A couple of decades ago, my friend Moose and I made a batch of dark rum in the traditional manner. After performing a little research into the rum making techniques of the 18th and 19th centuries, we assembled the necessary apparatus and began. Here is a description of that project.
History of Rum Making
Rum is a beverage that seems to have had its origins on the 17th century Caribbean sugarcane plantations and by the 18th century its popularity had spread throughout world. Encyclopædia Britannica of 1771 provides a description of the traditional rum making process:
“When a sufficient stock of the materials is got together, they add water to them, and ferment them in the common method, though the fermentation is always carried on very slowly at first; because at the beginning of the season for making rum in the islands, they want yeast, or some other ferment to make it work; but by degrees, after this they procure a sufficient quantity of the ferment, which rises up as a head to the liquor in the operation; and thus they are able afterwards to ferment and make their rum with a great deal of expedition, and in large quantities.”
“When the wash is fully fermented, or to a due degree of acidity, the distillation is carried on in the common way, and the spirit is made up proof: though sometimes it is reduced to a much greater strength, nearly approaching to that of alcohol or spirit of wine, and it is then called double distilled rum. It might be easy to rectify the spirit and bring it to a much greater purity than we usually find it to be of: for it brings over in the distillation a very large quantity of the oil; and this is often so disagreeable, that the rum must be suffered to be by a long time to mellow before it can be used; whereas; if well rectified, it would grow mellow much sooner, and would have a much less potent flavour.”
The article from Encyclopædia Britannica finishes with a useful tip for determining the quality of rum:
“The best method of judging of it is, by setting fire to a little of it; and when it has burnt away all the inflammable part, examining the phlegm both by the taste and smell.”
In another era, Lloyd’s Encyclopædic Dictionary of 1895 described rum as:
“A spirit distilled chiefly in the West Indies from the fermented skimmings of the sugar-boilers and molasses, together with sufficient cane juice to impart the necessary flavour.”
Lloyd also laments that “Much of the rum sold in this country is merely plain spirit, coloured with burnt sugar, and flavoured with rum flavouring.”
As we considered the nature of our project, it became clear that the scrapings of a sugar boiler were going to be difficult to come by. A somewhat modified traditional rum recipe was needed. Despite Lloyds’ misgivings about the rum sold in England in 1895, we felt sure that a beverage made from the scrapings of an 18th century sugar-boiler would not necessarily result in a superior product. We decided that following process would be an acceptable compromise between the traditional approach and expedience:
Step 1. Set up a couple of 20 litre beer fermenting tanks with temperature control and air-locks
Step 2. Mix up a brew of raw sugar, molasses, water and yeast; add some yeast nutrient to ensure good fermentation (get the nutrient from a supplier of wine making equipment)
Step 3. Allow the brew to ferment
Step 4. Construct the distillation apparatus
Step 5. Distil the brew
Step 6. Filter the distillate
Step 7. Mix some activated charcoal to the distillate to improve the taste and smell
Step 8. Filter the distillate to remove the charcoal
Step 9. Add water to the product achieve the correct alcohol content (40% say)
Step 10. Make rum flavour by caramelizing some raw sugar in a saucepan over the kitchen stove
Step 11. Add the caramelized sugar to the spirit to impart taste and colour
Step 12. Prepare and fill the bottles and affix a suitable label
Step 13. Splice the mainbrace
Our brew consisted of a couple of kilograms of sugar and some molasses added to 15 litres of water, beer brewing yeast and yeast nutrient. The nutrient is required as sugar lacks some essential elements to enable the yeast to do its job. A standard beer making tank was used to ferment the brew in the same manner that a batch of home-brew beer would be made.
The Distillation Apparatus
The making of good rum requires good distillation apparatus. Many descriptions of the necessary equipment can be found on the web. The design we used came from an offshore oilman from Alabama. Apparently apparatuses of this kind are not uncommon in that part of the world. Our boiler and cooler were made from old 30 litre stainless steel beer barrels.
A notable feature of this design is the small tank and dump valve located between the boiler and the condensing coils. This is a critical part of the design and ensures that some of the nasty (and potentially poisonous) fractions that would otherwise spoil the taste of the spirit are condensed and dumped before they reach the main condenser. The dump valve allows the initial condensate containing lighter alcohols to be discarded.
Liquid-crystal self-adhesive temperature indicators affixed near the top of the boiler will assist in maintaining good temperature control.
Warning – an unattended boiler can become dangerously pressurized. Never leave the distillation apparatus unattended.
Distilling the Brew
After straining, the contents of the fermenter were added to the boiler. This is the part that should be performed carefully. The heat needs to be applied slowly. If the bottom of the still gets too hot, the brew will be burnt and it will be ruined. It may take an hour for the still to get up to temperature. Be patient and let the still heat up slowly.
When the distillation apparatus is finally up to temperature and operating, the valve on the top tank needs to be periodically opened to release some of the contents. This is a real trial and error process. The aim is to dump the bad tasting stuff that would otherwise end up in the final product.
Activated charcoal was purchased from a chemical supplier and a teaspoonful or two was added to each litre of the spirit. After giving the mix a good shake the black charcoal was cleared from the rum using paper type coffee filter. A couple of filter papers and few passes were necessary to get the spirit perfectly clear again. This process improved the taste of the spirit greatly.
Now Water it Down
By this stage we had produced a spirit that was far too strong to drink and had to be watered down by about half. The old test for proof spirit was to mix a little with gunpowder and ignite it. If the gunpowder flashes then it is over proof. If the flame goes out quietly then it is under proof.
Our flavouring was made by heating a cup of raw sugar in a saucepan on the stove whilst stirring vigorously. The sugar was allowed to melt and begin to caramelise. When it had turned a dark brown with a slightly burnt taste it was taken off the heat and allowed to cool. With a little experimentation, a nice colour and flavour was imparted to the spirit.
The result of our project was an interesting and unusual dark rum. Independent and unbiased testers were able to confirm that it was of the finest quality producing phlegm of exquisite delicacy.
And finally, a descriptive label is essential.
Rum Sherbet from Dr. Chase's Receipt Book 1873
Some Useful Links:
Wikipedia article on Rum
This site is very comprehensive and will probably have all the information you will ever need:
And for those who prefer to pay for their information, try this interesting book from Amazon: