Cane Spirits

Cane spirits are a family of spirits made from distilling fermented sugar/molasses and water. The most well known example is of course Rum. The first production of a Rum like spirit date back to ancient China and India, where beverages made from fermented sugarcane were drunk. Sugarcane was spread by Chinese traders to India and then on into the Middle East. The European nations first discovered sugarcane during the Crusades in the 11th Century and the Spanish and Portuguese planted it in the Canaries and Azores. Christopher Columbus transported cuttings to the Caribbean and it is here that the climate seems ideal for growing and harvesting sugarcane. The massive demand for sugar from Europe led to the establishment of huge plantations and mills in various colonies. The sugarcane was harvested and crushed to extract the juice. The juice was then boiled and chunks of sugar would crystallize and were harvested. The remaining juice was called melazas (Derived from Spanish and French word “miel” for honey ). This was of course converted to the word we know in English: Molasses. People noticed that if this sticky syrup was mixed with water and left in the sun then it would ferment to produce an alcoholic beverage which could be distilled into a spirit. In the colonies it was thought to have medicinal properties and was called rumbullion. This was shortened eventually to Rum (Rhum in French, and Ron in Spanish) The huge trade in the Caribbean brought the attention of many pirates and various rum-runners who were keen to make a profit. Mill and plantation owners would sell the Rum to naval ships at a discounted rate to encourage their presence and hopefully fend off anybody intent on damaging business.

The British navy adopted a daily rum ration which was soon adjusted to be a mixture of equal parts water and rum which became known as Grog.The grog ration was a still part of British naval law until as late as 1970. The trade of Rum in the late 1600s was a massive business. The British navy shipped Rum to England where it was made into punches. It was also traded with the British colonies in America and infamously this trade in Rum and molasses was the first leg in the slavery triangle. The production of Rum in Massachusetts was one of New England’s largest industries at this time. Smuggling, piracy, and corruption were rife in these times. The American Revolution caused massive disruption in this trade and as a result the dominance of Rum waned. It was replaced by whisky in the US, and by gin in England. Many plantations closed and Rum production became localized in the regions where sugarcane was grown. Modern tourism and an increase in the nostalgic interest of classic cocktails has seen a rise in the production of rum. Aged Rums are gaining popularity and the subtle differences of different countries are being explored more widely.

Rum Production

Rum production is not strictly defined and the methods are based on traditional styles  which vary depending on the distiller and country. At its basic level rum is produced from molasses, although many French islands still use sugarcane juice. The alcoholic liquid produced from the sugar cane is then distilled and the resultant distillate is rum.In Jamaica the left over yeast batch from the previous fermentation is used as the starter for the fermentation batch. This “sour-mash” is known as Dunder and helps to determine the final taste and profile. Some producers use single batch pot stills for their rum production, however the majority of distilling is done using column stills which produce a lighter style of Rum. The heavier more flavorful Rums are made using pot stills.

Types of Rums

The classification of Rum is dependent on the producing country as each country has it’s own set of laws governing production. Some countries set a minimum ABV for sale, others have a maximum proof at which the Rum can be distilled. Many countries require a minimum aging period of a year. The aging process determines the color of the Rum: Rum aged in oak casks becomes dark, whereas Rum aged in steel tanks remains without color.
  • Light Rum/White Rum is usually light in body. They are generally aged in stainless steel tanks if at all. These Rums are used primarily as mixers in cocktails.
  • Gold or Amber Rum is generally aged in oak casks for a period of time which smooths out their taste profile and gives a more mellow flavor. They can be sipped or mixed.
  • Dark Rum is aged for extended periods of time in oak casks and are full-bodied and rich in flavor. These Rums are almost exclusively produced from pot stills and are meant for drinking straight-up. There are also some dark Rums which are age dated or vintage dated. These are premium Rums to be savored much like top Cognac.
  • Spiced Rum can be any variety of Rum, although generally white or amber which has been infused with spices for flavor.

Regions of Production

  • Barbados Produces lighter styled Rums. The famous mount Gay distillery was founded here in 1663.
  • Guyana Famous for the heavy Demerara Rums which are aged for long periods and produce a rich style of Rum.
  • Haiti The Rums here are made in the traditional French style using oak aging and pot stills to produce full-flavored Rums.
  • Jamaica Traditionally produced in pot stills, this country produces full flavored Rums with very notable aromatic qualities.
  • Martinique A French island with the only AOP for Rum. These Rhums are aged for extended periods of time and are often compared to high quality brandies.
  • Puerto Rico This large island is known for light styled Rums which are primarily used for mixing in cocktails.
  • Brazil Produces a Rum known as Cachaça.


Cachaça is produced in Brazil and is made from distilled fermented sugarcane juice. A lot of Rums are made from molasses, whereas Cachaça is made from the sugarcane juice. Cachaça. Has many different synonyms, often called aquadente, pinga, or Brazillian Rum. The white or unaged style of Cachaça. Is bottled immediately after distilling and it is used in the traditional caipirinha drink. The premium style is the dark or aged Cachaça. This is generally aged for up to 3 years in oak casks and is usually sipped rather than mixed.

Cane Spirit Producers

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Producer PictureAbout the Producer
Batavia-Arak van oostenIt is a taste that has traveled the world from the Dutch East Indies, unique for its ability to both add depth and lift the aromas of citrus and chocolate. From the late 17th to 19th century, in an age when “Punch” was a celebration of all things then exotic – citrus, sugar, and spice, no Punch was without a true Batavia Arrack. In pre-Prohibition America, Batavia Arrack and most notably the Swedish Punsch were essential to many now-classic cocktails. Beyond these uses, Batavia Arrack is also today found in boutique European chocolates and cocktails at Bali resorts.

Batavia Arrack comes only from the Island of Java. It is distilled from sugarcane and fermented red rice, using chinese pot stills and characteristic teak vats. In pre-Prohibition America, Batavia Arrack was essential to many now-classic cocktails.

Before the age of cocktails we had punch, and no spirit was more celebrated and sought for punch than Batavia Arrack. The trade of Batavia Arrack dates as far back as the early 17th century, when Dutch colonialists of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) found this alluring complement to the spice trade that brought them East, and soon found its passage with these voyageurs to Amsterdam and onward to growing demand in London and old New York. More so than rums, gins or other spirits, the Batavia Arrack had then as now the extraordinary effect of elevating the aromatics of the spices and citrus notes. While historical circumstance eventually curtailed the availability and affordability of Batavia Arrack, it remains a highly sought ingredient for boutique chocolatiers and pastry chefs.

It's importance with classic cocktails cannot be understated. New York bartender Jerry Thomas's 1862 imprint, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant's Companion (still considered the foundation-text for the fine art of mixing drinks) dedicates the first section of the book to Punches, with 78 recipes, many of which call for Batavia Arrack. Cocktail books still to this day highlight recipes with Batavia Arrack (or the Swedish Punch made from it), no matter the challenge of finding the spirit.
El DoradoThe story of rum in Guyana started in the 1640’s with the introduction of sugar cane by the early European settlers. But it was not until distilling was introduced into the new territories by the British in the 1650s that the foundation of Demerara Rum production was laid down.

The Dutch came to Guyana and established the first settlements of Essequibo and Berbice, introducing the cultivation of sugar cane in the 1640’s along the coastal plain and the banks of the great rivers.
By 1658 sugar was being produced in Guyana and within three years the first shipments sailed for Holland.
By 1670, every sugar estate had a small still attached to it. In the same year, the local sugar cane producers formed an exporting co-operative, and by the 1700s there were well over 300 independent estates involved in producing their own unique rums from the molasses - a byproduct of sugar production.
In 1752 the third Guyana settlement, Demerara, was established on the banks of the great Demerara River.

The unique flavor and taste of Guyana Rum is much due to the tropical climate and also the 300 years of production along the banks of the Demerara river.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries more and more of the sugar estates and distilleries merged during the early twentieth century culminating in the amalgamation of all the various stills, equipment and expertise in 1998 by Demerara Distillers Limited at the last remaining Estate, Diamond, on the East Bank of the Demerara River.

La FavoriteThe largest of the French West Indies islands, Martinique is home to eight rhum agricole distilleries.
The La Favorite distillery, built in 1842, originally employed a water wheel to power the cane-crushing mills, the first step in sugar production. At that time the estate included two sugar refineries and a small rum distillery with five fermentation vats, a small boiler and copper pot still. Bankruptcy in 1875, followed by the hurricane of 1891 closed the estate until 1909 when Henri Dormoy purchased the property. Dormoy built a railway through the plantation to transport fresh cane from the surrounding countryside to the distillery where he installed a new distillation column and steam engine.
During World War I the new distillery produced alcohol used in explosives manufacture. In 1920, Henri Dormoy built the Chateau de La Favorite, and launched La Favorite rhum in France. Following his death in 1938, André Dormoy steered the growing company as head of the family business. Today, Paul Dormoy is the third generation to continue the tradition of quality on which his grandfather rebuilt this historic estate. In 2004, an additional copper distillation column was installed to increase quality production. Aging capacity has also been increased to meet the growing demand for artisan rhum agricole from small family distilleries where quality is the key to success in a competitive market place.

La Favorite Rhum Vieux Coeur de rhum is blended from stocks of rhums aged at least three years. Aging the heart of the rhum in used American whisky and bourbon barrels imparts a dark brown color that reflects a deep, reddish brown hue.
NeissonFounded in 1931 by Jean and Adrien Neisson, the smallest distillery on Martinique has enjoyed considerable success due in large part to a unique combination of rich volcanic soil, plentiful sunshine and a family’s dedication to fine rhum. Today, Grégory Vernant, Jean Neisson’s grandson, continues the passionate work of making Neisson Rhum Agricole. Neisson is a popular drink in this part of the islands and can be found in Martinique bars and luxury hotels. Neisson Rhum Agricole has a distinct fresh sugar cane aroma and smooth finish.
From only 40 hectares of sugar cane fields located on what is known as the Habitation Thieubert, near the coastal town of Carbet, only about 400,000 liters of Rhum Neisson are produced annually.

In the last decade the distillery has undergone extensive modernization including a new Savalle-type copper distillation column, stainless-steel fermentation vats and the acquisition of large, new French oak vats in which the rhum rests before it is bottled. Hundreds of small French and American oak barrels have also been added to the aging inventory in an effort to meet the increasing demand for this much sought-after rhum.
In keeping with his grandfather’s secrets for making superior rhum, Grégory continues to use only sugar cane harvested manually from the fields surrounding the distillery. Chemicals pesticides are not used and the fiels are never burnt before the cane is harvested. The slow, three-day fermentation is an integral part of making Neisson rhum as is the specially-designed, copper, Savalle-type distillation column.

Scarlet IbisScarlet Ibis is very limited and originally imported for one of New York’s premier cocktail bars, Death & Co.
Trinidad Distillers Limited is the production company under the Angostura Ltd. umbrella. The raw material for this rum is imported molasses most of which comes from the Caribbean basin including the Dominican Republic, Guyana and Panama.

The state of the art multi-column still has been upgraded and expanded since my first visit to this facility in 1993. Today there are a total of seven columns which are used to produce a range of rums from neutral spirits which are aged and blended by a number of companies including Angostura.
TDL and Angostura work with the local municipality to reduce the impact of the waste product streams from the distillery through an integrated system of distillery and municipal initiatives. Among the challenges faced by TDL are a lack of space at the distillery around which has grown a thriving industrial and residential area.

Scarlet Ibis Rum shows evidence of its 3-5 years in small oak casks by its color which is between pale straw to light honey. After warmed slightly in my glass the nose reveals a fairly tame amount of alcohol considering the 98 proof. Delicate aromas of brown sugar and dried fruit blend well with the alcohol that is evident but not as dominate as you’d expect. Overall a pleasant nose. First sip confirms the proof with warmth up front. It has a medium body and slightly sweet flavors with a hint of oak and allspice giving way to an unapologetic bold, warm, and dry finish.
Smith and CrossThis rum represents the distinctively flavorful and aromatic style that made Jamaica rum famous in the late 19th and early 20th century. Containing only Wedderburn and Plummer pot still distillates, famous for their notes of exotic fruits and spice. The incomparable complexity of this rum delivers a tour de force of flavor that historically made it a cornerstone of many classic rum drinks. The mark of Smith & Cross traces its lineage to 1788 as one of England’s oldest producers of sugar and spirits. Over time, the firm and its partners became prominent handlers of Jamaica Rum, with extensive underground cellars along the river Thames.

The great tradition of this style is reflected in the famous drink recipes that call specifically for Jamaica rum. Make no mistake, this is not a sipping rum by contemporary standards. Upon initial pour, allow a minute to open up before tasting.

Through the 19th century and into the earlier 20th century, Jamaica Rum was revered for its deep full flavors and pleasing aromas. In this era, rum fell into three general classes, Local Trade Quality, Export Trade Quality (mainly an ester-intensive "High Continental" style for the German market), and Home Trade Quality for UK (and US) consumption. In the mid 20th century appeared the more familiar "Common Clean" light and/or sweeter styles on offer today, made with the column-still product introduced in the late 1950s.
The heavier bodied Wedderburn and medium bodied Plummer styles were made with a combination of the molasses, skimmings, cane juice, and syrup bottoms from sugar production, and the dunder of the previous rum production. A Jamaica tradition has been the use of wild yeasts indigenous to the region in the fermentation process, which is arguably a major contributor to the special body and flavor. The end result is a rum of tremendous and local character.