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  • Writer's pictureJohn Walters

A distiller's guide to English rum

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

This is an edited excerpt from The Drinker's Guide to Distilling Part 1, written by English Spirit founder and master distiller Dr John Walters. This guide touches on the history of rum, how it's made, and of course, what to expect from English rum.

"You can make rum anywhere in the world; there is no geographic restriction, but it has to be made with sugar cane syrup or a derivative of it, e.g. molasses. Originally molasses was used as this was essentially a waste product of sugar manufacture. In the year dot, cane sugar syrup was acidified with a fruit acid e.g. lemon or lime juice. Boiled up in clay pots and left to cool. As it did, sugar would crystallise on top, which could be scraped off leaving a dark brown gloop. This gloop - molasses - could be further boiled and scraped to yield sugar. They tended to stop after three goes. This third boil or blackstrap molasses was quite acidic, had a lot of overly oxidised bits in it and for most purposes it was no good. They fed it to cattle. When they had an excess it was simply dumped in the sea. Probably the first industrial waste.

It took a while for anyone to find a good use for it. Fermentation was an issue. Not much sugar and acidic conditions. Basically acidity to yeast is its waste environments, so the worst of most worlds for our yeast cells. Someone, somewhere discovered if you tossed in a bit of sugar, fermentation began and on it went. It made a quite terrible beer-ish sort of thing, but when distilled it was a passable spirit. If you are from Barbados you claim you were the first to do it and if you are Brazilian you punch the air with pride saying it was first done in that part of the world.

The commercial rationale is very clear: free booze in essence from a waste product. Somewhere down the line there was a significant change from the use of just molasses to a molasses mixed with sugar cane syrup and then finally to sugar cane syrup with occasional input from molasses. This drift from molasses to cane sugar syrup has been driven entirely by the commercials of production: molasses is slow to ferment, the alcoholic yield is relatively low, but the taste can be superb. Cane sugar syrup is very quick to ferment and yield is high, but taste is well, lacking.

I am sure by this stage you can imagine where I wanted to kick off and to sugar cane syrup it was… only joking, it naturally was molasses.

Boy is molasses difficult stuff to handle and clean up afterwards. A few years ago we had a man drop a 1000L container with it in the yard. The mess was awful.

I triple distil our rum and it was the first to market as a UK fermented, distilled and mature rum. It’s called Old Salt Rum. No salt in it. Just named after my first site at Dullingham, the Old Salt Depot - and of course the nautical double entendre. In 2014 it won best rum in the world at Hong Kong’s RumFest. I am convinced rum will be the next big thing.

Lovely rum is something else. The unavoidable notes from an alembic distilled molasses rum are raisins and Christmas cake. Then depending on the ester profile, perhaps banana and banoffee pie, cracked caramel and of course a dark treacle finish. Maturing in oak barrels with medium toasting works really well.

You will probably be aware of white rum, golden rum, dark rum and spiced rum. There are various definitions for each. White is probably the simplest to explain in that it is simply immature rum. We distil one, but wanted to do a premium version, as most often this group of rum is used for mixing in cocktails, rather than sipping. My Tubman’s white rum was the first UK white rum: the precursor to our current white rum, St Piran’s Cornish rum. Distilled three times: gorgeous, super smooth, rounded light raisin and caramel notes, with a lick of coconut cream about it. I serve it chilled and it doesn’t take long to start thinking about the waves crashing in a rocky cove.

The golden and dark rum are of course rums that have spent some time in a barrel. Dark rums might have a sizable portion of tails in them too as these higher esters can lend something to it, though they can also wipe out the sip too. As with other dark spirits, premium rums are traditionally aged in barrels for upwards of 3 years to make them good enough for sipping. Thanks to our three distillations, small still size, good molasses and 9 years of practice, we typically only age for a few months and still arrive at a gorgeous golden rum.

Finally, we reach the spiced rum. Not actually a modern invention. Spicing rum has been around in various guises for many a century. It is easy to see how it came about - distilling went wrong or was never done right. How do you make it drinkable? Sweeten it and mask the base flavours with strong overtones. That’s the origin. I am not saying there are not good ones out there now.

When I approached it - I thought what would one be like if it had a great base to it? We use Old Salt Rum as the base for my English Spiced Rum. It is spiced with red cherries and hibiscus flowers, plus a few other special bits, which I refer to as pixie dust. It is truly lovely.

Many of the other English rums today are spiced rums. Most are not English of course, but have been imported from elsewhere, usually the Caribbean, and blended or flavoured here in Blighty. Regardless of their lineage, the rage for spiced rums at the moment seems to be cloves, pepper and cinnamon, with a good dose of vanilla thrown in, not to mention tails. My English Spiced Rum opts for a more fruity and floral route.

For me mixing rum is a fun alternative first drink of the evening. A mojito made with ginger beer as well as all the usual suspects is a pleasant twist and moves me closer to my favourite rum cocktail - a dark and stormy. On the cooking front, jerkies are natural fits along with cajun sauces, sticky toffee puds etc.

As the market grows, more producers in England are beginning to ferment and distil themselves, which is very encouraging: good luck to everyone. The critical difference between gin and rum is that gin is very easy to make (which is why there's so much of the stuff) whereas rum is more tricky to make: even trickier to make a good one. Will we see a boom in small batch English rums, or merely imitations thereof? The category is ripe for innovation, as with the recently released Sir Ranulph Fiennes' Great British Rum: let's see what the future holds.

If you are not a rum fan I would, naturally, encourage you to try ours. A lot of rums - like with so many genres of spirit, are compounded - whereas ours are distilled, and there is no comparison. If ever in doubt, do my acid test - side by side comparison. It is always gobsmackingly enlightening."

The Drinker's Guide to Distilling, Part 1 is available to read online via Amazon Kindle. You can also pick up a copy from our sites at Great Yeldham Hall and Treguddick Manor.


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