Most people are familiar with rum, with names like Bacardi, Mount Gay, Meyers, Cruzan, and Captain Morgan standing out as important names in the rum world. Some rums though, are labeled as “rhum,” so what is the difference?
To understand the difference between rum and rhum (an important distinction, but they are both rums at the end of the day), one must first understand some basic and very general stylistic generalizations and history in regards to rum production.
Much of the rum produced in the world is made in the Caribbean, and based on the society that colonized a particular island, stylistic generalizations can be made. Essentially four societies colonized the islands in the Caribbean Sea: the English, Spanish, French, and Dutch. At the time this was happening, these societies wanted to colonize these islands to plant sugar, and rum was essentially a byproduct of the sugar-making process.
While the English, Spanish, and French islands all produce styles of rum, the Dutch, famous distillers in their own right, never began large-scale distillation in the Caribbean. Islands originally colonized by Spain (e.g., Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic) are lighter, crisper rums. Bacardi, originally from Cuba and now being produced in Puerto Rico, is an excellent example of these style of rums. Islands colonized by England (Jamaica and Barbados) produce richer, fuller-bodied rums like Mount Gay and Meyers. It is important to note that both the Spanish and English styles of rums are made from molasses, a by-product of the sugar making process.
The French-colonized islands, like Haiti and Martinique, make rhum. The French divided rum into two subcategories, rum industriel (rums made from molasses) and rhum agricole (rums made from pressed sugarcane juice). Rhum made from sugarcane juice has a different flavor and aroma profile from other rums, and the rhum agricoles produced on the island of Martinique (Rhum Clement, Rhum JM) have achieved French A.O.C. status—the only rums in the world to do so. Rhums made from sugarcane juice are closer to the Brazilian cachaca than molasses-based rums, and many similarities exist, especially among the flavor profiles of younger cachaca and rhums.
So the difference between rum and rhum is whether the rum inside the bottle was made with molasses or sugarcane juice. Understanding a bit about Caribbean history, as well, can help you make a more informed decision when choosing your next rum or rhum during your next visit to the liquor store. Of course, exceptions to stylistic generalizations do exist, so feel free to ask the staff at your liquor store to find the rum or rhum that suits your style.