Is Rum Sweet? Exploring the Myth of Rum’s Sugary Reputation
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Is Rum Sweet? Exploring the Myth of Rum’s Sugary Reputation

Is Rum Sweet? Exploring the Myth of Rum's Sugary Reputation

(Photo: Charles “Duck” Unitas/Unsplash)

Rum as a spirit has long been connected with fruity cocktails and college drinks made with either flavored or spiced rum with pirates adorning the bottle. These associations are common because of the pervasive belief that rum is a cheap sweet beverage that is only good in a tropical cocktail or a Coke. But is rum actually sweet compared to other spirits? 

The Myth 

The basis for the misconception of rum being particularly sweet mostly likely comes from what rum is actually made from. Sugar is the base for all rum in one form or another, from fresh cane juice to molasses to sugar syrup. While it’s completely true that rum must be made from sugar, it is false that the resulting distilled spirit would be sweet. 

Another reason why rum is believed to be sweet is that many people’s first encounter with the spirit is in the form of a spiced, flavored or heavily sweetened version of the spirit. Just like with any spirit, there are versions that are morphed into something new, not to say they aren’t good but they are not the original. 

Spiced rum is usually the culprit when it comes to people’s familiarity with sweet rum. Most all spiced rums have added sugar along with spices and flavorings like vanilla. These products skew the perception of what rum really is and what it should taste like. Many flavored rums also add to the sweet narrative with fruit extracts and high amounts of added sugar.

The belief that rum is sweet remains prominent due to the overwhelming amount of experiences with rum that are not indicative of the spirit itself. For example, many cocktails made with rum contain large quantities of fruit juice and simple syrups. Although the cocktails are not representative rum, the experience of drinking a sickly sweet cocktail can imprint on a person’s perception.

Rum is Made From Sugar 

Is Rum Sweet? Exploring the Myth of Rum's Sugary Reputation

(Photo: Martin Kníže/Unsplash)

Rum is made from fermented sugarcane juice or a byproduct of sugar like molasses, so for many, it makes sense that rum would be sweet. However, in a way, all spirits are distilled from sugar, sometimes just not as directly as rum. All spirits have to go through fermentation which means all spirits have some sugar present before fermentation can take place. 

For grain spirits like whiskey and some gins, the grains go through the process of malting and saccharification to turn the starches into fermentable sugars. Tequila is made from the syrupy nectar of the agave plant, and yet isn’t often affiliated with sweetness in the same way rum is. The mash build used for any spirit will start sweet before fermentation occurs.

The process of fermentation actually converts sugars into alcohol, so there isn’t much sweetness remaining after this process. Sugar is what is used to feed yeast in fermentation, the yeast eats sugar and in turn, produces ethanol. The fermented alcohol (wash) is then distilled which can remove any remaining sugar while the liquid evaporates. The result is a spirit with the unique flavors of its origin but without sugar.

This is not to say that what a consumer purchases in a store has no added sugar. Many rum producers add syrup or molasses after distillation to sweeten and color their products. 

Not All Rum Is Created Equal 

Rum, depending on where it is produced and in what style, can contain large quantities of additives like sugar syrup. This additional sweetener (dosage/dose) makes the rum less dry and more palatable for some and can hide some flaws with the distillation to make the products consistent. 

Whiskey has rules and regulations protecting the labeling of products if other ingredients are added, rum does not have these mandates everywhere which means the products can vary greatly from one another. Rum isn’t alone though, when it comes to additives tequila and gin are just as likely to have dosed products that are made to be much sweeter than the original distilled spirit. 

A few rum-producing countries have regulations that prohibit additives like sugar in rum. Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique all have rules for rums that are bottled in one of these countries of origin. Brands produced in these countries highlight the flavor characteristics of the country of origin and are generally quite dry. 

Give Rum a Chance 

Unadulterated rum isn’t any sweeter or higher in calories than that of other spirits. Rum is roughly the same calories as vodka, gin, whiskey and tequilas. The calories are basically the same across the board for spirits with the same ABV. However, this changes if the spirits have been dosed before bottling. 

Brands like Oxbow, Privateer, Mount Gay, Foursquare, Appleton, Rhum J.M, Renegade and many others produce dryer rums that showcase the product’s origin and base. For a drier rum experience look for rums that say additive-free. If you prefer some sweetness to your rum then look to brands like Don Papa or Diplomatico. Rum can be just as dry or sweet as any other spirit and can be appreciated for its unique qualities.

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Jessica Gleman is the managing editor of Rum Raiders. She received her Ph.D. at the University College of Dublin in Ireland, where she studied the archaeology of ancient alcohol. Jessica has a passion for the alcohol industry, including agriculture, distillation and mixology. When Jessica is not writing about rum, she is also a travel and food enthusiast who loves going around the world and experiencing various cuisines and cultures. She is enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge and expertise and learning even more about this amazing spirit.