Raising Cane

In the spirit world, different regions produce different flavors of the same product (bourbon, for example, versus scotch whiskey), and good cocktails build upon these variations.  Mike's Mix this week blends the rum from 3 Caribbean islands to achieve a balance that bartender Adam Gorski of La Belle Vie calls "the best of all worlds."  But, the more I looked into it, the more I realized just how big the rum world is, and why many experts claim rum is the most varied spirit of all.

The one constant for rum is that it is always made from the same plant -- sugarcane; this is not the case for all other spirits.  Vodka, for example, can be made from corn, wheat, potatoes, or literally anything that can be fermented, and there is similar leeway in the production of gin and whiskey.  What happens to the sugarcane between harvest and fermentation, though, is one way different rums are made.

 11 Wells Distillery Rhum Agricole is on sale now.

11 Wells Distillery Rhum Agricole is on sale now.

Crushing the raw sugarcane will extract liquid from the pulp, and this sugarcane juice can be fermented and distilled into rhum agricole (also known as rhum acricole).  Translating to "agricultural rum," this earthy-flavored drink is a less-common (and more-expensive) type of rum.  The French West Indies have a long history of producing rhum but now 11 Wells Distillery in St. Paul is producing its own Rhum Agricole, and it is available for sale around the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

If the raw sugarcane juice is reduced and concentrated, a sweet, stable syrup is formed.  This syrup is able to be stored for longer periods of time than the raw sugarcane juice, allowing fermentation and distillation to take place outside of the harvest season.

Most rums sold today are distilled from fermented molasses, a byproduct created when sugarcane is refined into granulated sugar.  This style of rum was first distilled in the British West Indies in the mid-17th century, and requires the most preparation work before fermentation gets underway.

Whether starting with dark molasses, or green sugarcane juice, the distilling process always ends the same way -- with clear rum.  This means that even dark rums leave the still as a clear liquid, with coloring (and additional flavoring) added after the fact.  

As with other brown spirits, dark rums are usually created by aging the distillate in wooden barrels.  The type of wood, and the length of aging, determines how dark the rum becomes and how much flavor is imparted, although some rum is aged in stainless steel casks and remains clear.  Some brands also change the flavor and color of the rum with additives.  Blending rums of different ages also has an effect on the final flavor, and many rums are blends.

Mike's Mix this week is called the Cocoa Bumbo, and the term Bumbo is deeply embedded in the history of rum.  Essentially pirate's rum, the Bumbo (also spelled Bombo and Bamboo) of the 18th century was a combination of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg or cinnamon.  It was a cousin to Grog, but was thought to taste better because pirates pillaged the good stuff from the sailors.  Drink up, matey!

Click here to watch a CBS News story about the history of rum.