But just tell me how do we get our sugar? From sugarcane! Of course, you are right. From time immemorial sugar has been an important ingredient in food in almost all parts of the world. We Indians along with the Chinese cultivated sugarcane even before Brazil, the sugar bowl of the world, dreamed about its culinary and commercial use.
So there is this sugarcane, there is this sugar.
If we don’t learn how to extract sugar from sugarcane we would sit as clueless before stalks of sugarcane as the proverbial monkey sits before an un-husked coconut.
How do we make sugar from sugarcane?
Chop up those long stalks of sugarcane when they ripen and press them hard until they agree and yield its juice. Heat it. Now what you see crystallizing in the liquid are unrefined granules of sugar. Filter the brown sugar out (stop acting up, this is not ‘that’ brown sugar) and send it for further refinement to make the white sugar that we use in the kitchen.
Now what remains in the bowl after you strain out the brown sugar is called molasses; throw it ou…hey stop! Hold on! Hold on! What are we doing! Don’t chuck the waste out until I tell you so!
Leave the precious granules which are on the way to become refined sugar and focus your attention on the molasses, yes, this dark, gooey, viscous waste remaining on the tub. Long ago before rum was invented people used it as animal feed and fertilizer. But then one day a slave in Barbados as he was dead tired after long hours in the sun in a plantation crawled out of the thicket and saw a bowl of this molasses fermenting in the sun. He was thirsty ; he emptied the contents of the bowl; he fell on to the ground. And there he lied for hours on his back facing a sun that grew cooler by the minute. He felt never as happy as this since he was captured form his homeland and brought here as a slave.
The poor slave had just drunk a crude form of rum.
If left in the open the molasses becomes a honey trap that attracts wild microorganisms called yeasts that fly by. Yeast cells, you know these guys. They are notorious in playing dirty with sugar whenever they get a chance with the sole purpose of producing alcohol. They justify and christen this unholy act as fermentation. But when you make rum in an industrial basis you can’t throw your molasses in the air to let any tom-dick-harry of a yeast cell fuck’em in the open, as the final product (read alcohol) will then show the characteristics of different yeast cells (read bastard). It will also be impossible to achieve the same taste with the next batch of rum as you will be getting a different set of yeast cells passing by with the breeze.
With the black slave happily fallen on the ground drunk with the concoction he found in the open, people began to think twice before they drained the molasses , which is the byproduct of sugar manufacturing ,out through the sewer.
Instead they began to mix molasses with distilled water and a few nutrients before the precious strains of yeast cells they had cultured in their labs, were unleashed into their feast. The feast alias fermentation will continue anywhere from 24 hours to three weeks. No big deal about the time. Short period fermentation creates light-bodied rum at the end; long fermentation heavy-bodied rum. If you give the yeast cells more time to eat the sugar in the mash they make compounds called esters which give a fruity taste to the liquid. If you want the rum plain take it out of the stove in 24 hours.
The fermented liquid, called mash, will have a maximum of 8% of alcohol. Way to go to be called a drink.
The challenge is to separate the alcohol from the mash. There is only one way. Distill it using stills. You heat the low-octane fermented molasses in a pot still or a column still or a coffey still; the volatile alcohol with its low boiling point will soon break itself free from the mash and rise as vapour which is then siphoned off through pipes to a different chamber where it will be cooled until the vapour condenses down to become a high-octane liquid.
You can distill this liquid again. Again and again. Each time you distill it you get your alcohol purer. But remember one thing. Most often it is the impurities which give the rum its heart and essence. This is the reason why some still stick on obstinately to the traditional and the time- consuming pot stills to the suave and sophisticated column stills as the former help in retaining some of these tasty impurities (congeners).
So you get a high-octane liquid from the other end. Can we drink it straight? Not yet.
At some point in rum’s timeline people discovered that the alcohol which sat in barrels as the wares were transported across mighty seas acquired a great taste that was quite different from the almost unpalatable fresh rum they used to knock back.
Thus began the great tradition of ageing the rum. People began to store the liquid in oak casks. The insides of the oak would be charred so that it would take away the rough edges of the rum as it sits long days in it, maturing.
Well I know you are thirsty. Or why else should you be at waiting in the cellar with a mug on the day I open my barrel of aged rum? Sorry I must disappoint you again. Very few rums are drunk straight from a barrel. Just like whisky, rum is also a blend. You must wait patiently until I blend the rum from this barrel with other rums of varying ages and batches to create the brand you are fans of.
Symphonies are created thus.