Rum, Rhum, Ron … Cachaça. What really is the difference?
What’s in a rum?
That which we call rum
By any other name would taste as sweet;
So rum would, were it not rum called,
Retain that dear perfection which it owes
Without that title.
Sure we’ve all had a rum and Coke at the bar. Typically made with whatever cheap white rum the bar has in its well. Some of us are even sassy enough to order a Cuba Libre, which is a rum and Coke with a pinch of lime. However, most people have yet to really delve into the wonderful world of sugar cane spirits. Rum is, in my mind, one of the most underrated liquor categories out there. As such, it is also one of the least understood in mainstream drinking culture. I don’t have time in this piece to explain everything, so I’m just going to focus on some of the major categories for now.
The most common type of rum found around the world is your traditional molasses based rum. Depending on the native language of the country producing the rum, you may see it spelled differently. The more English influenced countries spell it “Rum” while the Spanish use “Ron.” The French spell it “Rhum” and are often producing a different style call Rhum Agricole, which I’ll delve into later.
Traditional rum is produced from molasses, which is the byproduct of the sugar extraction process from the juice pressed out of sugar cane. Fresh sugar cane juice is extracted by crushing the sugar cane stalk. Then the juice is evaporated and reduced down until sugar crystallizes and is pulled out. What is left is a concentrated syrup derivative called molasses. There is still plenty of sugar left behind to ferment and then distill into traditional rum.
I can feel the angry emails coming from the inhabitants of the French Indies and Brazil because I am calling molasses based rum “traditional” rum. Truth be told, there’s no good name for molasses based rum other than simply “rum,” so that’s why I add the moniker “traditional.” Historically, rum styles like rhum agricole and cachaça were actually the first types of spirit produced from sugar cane… but I digress.
Agricole and cachaça style rums differ from molasses based rums in the fact that they are both produced straight from the fresh sugar cane juice without turning it into a molasses first.
Rhum Agricole is actually very specific. It has even been granted an AOC (Appelation d’origine Controlée) meaning that it must be made in Martinique and follow very specific guidelines, to be called agricole (same thing as champagne, or tequila). Being distilled from fresh sugar cane juice gives Rhum Agricole a sense of terroir because cane juice is highly prone to oxidation and spoilage. That means that it has to be sourced locally to make sure it’s fresh for the distillery to use. The molasses used to produce traditional rum is very stable and can be shipped all over the world. Most countries producing traditional rum these days don’t even produce sugar cane themselves at all anymore.
Cachaça (pronounced ka-SHAH-sa) has a lot of similarities to Rhum Agricole, primarily due to the fact that both are made from fresh cane juice. Thanks to NAFTA, cachaça even has a protected name status in the US and Canada as only coming from Brazil, similar to the AOC of agricole. However, cachaça is distilled to a lower degree than agricole is. Cachaça is typically distilled to an alcohol concentration of between %40-%50 ABV while agricole is typically %60-%72 ABV (traditional rum is all over the map, even going as high as %94 in cases). While not sounding like much, the ABV difference results in cachaça having more vegetal tones from the original cane. You get lots of grassy accents where agricole tends to be earthier in flavor and a lot dryer than cachaça. Also, there are many producers in Brazil that need to harvest so much cane at a time to meet demand that they don’t have time to use tradition harvesting methods. Instead, they literally burn down the cane fields and rake up the cane afterwards. This results in many high volume cachaça brands having a distinctive smoky flavor.
The differences between the three major styles of rum are most apparent in the white, unaged versions of each. Take a white rum, an agricole blanc, and cachaça prata and try them next to each other. You’ll be surprised how big the differences are. Of course, all three styles practice the art of aging in oak barrels making darker, richer, smoother rums. But by doing so, they introduce a number of other variables into the mix and ultimately start to blur the lines between the categories.
You can also try some classic cocktail options with your chosen style of rum. Most have had a Mojito with traditional rum, and some have had a Caipirinha with cachaça. Few people have tried the delectable ‘Ti Punch with agricole. I can dedicate a whole other article to those drinks, so in the meantime, hit up Google for a recipe that looks good to you.
If you want to read more about rum in general, some excellent resources that I recommend are http://www.ministryofrum.com/ and http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en. There’s also a great local group called the Seattle Rum Collective that holds regular meetings and is the best local way to learn about the wide world of rum. Check out their page at http://www.therumcollective.com/.