France has its wine. Germany has its beer. And Puerto Rico has its rum. Not lightly do they call this small island the rum capital of the world. Over 70 percent of the rum sold in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico; it's the island's chief export.
It's also part of the island's history. Juan Ponce de Leon first brought Creole sugar cane rootstocks from La Española (Dominican Republic) in 1506. The first sugar mill was established in Añasco in 1517. Rum production began in the 1650s, a byproduct of the sugar cane industry on which Puerto Rico made its early living.
Sugar cane juice or guarapo is extracted and boiled to high temperatures. The process yields crystallized sugar and a syrup called molasses. Sugarcane laborers discovered that mixing molasses with water and fermenting it produced a distilled spirit. (Incidentally, the word "rum" comes from Barbados.)
Today, there are myriad brands and types of rum. Here is a brief introduction.
Light Rum (or Silver/White Rum)
A preferred rum for cocktails and mixed drinks, light and white rums have a more subtle flavor. The most ubiquitous example of light rum can be found in the supremely popular mojito, a Cuban drink which has become a local favorite in Puerto Rico.
Gold or Amber Rum
That familiar golden brown hue, rich taste, and full body make this the natural choice for your standard rum and coke. Aged in wooden barrels, they have a stronger flavor than light rums.
Usually, a gold variety, this grade of rum gets its name and flavor from the added spices and, occasionally, caramel.
Aged longer in heavily charred barrels, dark rum has a much stronger flavor, hints of spices, and a strong molasses or caramel overtone.
From the plethora of rum-based drinks found around the island to the cultural and historical significance of the drink to the distillery business (over 70 percent of the rum sold in the U.S. comes from the island), rum is a huge part of the Puerto Rican experience.
The locals are proud of their run, even if they sometimes get sick of the ever-present Piña Colada. Puerto Rico is the only rum-producing country to adhere to a minimum aging law for the drink. Here's a summary of what you'll find on the island:
- Bacardi, the world's most popular rum, has a massive distillery located across the bay from Old San Juan. It's a popular and free tourist attraction.
- Don Q is favored by many locals as the best rum in Puerto Rico.
- Ron del Bariilito, the "Cognac of the Caribbean," is a blend of rums aged six to 10 years in charred oak barrels.
- Palo Viejo is another variety hard to find outside the island, and a favorite for classic drinks like coquito, the Puerto Rican eggnog.
- Ron Llave is a traditional, mellow rum available in light or dark grades.
- Finally, there’s ron caña, which isn’t actually rum, but a similar liquor made from sugarcane; it’s the local equivalent of moonshine.