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What exactly is Rum, anyway?

Rum, Defined

Spirit categories can be nebulous and confusing. Some spirits, like gin, must make use of specific ingredients. Others, like bourbon and rye, must use certain ingredients and be aged in a specific way, while vodka can be made from virtually anything as long as it’s distilled at a high enough proof. Rum, on the other hand, comes in a variety of flavors and ages, can be sweetened or spiced, and has some close cousins like Rhum (or Rhum Agricole) and Cachaca. So put on your pirate hat, dust off your eye patch and grab your parrot, we’re talkin’ about rum, ya scallywag!

Sorry about that. I’ll try to keep the pirate speak to a minimum moving forward. 

Anyway, basic rum as a spirit category is pretty straightforward, with Rhum having a subtle but significant difference. Essentially, Rhum (aka Rhum Agricole) and Rum are both distilled from sugar cane: Rhum from sugar cane juice, and Rum from a refined product of sugarcane, such as molasses, turbinado or demerara sugar (which is what we use). If you know the basics of spirit production, the rest is fairly straightforward: the sugar is fermented, and then distilled.

A Difference in Taste

That sugar, however, makes a big difference in the final product. Rhum, for example, is characterized by an earthy, vegetal flavor, while molasses rum errs more toward a sweeter, vanilla-noted spirit. And while most rum (a whopping 97%!) is distilled from molasses, you can also make it from sugar, which is what we choose to do. 

Because molasses is a by-product of refining sugar cane into sugar, it typically requires a distillation at a very high proof to separate out the undesirable elements, most notably sulfur. Rum distilled from demerara, as we do, can be distilled at a lower proof, thereby preserving more flavor in the finished spirit. Specifically, demerara rums are characterized by subtle sweetness, light smokiness and slight vegetal notes.

All About The Finish

The other element that allows different rums to diverge in flavor is how they’re finished. Some producers will choose to spice or back-sweeten (add sugar to) finished rum. Some barrel age their rum and then filter it clear, while some add flavors (coconut pineapple rum, anyone?). At Mad River Distillers we use a variety of different aging and finishing techniques to transform our Demerara Rum into five unique projects. A maceration with vanilla beans results in our Vanilla Rum. Barrel aging gives us our First Run Rum, and finishing in used maple barrels gives us our beautiful Maple Cask Rum (my personal favorite. I don’t want to hurt any other rums’ feelings but hey, here we are) and our double gold medal winning PX Rum gets finished in used Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. 

Our newest product, however, is Rum 44, and it’s silver. No barrel aging, no flavoring, no sweetening. Just a clear, clean drinking rum that gives a beautiful nod to the demerara from which it’s distilled. One of my personal favorite things is being able to taste aged and un-aged versions of the same spirit. It gives you a beautiful glimpse at the character that young spirits can have, while simultaneously showcasing the flavor and complexity that results from time spent resting in a barrel. 

So there you have, ya landlubbers. Hopefully you’re walking away a little more knowledgeable and a little thirsty. Sure beats walking the plank, if you ask me. Cheers!

By in Media & Events, MRD BTV Blog Post Comments Off on What are Bitters?

What are Bitters?

“So what’s the deal with all those little bottles?” a gentleman asks in a hushed voice leaning across the copper bar top in between sips of his Mad River Rye Manhattan.

“Bitters” I whisper back.

I point to the shelves lined with obscurely sized, shaped, and colored bottles, “We sell bitters from all around the world” now speaking at a higher decimal level.

“So what exactly are bitters?” he asks loud enough to catch his neighbors attention.

“Bitters are like spices for cocktails, a dash or two can elevate a cocktail to something beyond just the sum of its parts”, is the jist of my normal response.

For the majority of our patrons this serves as a satisfactory explanation, but occasionally a curious customer such as this gentleman, will push for more, to ponder between sips.

Sympathizing with their curiosity and relishing the opportunity to further the knowledge of bitters in the world I often jump into a long winded version of the following.

Bitters, like many things alcoholic, have roots in medicine, or what might be more accurately described as faux medicine. They are made by infusing or macerating roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, and other botanicals in high proof alcohol or glycerin.

Bitters were often billed as cure-alls for ailments ranging from headaches and indigestion, to malaria. They were consumed not in a dash, but gulped down as medicine. These “medicinal” tinctures made from flavoring agents like gentian root, cinchona bark, orange peel, anise, clove, and other spices were said to have magical healing powers.

In the 1850’s America saw a bitters boom not dissimilar to what we have seen in recent years, but at this time bitters were still considered medicinal. The burgeoning bitters industry was being spurred on by both social and political forces.

The temperance movement was making inroads in their quest to deem social drinking as unacceptable. However, proving that cognitive dissonance is not a modern phenomena, the daily consumption of bitters for “medicinal benefits” was normalized despite the high alcohol concentration.

Additionally, the government was levying higher taxes on alcohol sales, but bitters being considered a non-potable item, were exempt from the higher taxes and therefore cheaper option for one to get their fix.

Soon enough hundreds of bitter varieties were available, and as the selection grew so did the marketing campaigns and dubious promises about the power of bitters. The habit of taking a morning drink for health reasons only seems to have foreshadowed the pill popping country we would eventually become.

So how did some 19th century “snake oil” weave its way thru history to become an essential ingredient in any serious bartenders arsenal?

What many people don’t realize is that bitters were an essential part of the original cocktail, defined as; “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. At the time the word cocktail referred to a specific sort of drink, alongside other varieties like juleps, toddies, smashes, and fizzes. Today that definition would more aptly apply to an Old Fashioned, as the word cocktail has become a more general term for any variety of mixed drink.

Bartenders rely on a bottle of bitters the way a chef relies on salt. In recent decades these old drinks and their ingredients have been brought back to life as the art of the cocktail has been revitalized. As we continue to glamorize the history of these drinks and bring them into the modern world, bitters have tagged along, as a vital, but at times underappreciated sidekick.

The bitters commonly dashed into a Bourbon Manhattan are considered non-potable, due to their high alcohol content and concentrated flavor. These days there has been an explosion in the variety of non-potable or “cocktail bitters” on the market and behind the bar. The most famous and ubiquitous examples of these would be the yellow topped Angostura bitters from Trinidad and Tobago, Peychauds from New Orleans, and Regans Orange.

Other popular brands include Bitter Truth, Fee Brothers, Bittermens, Dr. Adam, and Scrappys. We happen to sell them all and many more in our tasting room.

Bitters designed to be sipped instead of dashed are considered potable bitters. They are commonly consumed before or after a meal to stimulate appetite or ease digestion. Well known examples of potable bitters would be Campari, Fernet Branca, and Jagermeister. These often include added sugar to bring some balance, and increase their sippability.

Humans like many animals are hardwired to be averse to bitter flavors. It's often a warning signal that you’re about to ingest something toxic, but bitter can also be an alluring taste found in popular foods like grapefruits, chocolate, eggplant, coffee, and various herbs. It offers a sort of cleansing taste that spurs you on to the next bite (or sip).

Many people assume that the purpose of bitters is to simply make a drink bitter. While understandable, this isn’t an accurate description of the essential role bitters plays in elevating, and deepening flavors in a cocktail. Bitters can reduce sweetness, slice thru richness, meld disparate ingredients, as well as add an aromatic spiciness. All of that from a couple drops from a little bottle!

“What do you think?” I ask as the gentleman sits back into his bar seat, appearing to be deep in thought and finishes the last sip of his manhattan. He starts to nod approvingly and says “I think I need another manhattan”. As I walk down the bar to prepare his drink he calls half-jokingly “and don’t skimp on those bitters!”


Written by Neil Goldberg