The topic of Spanish, French and French style rums come up frequently in rum discussions. It’s confusing to many, especially newcomers trying to make sense of the vast world of rum.
Section Three of my book, Minimalist Tiki, has a very lengthy and detailed overview on rum. What follows is an adaptation of a small portion of it, creating a primer (and disclaimer) for the colonial rum classification.
A few years ago, it became popular to categorize Caribbean rums based on their colonial history. The European powers, including England, Spain, Portugal, and France, colonized the Americas and the Caribbean. The history of these colonies and their ruling countries had a dramatic impact on how each made rum, which in turns changed how it tastes.
From the inception of Caribbean rum around 1640 in Barbados, all the colonies made rum in a fairly similar way — on small plantations that had its own small distillery. The source material was molasses, sometimes augmented with cane juice, and rums was distilled in pot stills. Rum production remained like this across the Caribbean for roughly two hundred years.
In the early 1800s came the first continuous distillation; column stills gained rapid adoption, but it took several decades before its use appeared in the colonies in any meaningful way. The use of column distillation is one of the hallmarks that separate rums in the colonial classification.
In extremely general terms, you could say that early rum making was in what we would call British heritage style. Around the early 1800s, French and Spanish colonial rum makers went in their own directions, described below.
If you’re well acquainted with rum history, the colonial categorizations are a useful shorthand to reference common varieties of rum made in the past. However, these categorizations are quite nebulous when viewed through a modern lens. Some rum making regions don’t fit nicely within these styles.
For this reason, many experts now downplay its usefulness. However, since these styles are in common use, it makes sense to have a clear understanding of what each style implies, as well as understand the weakness of the classification.
In what follows, I will make broad categorizations, fully aware of the many counterexamples. My aim is to accurately describe the 98% of the rum that’s made in these particular styles, and not the 2% outliers.
British colonies like Barbados and Jamaica reached rum-making success earlier than the French and Spanish colonies. With that success, especially in Jamaica’s case, there was little pressure to change things. Traditional pot-still distillation on plantations was the usual mode of operation. Barbados did not acquire its first column still until 1893, and it’s believed that Jamaica did not get its first column still until sometime around 1960. British Guiana (now Guyana) had column distillation earlier in the 1800s, but those rums were considered low value and dubbed “silent spirit” by its detractors.
Quantifying what makes a British style rum is challenging. Pot distillation is often cited as a key factor; you rarely find it in Spanish style or French style Caribbean rums. However, even the British colonies eventually acquired columns. The British colonies also stuck with molasses, rather than cane juice. (A slight forth an aggressive program to make sugar beets the generalization.) Thus, modern British-style rum could be described as a blend of pot and column distillates deriving from molasses. However, there are great examples of entirely pot-stilled British style rums to be found.
- Source material: molasses. Cultured and wild yeasts.
- Fermentation length: A few days, up to a month.
- Distillation technology: pot and/or column
Primary Examples: Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, St. Lucia
- Jamaican Rum Distillery Cheat Sheet
- Barbados Rum Cheat Sheet
- Demerara Distillers Ltd – Part One
- Still Life: Saint Lucia Distillers
- Grenada Rum Cheat Sheet
During the earliest years of Caribbean rum, the Spanish crown forbade its colonies from making any distilled spirits. It wasn’t until 1796 that Spanish colonies such as Cuba were allowed to produce rum. Thus, it took a good part of the 1800s for rum production to really take hold on the island. Even Bacardi, now the world’s largest rum company, wasn’t founded until 1862.
Facundo Bacardi began using a charcoal filtering process to make his rum lighter and less harsh. This practice became a hallmark of rums made in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other former Spanish colonies. By the late 1800s, Bacardi and others like the Arechabala family, founders of the original Havana Club rum, had started moving from pot stills to column distillation. These two factors — column distillation and charcoal filtration during aging — created a signature style of rum: Spanish heritage.
Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s. Light rums were the craze, and brands chased the vodka market: A common marketing pitch was that these rums were so light that they couldn’t be smelled on the breath. Many producers, including Bacardi, went to massive, multicolumn stills better suited to making very light rums. They blend this rum with heavier rum made in a single column. Spanish heritage rum’s flavor is driven more from cask aging, rather than the high levels of flavor congeners (including esters) found in French and British style distillate.
It’s also to note that there’s some differentiation in the profiles of rum made on former Spanish islands (Cuba, Puerto Rico), as compared to Spanish colonies in central and South America. The latter is well-known (at least with rum circles) to sweeten and/or flavor many of their rums substantially. Thus, you could plausibly make a case for separating the Spanish heritage island rums from the mainland rums. This is a controversial topic, and far too in-depth to cover in this primer.
- Source material: molasses. Cultured yeasts.
- Fermentation length: up to 2 days for most, but some longer ferments
- Distillation technology: single column (~75% ABV) and multi-column (~95% ABV), blended in final product.
- Other: Carbon filtration for color and smoothness is standard for many producers. Multiple base rums blended to make the final product.
Primary Examples: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Philippines, Venezuela, Guatemala, Trinidad (Angostura)
The French style of rum (rhum) came about for several reasons, but foremost is that in the early 1800s, Napoleon set forth an aggressive program to make sugar beets the primary source of sugar in France and wean the country off Caribbean sugar. This, combined with increased cane sugar production from other countries, prevented Martinique plantation owners from profitably selling their sugar. As a result, some plantations turned to making rum directly from sugar cane juice. The extra sucrose in the mash yields more alcohol per ton of cane crushed.
The French were also heavily investing in their colonies (Martinique and Guadeloupe) during the mid-1800s, so column stills arrived on these islands relatively early. The original stills, modeled after Armagnac stills, required some tweaking to successfully adapt to cane juice distillation. The resulting single-column design is referred to as a Creole column still. These stills, in combination with using cane juice rather than molasses, create the signature rhum agricole flavor notes.
These days, the island of Martinique is known for its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – better known as the Martinique AOC.
- Source material: cane juice. Cultured yeasts.
- Fermentation length: up to 5 days
- Distillation technology: column, up to ~85% ABV (75% on Martinique)
Primary Examples: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island
It’s important to reiterate that these colonial styles are far from an ideal classification in today’s rum world. Much has changed in the hundred-plus years since Caribbean islands and countries tended to make rum in a homogeneous way within their confines.
These days a new distillery on Martinique now makes cane juice rum in a batch still. Venezuela’s Diplomatico runs batch stills, and their rums are blends of both batch and column distillates, so you can’t really call them Spanish style.
Jamaica’s Clarendon and Guyana’s Demerara Distillers Ltd. both have very modern, multi-column stills that can make very light rums not usually associated with their British heritage. Likewise, Grenada, long a bastion of British influence, will soon have a cane juice rum distilled in both pot and column stills. And Trinidad, another British colony, makes rums in the Spanish heritage style.
In short, there are plenty of counterexamples of the characteristics associated colonial rum styles. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that many rum producers still create rum in similar ways to a century or more ago. The colonial classifications are far from perfect, yet provide a convenient shorthand to describe a related set of choices made by many major rum producers.