There are those gentle souls among us who would argue that Kentucky whisky is the most befitting and representative spirit of our city thanks to historical trading activities that even pre-date the Age of Steam.

Others note that gin has the upper hand on connections to the citizens of this community, thanks to Henry C. Ramos and his soothing concoction, the gin fizz.

Wine is always appropriate, with emphasis on cognac and absinthe, so passionately enjoyed by our forefathers, and foremothers, leaving permanent marks on this town’s signage and restaurant beverage lists.

But I would say that rum, in all its many splendors and flavors, is really the spirit of the Crescent City. Rum is universally sold along our most celebrated party street, being a key ingredient in daiquiris, hurricanes, swizzles and mojitos. And since we are often referred to as the northernmost Caribbean country, that further solidifies our ties to the fermented and distilled byproduct of sugar cane production so desired by our prior governors and leaders from Spain and France.

Plus, on a commercial level, rum is the only spirit legally distilled within the city’s limits (Old New Orleans Rum). You’ll note I had to put a lot of qualifiers on that last statement.

Even going back to the founding of the United States (the latest overlord of these valued parcels of land on which you can almost walk), American colonists were swilling rum to the tune of more than 12 million gallons annually, which works out to four gallons for every man, woman and child in a young America.

In fact, thanks to the proximity of West Indian molasses, rum was the first spirit distilled in the U.S. No less a man than George Washington bribed the Virginia electorate with rum for his candidacy to the House of Burgesses in 1758. His opponents for that office cried foul. The citizens responded with a heart-felt (and vote-bought), “Thank you. Please, sir, may I have another?”

The Boston Tea Party of 1765 was fueled by a British tax on non-British molasses, rum’s basic ingredient, brought into the colonies. (And you thought that incident was about tea?)  Before his famous midnight ride, Paul Revere fortified himself with rum. It was cold, you know.

Rum is usually made from the molasses of sugar cane, although it can be made from the juice of that sweet grass crop. The molasses is a byproduct of the refinement of the cane; whereas we are more accustomed to seeing the end product as sweet syrup or crystals, the molasses has to be dealt with at the refinery. The best way to deal with it is to use it in the creation of rum. That’s my opinion and I see no reason to change it.

The molasses is mixed with water and yeasts. Nature, being the benevolent (most of the time) force that she is, initiates the wonderful process of fermentation, which is the conversion of sugars to alcohol. Today’s fermentation conditions are controlled, with the selections of certain yeasts and temperature, but the result is that sweet, aromatic, seductive spirit, rum.

The heavier rums are fermented slowly for a number of weeks, while lighter ones only go through the process for a few days.

There are some rums-to-be that are not inoculated with yeast, but rather are mixed with the gooey, sticky left-over product of prior batches. The tarry residue left in stills is the basis for oak-aged rums, up to six years in barrel, which are denoted añejo.

Even the potentially lethal 151 is a rum that has been allowed to run way up the alcohol scale during distillation.

British sea captains tried to convince candidates being recruited to serve on their crews by offering them rum as a sample of what would be served on-board during the voyage. Many of these captains then watered down the rum so it stretched further during the cruise and not have so many drunken sailors, who were known as “rummys,” lying around the deck.

One particular British captain, Captain McCoy, did not do that and soon developed a reputation as a decent fellow, treating his crew well. The expression, “The Real McCoy,” soon became part of our language.

New Orleans’ rum heritage, and it is long and proud, really dates more to the Spanish than the English. We were never very accommodating to the English as they struck our citizenry as stiff and righteous, two words that have never quite gone well with our residents.

The Spanish and the Portuguese visited the Caribbean during their explorations and thought sugar cane could do well in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, and the Azores, which are in the Gulf Stream in the middle of the North Atlantic. The Spanish also established sugar cane plantations in Hispaniola, today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic.  And fine rum was sent into New Orleans because we were such an excellent market. No surprise there.

Rum styles don’t vary a great deal, but from one rum distillery to another, there are subtle
(and quality) considerations. Lighter rums become that way because they have the color filtered out of the raw product and these rums tend to be younger and sweeter for primary use as a mixer in cocktails.

Darker rums take their color from aging barrels. All rums come from the distillation process as clear liquids. Spiced rums are infused after distillation and because of the overriding aspects of the spices, these rums are not necessarily of the highest quality. This is not an absolute rule but is generally true.

Since rums are refreshing in and of themselves, when they are crafted into cocktails they take on new flavors and aromas and seem perfectly suited for hot, tropical days and warm, breezy nights. Sound familiar?

New Orleans bar magicians are particularly well versed in rum and you can find concoctions here that are quite astounding. Check out Cheryl Charming over at Bombay Club (yes, I know that India and the Caribbean are half a world apart, but trust me on this one) who can make the classic Bacardi cocktail, a Bahama mama, the beachbum, Navy grog, and daiquiris of varying flavors as well as anyone.

(I also want to offer Cheryl credit for some material in this article, taken from her book, The Everything Bartender’s Book, 3rd Edition. And while I’m passing around credit, thank you, James Waller, author of drink’-ol-o-gy, The Art and Science of the Cocktail. Both volumes contributed important facts to this article.)

There is really no reason to try and run around the truth about New Orleans, America and rum. The three make a great combination.

Next week, we will focus on the Sazerac, and the true story surrounding a most historic and astounding drink, created right here in old New Orleans.