely in the French Islands, as they need fresh cane juice to make their agricole rhum. But even though sugar cane is not as widely grown in the other islands as it was in days gone by, rum is making a strong comeback.
New rum companies and distillers are beginning to appear all over the islands. Rum is becoming more appreciated worldwide and the big liquor distributors are looking for the next "hot" new item to increase their sales.
As the islands become more accessible to tourists, and hotel and condo developments continue to engulf many islands, more and more people are being exposed to the delights of the regions finest rums. They often sample the local specialities and want to return home with a bottle or two of these rums, so they can sit at home and dream of their next Caribbean adventure while sipping a taste of the region.

A Pot Still at St.Lucia Distillers.
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St. Lucia Distillers uses both Pot and Column Stills.

Caribbean Rum Today

Rum has changed over the years from being a raw harsh spirit that was reserved for the slaves, sailors and the plantation workers, to a drink for the masses.
It ranges today from straight from the still moonshine, all the way up to cognac like fine aged rums that appeal to the connoisseur, with many other options in between.
There are white rums, gold/amber rums, dark rums, flavoured/spiced rums, overproof rums, aged rums, rum creams and premium sipping rums. All are different and are aimed at different markets. Whether you want to drink a coconut rum and orange juice, a pina colada, a daiquiri, a cuba libre, a shot of overproof or simply want a fine rum to sip on after dinner, there is a rum out there for you.
Many people will often spoil a good sipping rum by adding some sort of mixer to it. When The Rumelier is asked by a shopper, what rum he would recommend, his reply would be to ask how the rum is going to be drank. This will determine which type of rum he is going to recommend, there is no point in spending $50 to $60 on a bottle of rum just to swamp it in coke.
Rums are available in all sorts of flavours and come in all shapes and sizes of bottles, there is something out there for everyone. Whisky and bourbon drinkers are converted regularly to the delights of fine rums.
Rum tastes and trends change continually and distillers are always looking for an edge in the market. It might be an extra old rum, a limited edition, a new bottle or a new additive, they are always coming up with something new and exciting.
Rum is finally getting the recognition and respect it deserves.

An Old Oak Vat that held 22,000 Gallons of Rum.
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These vats were used for storing and ageing rum.
Burning cane fields before cutting is common.
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Photo taken from the old sugar train tracks in St.Kitts and Nevis.