Mexican Rum is On The Rise Chasing Mezcal’s Legacy

A new chapter is unfolding, one that mirrors the ascent of mezcal but with a protagonist of its own: Mexican rum. This brand-new rum is making waves because it stands out for having a rich and distinctive history that more well-known spirits have neglected for far too long. Rum production has a rich history and culture that may be explored across Michoacán, Oaxaca, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the mist-enshrouded cloud forests and verdant rainforests.

Originating in the 1500s with the arrival of sugarcane to Mexico, the tale of Mexican rum (known as aguardiente de caña in less populous areas) is where it was first introduced. This introduction was the work of Filipino sailors and Spanish colonists, who found the Mexican climate ideal for growing the sugarcane necessary for rum production. Yet, this new venture faced immediate challenges. The Spanish crown, concerned about protecting the market for its brandy, implemented a ban on the production of local spirits. This prohibition was aimed at curbing the domestic production of all spirits, including rum, and lasted well into the late 18th century.

Despite the ban, the spirit of Mexican rum-making didn’t fade away. Instead, it thrived in secrecy, thanks to the determination and ingenuity of rural distillers. Operating in hidden locales, they continued to distill their aguardiente de caña, passing down their knowledge and techniques through generations. This underground period of production helped mold a distinct identity for Mexican rum, separate from its Caribbean counterparts, embodying a resilience that is deeply embedded in the local culture.

What is “Fire Water”?

The term “fire water” is a colloquial expression that has been used historically to describe distilled spirits, particularly those with a high alcohol content. The origin of this term is deeply rooted in the early interactions between European colonizers and Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is believed that Native Americans first used the phrase to describe the potent European spirits that traders and settlers had introduced to them. These spirits, much stronger than the fermented beverages indigenous peoples were accustomed to, were likened to “water that burns,” hence the term “fire water.”

With Mexican rum, the term “fire water” underscores the spirit’s potent nature and the fiery sensation it can produce when consumed. Aguardiente, which translates to “burning water” in Spanish, echoes this sentiment and directly references the spirit’s strong alcoholic content and the warming, sometimes burning sensation it leaves in the throat.

The Artisans of Sierra Norte

In the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, distiller Elisandro Gonzalez and his cousin Edgar are at the forefront of reviving this rich heritage with their brand, Dakabend. Their story demonstrates the long history of rum production in the region, where colonists introduced sugar cane and coffee, resulting in the simultaneous production of panela (a type of brown sugar) and rum. This traditional spirit, known locally as chinguirito during the times of Spanish prohibition, was often distilled in secrecy by women using simple, Filipino-inspired techniques, highlighting the ingenuity and resilience of the local producers.

The prohibition finally lifted, but the Mexican rum industry faced new challenges with the arrival of Bacardí in the 1930s and the NAFTA accord in the 1990s, which favored large, transnational brands. This led to a dominance of light-bodied, industrially produced rums from molasses. Small-scale producers, who are capturing the palates of bartenders and connoisseurs alike with their handcrafted spirits, are now championing a renaissance of artisanal sugar cane distillates.

It’s Become An Ultra-Artisanal Trend

This new wave of Mexican rum production is characterized by its artisanal approach, drawing comparisons to traditional mezcal in its diversity and complexity. In regions like Veracruz, Tabasco, and Puebla, where sugar cane abounds, small-scale distillers are crafting spirits that embody the essence of their local environments. The United States is just beginning to embrace this ultra-artisanal trend, with two main styles capturing the interest of enthusiasts: Charanda from Michoacán and fresh-pressed aguardiente de caña from the mountains of Oaxaca, akin to cachaça and rhum agricole. Here’s what you can expect from these two main styles:

Charanda from Michoacán

  • Charanda is a unique spirit from the state of Michoacán, Mexico. It enjoys a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), meaning it must adhere to specific production methods and come from a designated geographic area to be labeled as Charanda.
  • It can be made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, sugarcane molasses, or a combination of both. This versatility in raw materials contributes to the depth of flavors found in Charanda.
  • Charanda is known for its smooth, sweet profile with varying tastes depending on the specific production methods and ingredients used. Some Charandas may hint at floral and fruity notes, while others offer a more robust, earthy taste.
  • Beyond its distinctive taste, Charanda represents the rich agricultural and distilling traditions of Michoacán. It’s not just a drink but a celebration of the region’s history, terroir, and the skill of its distillers.

Fresh-Pressed Aguardiente de Caña from Oaxaca

  • The Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca is known for its optimal climate and topography for sugarcane farming, which is where this variety of rum is from. Akin to the Brazilian cachaça and the French Caribbean rhum agricole, it is made in a certain way.
  • Made from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, it may occasionally be sweetened with piloncillo, or unrefined cane sugar, to speed up the fermentation process. The bright flavor is enhanced by this fresh juice.
  • Anticipate a rustic, grassy, flowery character reminiscent of Oaxaca’s untamed landscapes. Rums made with piloncillo often have a touch of sweetness and depth to them.
  • Most distilleries in Oaxaca that produce fresh-pressed aguardiente de caña work on a modest scale and rely on time-honored techniques. An exceptional, one-of-a-kind character is guaranteed by this handcrafted method. The Regional

Flavors and Styles

The allure of these artisanal rums lies in their hyper-regional characteristics, from the equipment and techniques used in their production to the distinct flavor profiles influenced by the soil and microclimates of their regions. Much like mezcal, each batch of rum offers a unique tasting experience, reflecting the rich biodiversity and cultural heritage of Mexico. Now, we will have a look at the distinctive equipment and techniques that play crucial roles in creating the nuanced flavors and characteristics of artisanal Mexican rum:

Traditional Stone Mills (Trapiches)

  • Used for crushing sugarcane to extract the juice, traditional stone mills, known locally as “tranches,” are a common sight in artisanal rum production. These mills are often powered by animals or water, reflecting a harmony with the local environment.
  • The operation of tropics requires skill and understanding of the sugarcane’s texture and moisture content, showcasing the distillers’ deep connection to their raw materials. This method preserves the natural sweetness and flavors of the cane, which are essential for the rum’s final taste.

Wooden Fermentation Vats

  • The sugarcane juice is fermented in wooden vats after extraction. The native woods used to make these containers impart distinct flavors to the rum as a result of the wood’s inherent characteristics and the microbes it contains.
  • The distiller’s skill and dedication to creating a spirit that captures the essence of their environment are evident in the selection of wood and the meticulous care given to these vats. The craftspeople hold in high regard the spontaneous chemistry that takes place when the wood and fermenting liquid meet.

Copper Pot Stills

  • Distillation often occurs in copper pot stills, valued for their ability to conduct heat evenly and remove sulfides from the alcohol, ensuring a smoother spirit. These stills, sometimes handcrafted and passed down through generations, are central to the distillation process.
  • The mastery of distillation is a craft honed over years of experience. Distillers adjust the heat and flow of the distillate by intuition and tradition, embedding each batch of rum with a signature touch that cannot be replicated by industrial means.

Open-Air Fermentation

  • Many artisanal producers favor open-air fermentation, exposing the sugarcane juice to the wild yeasts and bacteria native to their specific microclimate. This method allows for a spontaneous fermentation process that is wholly unique to the region.
  • Embracing the unpredictability of open-air fermentation requires a deep understanding of the local environment and the seasonal variations that affect fermentation. Distillers monitor this process closely, guiding it with a gentle hand to ensure the desired outcome.

Aging in Reclaimed Barrels

  • When it comes to aging, some artisanal rum producers opt for reusing barrels from other spirits or wine, which imbues the rum with additional layers of flavor. The choice of barrels influences the color, taste, and aroma of the final product.
  • The selection and management of these barrels demonstrate the distillers’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. By integrating flavors from the barrel’s previous contents, they create a complex and multi-dimensional spirit that tells a story of its past and present.

Mexican rum’s growing international acclaim highlights Mexico’s deep-rooted distilling heritage and showcases the country’s capacity for innovation and perseverance. It offers a rich tapestry of flavors and history for enthusiasts eager to deepen their understanding of spirit-making. Far from merely gaining popularity, Mexican rum is thriving, encouraging everyone to appreciate the unique stories and tastes each bottle embodies.