What the Heck Is It?
It is rather hard to define the entire rum family as a group because of the variety of rum produced. Each of the light, gold, dark and spiced rums have their own distinct characteristics and furthermore the rums produced in each country differ from one another due to varying laws and tradition in production.
After Columbus's introduction of sugarcane to the West Indies in 1493 the first rum was produced in Brazil, Barbados and Jamaica making rum the first spirit of the New World. By the mid 1700's rum was being made throughout the Carribean and South America. It soon became popular in New England and was produced there as well. The Rum Sling made of rum, sugar, water and lemon juice is considered the first American cocktail.
The use of sugar cane distinguishes rum from other liquors. The sweet juices from the sugar cane are turned into molasses and this syrup is then fermented into rum. Rum is then aged in casks, the type of cask used is the determining factor on the color of rum produced in the end.
Light-bodied rum is sometimes referred to as White or Silver and is a very subtle liquor, much like vodka with a sweet tooth. These rums are generally aged in stainless steel tanks for up to a year and filtered before bottling. This process gives light rums their clean, light flavor and makes this variety the most common rum for cocktails.
Medium-bodied rums are often called Gold or Amber rum and are rich and smooth. This is a result of either the production of congeners (organic compounds produced during production) or the addition of caramel. Gold rums are often aged in oak casks which also contribute to their dark, smooth characteristics. Gold rums make a smooth sipper and can be used in place of light rum in some darker cocktails.
Heavy-bodied or dark rums are typically used in rum punches and are combined with light rum in many cocktails such as a Hurricane. These are the richest rums that recieve their flavor from being aged in charred oak casks. Besides adding a rich, sweet flavor to cocktails, dark rums are the preferred sipper of the rum family, especially Angostura 1824 and Barbanco 15 year.
A subcategory of dark rums are those called blackstrap. These are produced from the darkest molasses produced by the third boiling while refining sugar and the resulting rum is equally as dark, rich, and thick. Examples of blackstrap rums are Cruzan Black Strap and Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum.
Flavoring rum by adding spices and aromatics during the distillation has become popular in the latter part of the 20th century. Beginning with coconut and spiced rums, the variety of flavored rums has grown to exceed the number of flavored gin and vodka options available.
Overproof or high-proof rum is often only used as a float or dash in cocktails. This potent rum is 75% pure alcohol (150 proof) and can be dangerous to the human body if it is not diluted in some way. Never use overproof liquors of any kind in cooking or near an open flame.