Rum is made from Sugar – And so are Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka and Tequila

A recent article in Harper’s, The Rise of Rum Part 2: Reaching new sugar highs, has been making the rounds in the rum community, and not in a favorable way. While purporting to educate and document rum’s recent rise in popularity, it actually does quite the opposite with inane, misleading passages such as:

Rum is sugar-based so it is more of an upper rather than downer. It’s suited to late night bars and rum-based cocktails like mojitos and daiquiris….

Rum has a broad appeal because its ingredients are sugar cane and molasses,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation like a lot of sweetness in their drinks”

It’s not stuffy like cognac, overly traditional like whisky, depressing like gin, or superficial like vodka. It’s made of sunshine.

Just… No.

Rum is made from fermented sugar, and so is every other distilled spirit. Surprised? Read on.

Whisk(e)y begins with grain – barley, wheat, corn, … When barley cooks the starches convert to sugars via enzymes. The resulting liquid (“wort”) is high in sugars. The wort then ferments with yeast to turn the sugar into alcohol. The distillation process then concentrates the alcohol.

Brandies (e.g. Cognac, calvados, pisco) are made from fruit. Fruit juice is high in sugar content. Fermentation with yeast turns the juice sugars into alcohol. At this point it’s known as wine. Distilling the wine yields brandy, sometimes known as eau de vie.

Mezcal (including Tequila) starts with agave, which is full of compounds known as fructans. When heated (as when cooking the agave), the fructans turn into sugar. Fermentation turns these sugar into alcohol. Distillation concentrates that alcohol. Olé!

Vodka can be made from just about anything, include grains, fruits, potatoes, etc. It really doesn’t matter what’s used for most vodkas, as the end result is distilled to such high proof that it’s essentially pure ethanol. Regardless, the alcohol in vodka always come from existing or induced sugar content, similar to the other spirit types above.

True rum always starts from a sugar-cane source. Some rums are made from cane juice, a particularly common practice with French-influenced producers like those on Martinique (Rhum Agricole).

Other rums are made from a molasses base. Molasses is essentially reduced cane juice, with much of the sucrose removed. However, other sugars remain.  (Disclaimer: I’ve slightly simplified the above for clarity. See this story for a drill down on the topic.)

Finally, some rums are made from sugar cane syrup, which is simply cane juice with much of the water removed.

As you can guess by now, regardless of what type of sugar cane-based source you start with, it’s fermented to create alcohol then distilled to make rum.

All spirits have a large amount of sugar at some point in the production process. There are any number of ways to get that sugar though – directly, as with rum or brandy, or indirectly via starches or fructans.

With the above background in mind, here’s the essential point to understand:
A proper fermentation process converts most of the sugars into alcohols or other non-sugar substances. Furthermore, a properly executed distillation process yields a distillate that has essentially zero sugar content.

What’s in the distillate coming off the still?

  • Ethanol? Yes
  • Water? Yes
  • Flavor compounds (esters, etc.)? Yes
  • Sugar? No

Regardless of whether a distiller makes whiskey, brandy, tequila, rum or vodka, what comes off the still is not sweet.

There is no sugar in it

You don’t hear people saying that bourbon is too sweet. Nobody proclaims vodka to be too sugary.

So why is there a persistent perception that rum is “too sweet”? 
Some of it comes from misleading articles like the above. And some is because some rum producers add sugar to their rum after the fact.

This practice is particularly prevalent in spiced (or flavored) rums like Captain Morgan, Kraken and Sailor Jerry. But it’s also common in many highly regarded “connoisseur” rums like El Dorado, Zacapa, Zaya and Diplomatico.  So yes, there are sweet rums on the shelf, but that doesn’t mean that rum is naturally sweet. Any sugar in a rum you buy is entirely a decision of the producer.

The topic of sugar in rums is a hotbed of controversy within the rum world these days. Without passing any blanket value judgment, I’m simply stating that there are many rums with sugar added. And there are also many rums without added sugar. You as the consumer decide what you prefer and purchase appropriately

Aside: If you are interested in my thoughts on added sugar and various shenanigan played in the rum world, be sure to read my article: Can Rum Survive Its Moment in the Sun? Among other things, it has pointers on what brands don’t add sugar.

Why this rant?

Rum is an amazing spirit, made all over the world with an incredible diversity of flavor profiles and a rich history. There are rums made that equal the quality of the finest single malts, bourbons and Cognacs. However, the general population’s perception of rum is often limited to “fun time party spirit” and/or “tasteless and interchangeable with vodka”. People drop hundreds of dollars on high end bourbons like Pappy 23 but rum is rarely regarded as equally worthy of the same monetary outlay.

There’s a global rum community that’s very aware of the spectacular rums being made. Many passionate rum writers and rum influencers tirelessly promote quality rums to anybody who will listen.

However, without a broader awareness of quality rums, distributors and stores don’t carry them. Thus, the rum connoisseur market struggles to obtain the rums they so desperately want while high-end rum producers struggle to stay solvent. Meanwhile, store shelves are stuffed with countless ridiculous flavored vodkas and other swill.

Quality rum holds its ground against any other distilled spirit. However, we need broader awareness that there are great rums worth seeking out in the same way one might seek out a hot new single malt or artisan mescal. Insipid and misleading articles like the Harper’s piece spread misinformation and do more harm than good in this cause.

How can you help? Continue educating people with the facts about how spirits are made. And the next time somebody tells you they don’t like rum because it’s too sweet, perhaps share this article with them.

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19 thoughts on “Rum is made from Sugar – And so are Bourbon, Cognac, Vodka and Tequila

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  1. Once again, my friend, you are 100% on target. I couldn’t agree with you more- sugars convert into alcohol, and alcohol ain’t sweet. And there’s no sugar to be found anywhere. It’s all gone. People should have paid more attention in 11th grade chemestry. Ive been telling folks the same thing, if they’ll listen (oh, no, rum is too sweet for me!). Thanks for putting it in such a direct fashion. I really enjoy your writing.

  2. I would just adapt the tequila/mezcal part to include how agave is full of starch and some sugar, and the starch needs to be broken down into fermentable sugars by heat (fire pit, autoclave, brick oven, etc.).

  3. Agreed. I go on similar rants in my head or to my dog on a regular basis. Quick note though – the main carbohydrate in agave is inulin, not starch or fermentable sugars. Inulin is polymer of fructose that needs to be hydrolyzed into fermentable sugars in order to get a reasonable alcohol yield.

    1. Good info. Thanks! I confess to know a bit less about the agave side of things, but certainly know that the pinas are cooked and the mashed with water. May update the post with this clarification at some point.

    1. Vodka can be made from anything. It’s primary feature is that it is distilled to such high proof that little or none of the original flavor in the mash remains. Put another way, if you took rum and further distilled it, you’d get vodka. Same as whiskey, brandy or tequila.

  4. Yes and no. Sugars (sucrose,fructose,galactose,maltose, maltotriose, glucose) are not the same as sugar (derived from sugarcane or beet as per the last century or so). All alcohol uses yeast to anaerobically (fermentation) metabolise sugars into alcohol but the flavour compounds are more than just the sugars. Sugar beet sugar tastes different from pure can sugar which tastes different from every other sugars source including stevia etc. Sugar cane wash does not taste the same as grape brandy wash or malted barley wash. Therefore the addition of sugarcane based sugar to cognac is absurd, but the addition of sugarcane based sugar (in particular unrefined) to rum is surely not so absurd.

  5. A lot of people argue that given that these are made from sugar, the harmful effects of these drinks are not there anymore. However, it has been proven that excess alcohol damages the kidney.

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