Whence Came Thy Rum?
Sugarcane is cultivated all around the tropical world, and where it is grown, it is often fermented and distilled to make the spirit known as rum. Drinking rum is a geographic experience, a unique way to visit distant lands.
You might be surprised that a list of significant rum producers would include Australia, Guatemala, Guyana, India, Madagascar, Mauritius, New Zealand, Reunion, South Africa, and Surinam. How is that for diversity?
Moreover, you may also encounter rums from places like Austria, Newfoundland, France, Tennessee, Germany and the Netherlands. Rum from such non-tropical regions as these was either distilled from imported molasses or was distilled in the tropics and imported as a young spirit for aging in a different climate.
In the 18th century, New England distilled staggering quantities of rum from molasses brought by ship from the Caribbean. While the last of these Medford rum distilleries disappeared in the early years of the 20th century, the English and Scots have been continuously aging Caribbean rums in the United Kingdom for centuries. At higher latitudes and higher altitudes, spirits develop much more slowly in the barrel. Dock rum - as the rums aged in the U.K. are known as - can be found in bottlings as old as twenty years, and it has a dramatically different character from rums aged in the tropics.
Then there are the cane spirits that aren't exactly rum. Of these, the "800-lb gorilla" is the national spirit of Brazil, cachaca (kuh-SHAH-suh). On paper, cachaca is similar to rhum agricole in that it is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice. However, most cachaca turns out utterly different due to myriad details, not the least being that most cachaca is distilled to a relatively low proof. There are an overwhelming number of cachaca producers - thousands - although most are regional products. Until very recently, extremely few cachacas were exported from Brazil. Although the caipirinha has become a phenomenally successful drink world-wide, few people outside Brazil have acquired a sense of cachaca's range and potential. This state of affairs is swiftly changing. At this time in the evolution of the export market, cachaca defies generalization.
As obscure in the marketplace as cachaca is explosive, the Dutch/Indonesian spirit Batavia Arrack (sometimes known simply as arac, arak, or arrack, but not to be confused with the anis-flavored liquors arak and raki of the Middle East) is a venerable Southeast Asian interpretation of sugar cane spirits. Batavia Arrack tends to involve other components in addition to sugar cane, notably fermented red rice. Batavia Arrack is also the base for Swedish Punsch, see Rum's Friends and Relations. Reportedly, there also exists a traditional arrack from Sri Lanka that involves coconut sap. In the Philippines a traditional drink involves putting sugar cane spirits in coconuts while they are still on the tree.
The above notwithstanding, it is the Caribbean that is the spiritual and commercial center of the rum world and where the bulk of your rum will be crafted. While people (particularly in Asia) have been tinkering with fermented sugar cane longer than they've had written language, what we know today as rum evolved in the sugar-producing industry of the colonial Caribbean world. There is considerable dissention (the dissention having become a tradition in itself) and a smidge of acrimony about where, exactly, rum was "invented." There can't be much doubt that sugar cane spirits were being made where sugar was being grown before it was brought to the Caribbean. Rum was certainly made in South America by Europeans before sugar became the Caribbean cash crop, and the cat was clearly out of the bag by 1640, after which rum swiftly became ubiquitous.
The French West Indies (Martinique, Guadalupe) and some of the French Pacific Islands make rhum agricole (rum distilled from fermented sugar cane juice). Most everyone else makes their rum from molasses. Consequently, the former rhums tend to be more vegetal, and the latter rums more spicy. Traditional local styles have emerged that break down approximately as per the chart to the left.
Beyond this, however, generalizations about Caribbean rum are tricky. There's just too much diversity, the distinctions are too subjective, and the available language is simply too clumsy and arbitrary.
Please take time to enjoy the world-wide diversity of rum! One parting tip: although the islands get most of the attention, don't overlook that some of the most extraordinary rums come from the Caribbean mainland. Also keep in mind that every Central and South American country has their own regional rum producers, including Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Argentina.