A recently published “Rum 101” article caught my attention because it asserted rum can be made from sugar beets, as well as from sugar cane. This is simply not the case. While you can certainly make a distilled spirit using sugar beets, the end product is not a rum–just as a distilled spirit made from malted barley can’t be a rum, no matter how hard someone might wish it to be.
While sugar plays part of rum production (and actually, part of all spirits production), the real story is a tad more complicated than most people realize. So, let’s get just a bit geeky and clear up some misconceptions about rum and sugar.
What Is Sugar?
When you hear the word sugar, what comes to mind? Odds are, it’s white “table” sugar. But what exactly is this substance that we pour in our morning coffee and bake cookies with?
Technically, white table sugar is crystallized sucrose. And sucrose is just one type of sugar. Odds are you’ve heard of several other types of sugars as well. Here are a few of them:
Each of these sugars has its own distinct chemical formulation, and each of them commonly occurs in various food sources.
But back to sucrose. There are no plants that only contain sucrose sugar. If you want pure sucrose, it must be separated from the other sugars that coexist in the plant.
The primary plant sources of sucrose are sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar cane grows above the ground, as a tall grass. Sugar beets grow below the ground, like a potato. They look and taste nothing alike. Both are loaded with sucrose but also have lots of other sugars. Separating the sucrose from other sugars brings us to the topic of sugar refining and molasses.
Editors note: To really geek out on sugar and rum production, see Section Three of the book, Minimalist Tiki, available for order at MinimalistTiki.com. You’ll find it to be the most comprehensive introduction to rum topics in any cocktail book.
What Is Molasses?
Let’s talk for a moment about how both sugar cane and sugar beets yield the sparkling white crystals in your sugar bowl.
A highly simplified version of sugar refining goes like this:
First, a juice is extracted:
- Freshly cut sugar cane goes through a crusher to extract the juice.
- Sugar beets are thinly sliced and soaked in hot water, which steeps out the sugars and other organic compounds.
Either way the result is a diluted juice composed of water, fructose, glucose, sucrose, and other organic compounds.
Next, the juice is heated to accelerate evaporation, which removes a substantial amount of water. It also crystalizes a portion of the sucrose in the juice.
At this point, the sucrose crystals are skimmed out of the liquid. You now have:
- A thick brown liquid
- Sucrose crystals coated with thick brown liquid
The thick brown liquid is called molasses. It’s essentially condensed cane (or beet) juice with most of the sucrose removed.
As for the molasses-covered sucrose crystals? That’s “brown sugar.” The original, old-school, real brown sugar, not the sad reconstituted version commonly found on supermarket shelves. White table sugar comes from further refinement of the brown sugar to remove the dark molasses.
In most cases, three passes of evaporation and skimming of the sucrose help extract as much sucrose as possible. The resulting molasses is highly concentrated with glucose, fructose, and other organic compounds, but with far less sucrose than it started with.
An important side note: Sucrose, fructose, and glucose are all fermentable sugars. That is, yeast can consume them to create ethanol – the “good” alcohol in distilled spirits. Molasses has plenty of fructose and glucose, so it works great to make rum!
Bonus side note: If you simply condensed cane juice, but not to the point of sucrose crystallization, it would be called “cane syrup” or “cane honey.”
Why Does This Matter?
Nobody would argue that cane juice and beet juice are the same thing. They have different organic compositions, both before and after removing the sucrose.
I could theoretically take grape juice, reduce it down, and remove the sucrose crystals to make grape molasses. But if I ferment the molasses and distill this grape molasses, do I have a rum? Obviously not.
If anything, the distillate would be dubbed a brandy. Yet somehow, people mistakenly think that sugar beets can make a rum.
The fact that both cane sugar and sugar beets have high amounts of sucrose is irrelevant. Most of that sucrose is removed before fermentation. They are manifestly different source materials.
Note: Some rums are made from fresh pressed cane juice, so more sucrose is available for fermentation, alongside the fructose and glucose. But the majority of rum production uses molasses, which is what I’m addressing here.
What Does the Law Say?
It’s popular to say that rum has no rules, which is manifestly incorrect. Yes, there are numerous country-specific or region-specific regulations. But let’s not use that to argue that sugar beet “rum” is okay in certain locales.
Below are excerpts from many of the best known and encompassing rum regulations. Each explicitly states “sugar cane” and never mentions beets.
The U.S. TTB definition for rum:
Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol …
Note: Yes, the TTB has erroneously allowed for a beet sugar distillate to be labeled as rum, but the TTB is not known for enforcing their laws rigorously.
The EU definition for rum:
A spirit drink produced exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation, either from molasses or syrup produced in the manufacture of cane sugar or from sugar-cane juice itself….
CARICOM definition for rum:
Obtained exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation of sugar cane molasses, sugar cane syrups, sugar cane juices, or cane sugar produced during the processing of sugar cane….
Brazil’s definition for cachaça:
Aguardente de Cana is a drink with alcoholic strength of 38% ABV to 54% ABV at 20ºC, obtained from the simple alcoholic distillate of sugar cane, sugar cane juice, or by the distillation of the fermented must from sugar cane juice.
Cuba’s definition for rum:
Cuban Rum is born of sugarcane molasses, with a relatively low viscosity…
Jamaica’s definition for rum:
Besides water, the fermented rum wash may contain:
sugar cane molasses
juice of sugar cane
crystallized cane sugar
sugar cane syrup
a mixture or combination of the above.
Martinique’s definition for rum:
Sugarcane varieties belong to the species Saccharum officinarum and Saccharum spontaneum or derived from their hybridization.
Sadly, “rum” made from sugar beets isn’t the only affront to the rum world. Some producers have tried to slip sorghum “rum” past regulators and unsuspecting consumers. Sorghum is a grain; if you ferment and distill it, you might get away with calling it whiskey, but certainly not rum.
Your takeaway from all this? Rather than saying, “Rum is made from sugar,” instead say, “Rum is made from sugar cane.”
Your rum-loving friends will thank you.