(n.) Rum is a spirit made from fermented sugar cane juice or any of its byproducts, including molasses and syrup. It must be distilled at less than 190 proof and bottled at more than 80 proof. There are almost no legal categories for production methods, save for rhum agricole, an appellation of the French West Indies, which must be made from fermented fresh cane juice—generally considered of a higher quality. The rest can be lumped into inexact categories:
Light rum is generally made in a dry style, is clear and aged in neutral oak or stainless steel for short periods of time. Golden rum is light yellow or golden in color, which is gained from either the addition of caramel syrup or aging in oak casks, which imparts a vanilla or caramel flavor. Dark rums have been aged for longer, or have more caramel added. Though most rums are made for mixing in cocktails, a category of aged rums meant for sipping is growing.
Production of rum is linked inextricably with early English and European colonies in the Americas, where cheap sugar grown via slave labor made for an economical spirit. It made up one of the legs of the infamous triangle trade that commercially linked together the sale of West African slaves, Caribbean sugar and New England rum in the 15th to 18th centuries, though some historians argue that rum’s importance in this triangle may be overstated.
Very popular in colonial America, two things happened that would eventually make whiskey the American spirit of choice instead: the English severed the supply of cheap molasses to the United States after the Revolutionary war, and expansion into fertile territories made grain a more obvious choice for distilling rather than sugar. Rum would rise again with the advent of Tiki culture and the clever Prohibition-era machinations of Bacardi, which lobbied to open distilleries in Puerto Rico just before repeal so that the market would be flooded with rum once it became legal again.