Last year, as the pandemic forced lockdowns around the world, two curious things happened: firstly, online alcohol sales boomed as people denied nights out in their favourite restaurants and bars resorted instead to buying their tipple over the internet; and secondly, sea shanties—a musical relic of the rum-swigging sailors and pirates of maritime history—suddenly made a viral comeback among teenagers on TikTok thanks to a rendition by Scottish singer Nathan Evans of Wellerman, a 19th-century ditty that has since garnered over seven million views on the social media platform.
Both trends bode well for rum, an oft-neglected category among the primary spirits that is "probably the last major category to premium-ise, and that’s because it was associated with big brands with not a lot of product quality," according to Venezuelan rum producer Diplomático's global marketing director, Edouard Beaslay. This is even more the case in Asia, where rum is almost uniformly a low-quality product, imported en masse to be hastily mixed in mojitos and daiquiris the region over.
Made from the fermentation and distillation of sugarcane byproducts such as molasses or sugarcane juice, rum's ties to Asia arguably stretch back even longer than in the Caribbean, which today is widely regarded as the birthplace of the spirit. Sugarcane was first domesticated 6,000 years ago in New Guinea, while the oldest recorded mention of rum was in the 7th century AD, when Indian Ayurvedic physician Vagbhata suggested in his Heart of Medicine text that fermented sugarcane liquor mixed excellently with mango juice, alongside mentions of a sugarcane wine called shuddi. Among the Malay people, a fermented sugarcane spirit called brum had been drunk for thousands of years.
In Indonesia, batavia arrack (named after the capital of Dutch-colonised Indonesia, modern-day Jakarta) is regarded as a proto-rum, distilled using sugarcane molasses and fermented Javanese red rice. Drunk throughout Southeast Asia—and later in Holland and as far afield as colonial America, thanks to the shipping routes of the Dutch East India Company—batavia arrack was widely used as the main ingredient in punches of that era, eventually being replaced by Jamaican rum.
"Rum has always been a major spirit in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in larger sugar-producing countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines. Most of the these markets are dominated by a few players with some eye-watering volumes—in the millions of cases—predominantly consumed domestically," says co-founder of the Philippines' Don Papa Rum, AJ Garcia.
"There are two characteristics that make for an interesting rum out of Asia. One is the type of sugarcane and molasses you find here, especially in Southeast Asia and in the South Pacific. The different cane species have been growing in the wild in these parts of the world for millennia. The second characteristic that helps us create great rum is our climate. With varied tropical climates and high humidity in many of these rum-producing countries, the liquid ages rapidly and matures beautifully, making for some delicious rum."
Today, gin is heralded as the poster child for a previously outdated spirit turned artisanal, high-quality product that has rapidly (and successfully) naturalised to the many terroirs across Asia. However, with its growing number of small-scale Asian producers, rum could very well have its own heyday and revive the region's long history with this most storied of liquors. Here, we bring together the best rums to be found throughout Asia: