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Rum is a distilled spirit made from molasses.

But that simple statement belies the complexity of this outstanding drink, historically and in every other way.

What is rum?

First, the alcohol content varies. It may run anywhere from 40% to 70% or more though the first number is the most common. The color is equally varied, running from perfectly clear through light amber to a very dark brown. Not surprisingly, the taste often varies accordingly. All these differences, to an extent, can be explained by the different historical origins of rum.

It's unclear exactly when and where rum making began, in part because the definition of this fine liquor is so loose. But somewhere around the 17th century it rose to prominence in the Caribbean where the native sugar cane was plentiful, thanks to a climate perfectly suited to growing it. The unboiled juice extracted by milling was called melazas, which evolved into the English word 'molasses'.

The knowledge of how to make rum quickly spread far and wide - to America, Brazil, England and elsewhere as the world's navies came and went.

The two major types, though, light and dark, follow roughly the divisions introduced by the country of origin. Spanish speaking countries, such as Spain, Colombia, Cuba and others, produce chiefly light rum. Countries colonized by the English and their descendants produce mostly dark rum.

The light rums are further divided into light, silver and white though all have a very light taste. The differences are only a matter of degree, and not much of one at that. But to a true connoiseur every increment counts.

Dark rums, by contrast, retain much of the molasses taste along with its color. Though, in truth, a substantial component of that taste is produced artificially by added flavors and spices. In between the two extremes there is a range of gold, amber or flavored rums that nevertheless are made to a great extent by the same process as the others.

That process, while more varied than nearly any other spirit, is in broad outline relatively simple. The cane juice is fermented using cultured or wild yeast for a day to several weeks, depending on the recipe. It's then distilled, where it comes out as a colorless liquid. Lighter rums are made in a column still, with their darker cousins the product of a pot still of the type used for scotch or Cognac.

In the case of the lighter rums, little or no aging takes place. Those from Cuba are classic examples. Darker rums see substantial time in oak casks, up to several years in some cases. The Dominican Republic and Haiti are well-known makers of this style. Those in between may see only a few months or as long as a few years, such as many of the fine spirits of Jamaica. The color isn't chiefly the result of barrel aging, as it is for whiskey, but from the amount of caramel introduced.

A special category called Spiced Rum can be any of the three, where the name comes from the type of spices used in the final product. They also frequently have fruit juices as part of the blend.

While the styles of rum may be all over the map, one thing remains the same. A good rum is a blessing to any country.

Rum was used by the pirates to purchase slaves.

For 300 years the British Royal Navy issued a daily rum ration to sailors. This tradition finished on 31 July 1970, known as Black Tot Day in the navy, when rum was served for the last time.

To read all about spirits, of the earthly kind, the introduction to spirits is the first step.