You can find some form of rum almost everywhere in the Caribbean, and the varieties can differ pretty drastically depending on which island you’re on. We’ve previously talked about the the most restrictive appellation, French Rum Agricole, on this site before — but a close second in terms of restrictive requirements is Cuban Rum. So what’s the difference and how is this regulated? Lets find out.
Pretty much every liquor in the world was created as a way for farmers to turn their otherwise useless excess crops or waste products into something that they could sell for extra cash. (Or, at least, something that wouldn’t spoil or go bad until they could sell or use it.)
The Caribbean islands were, at one time, the biggest producers of sugar in the world. The sugar cane was harvested by hand — mostly by slave labor, it should be noted — and then refined before being shipped around the world. This refining process starts with pressing the sugar cane into liquid sugar juice, with the excess raw material (called “bagasse”) discarded. Next, the liquid would be boiled off in a large pan before sugar seed crystals are introduced to encourage the sugar to crystalize.
Sugar is typically refined into three levels of decreasing quality: “A” sugar and molasses, “B” sugar and molasses, and the lowest grade of “backstrap” molasses which contains the most impurities. While the A and B quality sugar is perfectly saleable, the backstrap molasses doesn’t really have much of a market.
It was this backstrap molasses that, according to history books, the slave population realized could be fermented into an alcoholic liquid and then distilled into something described in 1651 as “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”. The fact that the sugar was already available meant that, unlike grain-based spirits, there was no complex cooking or malting processes needed to start fermentation — rather, just adding it to some water and waiting for the yeast to do its business.
With a Cuban rum, by definition the process has to start with Cuban-produced molasses. It’s a little interesting, since for other versions of rum they either purposefully require the use of a better and more expensive raw material (like sugar cane juice for rum agricole) or leave the option open to whatever you want (like Jamaican rum). Cuban rum instead seems to be preserving the historical roots of the spirit, requiring the use of that impure molasses.
Once the sugary liquid has been created, modern distillers will commonly use specific strains of cultured yeast to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that they can then distill.
While other versions of rum might use wild strains of yeast, Cuban rum specifically requires the use of cultured yeast. And not just any yeast, either: the specific strain needs to have demonstrated that it creates the flavor profile that you expect for a Cuban rum.
Once the fermented liquid is ready, it’s time to distill.
The traditional and common type of still you’ll see associated with rum is what’s called a “double retort pot still”. Given that to this point the Cuban process has sought to maintain tradition you’d think that they would stick with something similar, but interestingly the Cuban distillers use column stills for their distillation step.
The reason for the use of column stills is because they don’t just make one run of rum and call it done — Cuban rum distillers actually need to make two kinds of rum, and one of them at such a high proof that it would require a column still to do it economically.
The Aguardiente, which literally translates as “burning water”, is what gives Cuban rums its flavor. There is no maximum or minimum distillation strength for the aguardiente but it is required to have the right aromatic and flavor components that one would expect. Typically, spirits with a lower alcohol content tend to be more characterful and flavorful, so this is likely to be a low proof spirit.
The other component that is distilled is what’s referred to as Superfine Cane Spirit. While the aguardiente gives the rum its flavor, this is what makes up most of the alcohol content. By law, it must be distilled to less than 96% alcohol by volume (over which it would be considered a vodka) but it isn’t required to have any flavor of its own.
Maturation and Post Production
While most rum in the Caribbean isn’t really aged for very long, Cuban rum specifically is required to be aged at least twice — and optionally, even a third time.
The First Aging happens only with the aguardiente, the flavorful spirit that is typically lower in alcohol content. That newly made spirit is required to be placed into old 180- to 200-liter oak barrels (typically from Scotland or Ireland) for a minimum of two years before being filtered through activated charcoal to remove any roughness.
Next up is the Second Aging, which is also mandatory. At this step, the aguardiente is blended with superfine cane spirit and placed into a further oak barrel. What’s interesting here is that there is no minimum or maximum aging requirement for the newly made Cuban rum.
Finally there’s an optional Third Aging, during which the Cuban rum is blended between batches and placed into a further barrel that is so old that it is considered to have a neutral flavor. At this point, the barrel is no longer adding any flavor to the spirit, which means any further aging is more about mellowing and marrying together the blended strains of Cuban rum than it is about really trying to make any big changes to the flavor profile.
Once finished, the rum can be labeled and sold. There are two broad categories in which Cuban rum is divided: white rum and dark rum. The difference is pretty obvious, but there’s no hard and fast requirement for either.
There are a couple different titles that you could potentially put on a bottle of Cuban rum, including:
- Ron Anejo Blanco
- Ron Anejo Carta Blanca
- Ron Anejo Carta Oro
- Ron Anejo Reserva
- Ron Anejo
- Ron Extra Anejo
What’s the difference between all of these? There really isn’t a firm definition. Cuban rum relies on a select group of master distillers (called the Maestros Roneros) who ensure the quality of Cuban rums and assign labels based on their opinion of the finished product. So while you’re likely to see some consistency between rums with the same label, you’re not likely to be able to come up with a cookie cutter definition for each category.
It’s a shame that we don’t have access to actual Cuban rum here in the United States. Hopefully one day that will change, but until then I’ll just have to plan some trips down into the Caribbean myself to get a hold of a couple bottles for review.
In the meantime, I’d urge you to take a break, check your local shelves, and start trying a few glasses yourself as well! You can check out all our rum reviews we’ve done so far at this link right here.