Summer spirits: the fascinating history of rum
If you think about rum, the first thing that probably comes to mind is sugarcane. At least, that’s if you’re savvy about how it’s made, which is by fermenting and distilling either sugarcane juice or molasses.
So if rum is made from sugarcane, it follows that sugar-producing countries should be saturated with the stuff, and perhaps that rum might first have been distilled in the areas where sugarcane is native, right? The answers are sometimes and nope.
To unpack, let’s take a look at where cane becomes rum around the world.Sugarcane is indigenous to the Austronesian and New Guinea islands of the Central and South Pacific. Around 1200–1000 BCE, it was introduced to India by maritime traders, where it’s believed that sugarcane spirit was first produced.
However, it wasn’t until the Portuguese brought sugarcane to Brazil, and it filtered through to the West Indies, that rum was made. This was circa 1650; from then, rum rolled into the Americas in the 1660s, and eventually Down Under, two centuries later.
Today, exotic Caribbean locales like Barbados, Jamaica and Venezuela continue to be among the world’s most respected rum-makers, with brands like Mount Gay, Appleton Estate and Santa Teresa taking pride of place on bar shelves.
Meanwhile, sugarcane continued to grow wild back on Austronesian atolls like the Philippines, until the 1800s, when it was finally commercially cultivated. A couple of distilleries finally popped up mid-century, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a premium rum entered the market: Don Papa.
Don Papa Rum is produced on the Philippine island of Negros, known colloquially as Sugarlandia. Here, the main sugarcane type is called Cara morada, or purple cane. While it’s a small and slender varietal, it’s one of the juiciest in the world, boasting up to 8% more sucrose than its sister strains in the Caribbean.
What does this mean for the rum? Well, sugarcane of such a high quality makes for a particularly rich, golden molasses. This Black Gold, as it’s known locally, is some of the sweetest around. Don Papa capitalises on this by prolonging the standard 24-hour fermentation process to up to 72 hours, which maximises the development of the flavour compounds. What results – after ageing and blending – is a deeply palatable, smooth rum that rivals even the spirits from the more seasoned producer across the seas.
By now you might be wondering about the South African rum market – and rightly so, since we also cultivate sugarcane. After the crop was introduced to then-Natal in 1848, we dabbled in cane spirit, but were late to the rum game, first distilling it commercially in the 2000s – much like our friends in the Philippines.