The Difference Between Light and Dark Rum Isn't What You Think

It’s impossible to discern a rum’s age from color alone, so why are we still classifying it this way?

<p>Sarah Maiden / Food & Wine</p>

Sarah Maiden / Food & Wine

Across all widely consumed categories of distilled spirits, rum is by far the most misunderstood. Anyone with extensive experience mixing cocktails with rum can attest that rums can look the same and have drastically different flavor and aroma profiles. For example, take these three crystal clear rums: Bacardi Superior, J. Wray and Nephew, and Clement Blanc.

J. Wray and Nephew is a big, pungent, full-flavored Jamaican rum that can overpower the same cocktails that the crisp, clean Bacardi can balance. Clement, a rhum agricole from Martinique, is made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice, as opposed to molasses, and has a fresh, grassy, green flavor profile. All three are classified as “white” rums but are wildly different.

"“Color in and of itself is a problematic way to classify rums as so many flavor profiles and styles of rum exist under what would be a singular color.” — Brandon Ristaino, co-founder and beverage director at Test Pilot in Santa Barbara"

“A catastrophe would be to substitute a white rum like an unaged agricole rhum from Martinique for [a] Daiquiri [style] rum like a Plantation 3 Star. These are two very different rums in flavor and texture, though they look very similar to one another,” says Brandon Ristaino, co-founder and beverage director at Test Pilot in Santa Barbara. “Color in and of itself is a problematic way to classify rums as so many flavor profiles and styles of rum exist under what would be a singular color.”

That said, many cocktail recipes continue to call for specific colors of rum without giving much thought to the flavor profile of a given spirit. So, why do people continue to use color to classify rum when the distinction has no clear relationship between how a rum was made or how it tastes?

Related: What's the Difference Between White Rum and Dark Rum?

“We tend to latch onto differentiations that are easy to wrap our head around,” says Matt Pietrek, co-author of the award-winning book Modern Caribbean Rum, and proprietor of the Rum Wonk Substack.

Color can be a useful way to differentiate between aged and unaged spirits, or to approximate age in some strictly regulated, barrel-aged spirits like bourbon whiskey. But with rum, it’s nearly impossible to discern age from color alone.

“A number of factors can influence the taste of rum, but a rum’s color is always affected after distillation, either by oak barrel aging, or the use of additives,” says Maggie Campbell, estate manager at Mount Gay Rum in Barbados.

Additives like caramel coloring make classifying by color even more futile.

“Sugar and coloring are used to create a false perception of finely aged spirits via a decadent flavor profile,” says Anthony Schmidt, director of education and co-beverage director at False Idol in San Diego, noting that a dark-colored rum can result in a distorted understanding of the spirit, “‘Oh, this is smooth, decadent, and velvety. It must be an extraordinarily fine spirit with lots of age,’” he says.

To make things even more confusing, the vast majority of white rums are barrel-aged. Mount Gay Silver, a Barbados-exclusive bottle, is one such case.

“Mount Gay Silver is filtered to remove its color by passing the liquid through activated charcoal to produce a clear white rum, whilst retaining the liquid’s aged characteristics and taste,” says Campbell. “This is done to retain the liquid’s character and elegance whilst maintaining a refreshing, mellow palate.” This is a common practice among rum producers throughout the world.

“At the end of the day, what matters is the flavor, and that’s hard to quantify,” says Pietrek.

Rum production

Due to regional differences in production and variations between individual distillers, figuring out exactly why a rum tastes a certain way can be difficult, especially when producers tend not to disclose their production methods.

“To understand the enormity and diversity of rum is to fundamentally understand spirit production and, to some degree, bartender lore,” says Schmidt.

Having some basic knowledge of a few important production variables that affect the flavor, aroma, and color of the rum can go a long way in predicting how it will taste.

Most rum is distilled from fermented molasses, but some styles like rhum agricole from Martinique, use freshly pressed cane juice.

"“A number of factors can influence the taste of rum, but a rum’s color is always affected after distillation, either by oak barrel aging, or the use of additives.” — Maggie Campbell, estate manager at Mount Gay Rum in Barbados."

“Molasses-based rums often exhibit richer flavors like baking spices, dried stone fruits, nuts, and similar, while fresh cane rums often exhibit grassy, vegetal, and 'green' flavors,” says Ristaino.

The manner of distillation also has a major impact on flavor. “Pot [distillation] typically yields heavier rums. Rum made in a pot still is generally more honest or indicative of raw material used, and has a longer finish,” says Schmidt. A great example of a pot-distilled rum is J. Wray and Nephew. It’s crystal clear, but chock full of strong funky aromas and flavors. In contrast, column distillation produces a crisper, cleaner distillate that’s perfectly tailored for barrel aging.

Maturation is another primary factor that determines flavor, aroma, and most importantly, color. Resting a freshly distilled rum in an oak barrel imparts a golden or amber color to a spirit that darkens the longer it ages. This process also gives the rum flavors of vanilla, caramel, and a hint of baking spice.

Rum regions

Knowing where a rum is produced can help a drinker make a few broad assumptions about how an individual rum is produced.

“Every region has its own cultural perspective and traditions on rum production,” says Campbell. “Identifying rum by the country it is from is often deemed the best way to identify its category. The region from which the rum’s ingredients originate can also affect the rum’s taste and style, also known as the liquid’s ‘terroir,’ inheriting characteristics and flavor profiles from the land in which the ingredients originate, and where the rum is aged,” she says.

For example, Jamaican rums are generally understood to be produced using pot stills and are known for their big, bold, funky characters. Rums from the Spanish Caribbean are typically column-distilled and barrel-aged, leading to a clean, approachable flavor profile with notes of caramel, and vanilla. Martinique, in the French Caribbean, is known for producing the fresh sugar cane spirit known as rhum agricole.

Of course, tying specific production regions to specific styles can be problematic as well — not all regions have a legally protected Geographical Indication that dictates production style. “The colonial classifications were an easy thing to latch on to,” says Pietrek. “But it’s absolutely meaningless, these days.”

Pietrek points to the island of Grenada, as an example. Grenadians produce many distinct styles of rum in a tiny geographic region. Renegade Rum Distillery crafts a series of terroir-focused cane rums that generally have a clean, grassy, profile akin to a rhum agricole. The River Antoine distillery produces a pungent, pot-distilled, cane-based spirit that’s uniquely rustic and wild. Meanwhile, the nation’s largest producer, Grenada Distillers Ltd. produces Clarke’s Court, a column-distilled, molasses-based rum that is distinct from the other producers.

The future of categorizing rum

Aside from color and geography, there have been attempts to create a more comprehensive way to categorize rum.

Two of the most notable systems of rum categorization have been proposed by Luca Gargano of wine and spirits importer Velier, and Rebecca and Martin Cate in their book Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. Both of their proposed methods are useful and more descriptive, but they both also require a basic understanding of how rum is produced to be properly utilized.

If it seems like there is always an exception that delegitimizes any attempt to fit different styles of rum into neat, easy-to-understand categories, it’s because there is. Rum is complicated.

“It all comes down to asking bartenders to understand a little bit about how spirits are made,” says Pietrek.

Its complicated nature is rum’s biggest asset. “We view diversity as a great thing, in that this beautiful spirit can have so many different flavors, textures, and complexity,” says Ristaino.

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