DISTILLATION FROM SUGAR CANE
Rum has a very long history. Distilling material from sugar cane, as it is from grapes, is more straightforward because, unlike grain for whiskey or gin, or agaves for mezcal, you don’t have to roast to convert carbs to sugar. Thus good rum, like good brandy, is one step closer to the source and its flavors can be more natural. The Wikipedia article on rum is pretty good.
Sugar cane originated in India, and folks figured out how to make sugar from it, and then rum, around 500AD; before that, folks just chewed the stalks. The plant grows well in tropical flatland close to the ocean, and after its introduction by Columbus the Caribbean became a major supplier. A lot of the world’s rum comes from there, as well as Brazil (cachaça), the Philippines, and India
Idealized French sugar plantation, 1790s. Rum has interesting karma: the reality was brutal labor exploitation. Sugar and rum were crucial factor in the slave trade. A British ship would take trade goods to Africa, then slaves to the Caribbean, rum and sugar to the east coast of the USA, and more trade goods, such as tobacco and cotton, back to England.
There is a lot of mediocre rum; many commoditized rums add (!!!) sugar, concealing the harshness of the alcohol. There are decent commoditized rums (Bacardi) and a huge number of spiced (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) rums. The issue with mass production is the source, namely the byproducts/leftovers from making granulated sugar: molasses, black treacle; the cane juice for sugar is clarified using acid, lime, and sulphur dioxide. There are some very good potstill rums made from this material, to my taste often a bit heavy.
Rhum agricole, made directly from fresh cane juice, got started in the French Caribbean in the early 1800s when beet sugar hurt the cane sugar market.
Martinique and the Guadaloupe archipelago make great rums, almost all of it on column stills. There are however a few fabulous pot still brands. Check out Ed Hamilton’s Ministry of Rum.
The British are pretty serious about rum. In the USA, it’s almost entirely a cocktail ingredient, sparked by tourists visiting Cuba in the 1930s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGxL2uNr7bk for the Andrews sisters singing “rum and Coca-Cola”, an ode to prostitution in Trinidad that was number one for ten weeks in 1945.
White rum has a magic affinity with lime; daquiris, mojitos. Simple drinks are where good rum shines. Great aged rum is like great aged brandy/cognac. Let it open up a while in the glass and take your time with it. Do not swirl!