When it comes to alcoholic beverages, people have their preferences set in stone and rarely stray from them. Whether it is whisky or rum, brandy or gin, beer or wine, most people have a definite answer when asked about their drink of choice. Interestingly, not many can tell the difference between their favourite drink, and other alcoholic beverages.
Some passionate beer lovers might not even understand how their beloved beverage is made, and a whisky lover might have no answer for the role oak trees play when it comes to creating ‘the water of life.’ When it comes to Whisky and Rum, together they are two of the most well-known and widely consumed alcoholic beverages, yet most people who drink either of them know nothing about the other.
In order to shed some light on the many differences, and also some of the similarities between whisky and rum, let us get to know each of them better. We shall begin by understanding how each of them are made, and then explore their contrasts further. Let’s get started first with Whisky!
What is Whisky?
Whisky, derived from the Gaelic words ‘Uisge Beatha’ which means ‘Water of life’, is a distilled alcoholic beverage. Records point out the first mentions of whisky distillation to the 1400s in Ireland, and the practice eventually made its way to Scotland, and then the rest of the world. Whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage that is created using fermented food grains such as barley, wheat, rye and corn.
It is distilled using a number of different techniques and methods out of which the most common are the pot still, column still, and the Coffey still which is a form of patented column still design by Aeneas Coffey. It was designed to distil continuously, and increase productivity of the column still further but fell out of practice when distillers noticed that its spirit had little discernible character.
Maturation is the next step in the process of preparing whisky. The distilled spirit is filled into oak barrels and left for at least 3 years in order for it to undergo maturation. Contact with the wood for prolonged periods of time allow the spirit to develop its own distinct character, and mellow down. Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey brands are required to undergo maturation in oak barrels for at least 3 years, although many distillers mature their spirit for much longer. In America, legal requirements dictate that any ‘straight Bourbon’ must be matured for at least 2 years in new, charred oak barrels. These oak barrels are exported to Scotland, Ireland and many other countries after a single use.
All countries have their own iterations of distilling, maturing and blending whisky. In Scotland, single malt, and single grain whiskies are blended with each other to create a blended Scotch whisky such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s. In Ireland, most blended whiskeys such as Jameson are created by blending single pot still whiskeys with grain whiskey. There are many differences even when it comes to food grains used for the mash bill. Bourbon whiskey is required to be distilled from a mash bill that is at least 51% corn based, whereas a single malt whisky can only be distilled with 100% malted barley.
Apart from brands like Blenders Pride, Royal Stag and Imperial Blue, there are other Indian whisky brands that opt to lower their prices in order to appeal to a wider consumer base. Officer’s Choice, Royal Challenge, McDowell’s No.1 and Director’s Special are some brands that blend imported Scotch malts with neutral spirit, produced from sugarcane molasses.
We know how Whisky is made in different parts of the world, so let us move and explore all the complexities of Rum, what it is, how it’s made, and how many different types of Rum exist.
What is Rum?
Rum is also a distilled alcoholic beverage like Whisky, but instead of food grains it is distilled with sugarcane molasses, and with sugarcane juice too sometimes. Like whisky, rum too is matured in oak barrels for a specific amount of time in order to age the clear liquid obtained after distillation. Origins of the word ‘Rum’ are unclear with many different, conflicting explanations about them still floating around.
Popular in the Caribbean, Cuba and other American countries, Rum can be divided into two categories – white and dark. There are also a number of flavoured and spiced rums which are often used for mixing and preparing rum based cocktails which are immensely popular.
Rum is often aged in ex-Bourbon oak barrels for a year, or sometimes even lesser. Since Rum is usually produced in regions with a tropical climate, and lots of humidity, it is not expected for it to be matured for extended periods of time. The aging process for Rum is accelerated due to the climate, and unlike whisky making nations with colder weather such as Scotland, Ireland and United States, it matures faster. Sometimes, usually in the Caribbean region, spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves are added to rum to make spiced rum.
Some of the most popular brands in the Rum industry are Havana Club, Tanduay, Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Old Monk. Nearly every Rum brand in the world makes both light and dark rums. White rums usually have a lower alcohol content as compared to dark rums, and they are more popular when it comes to rum based cocktails such as the universal favourite mojito among others.
What are the differences between Whisky and Rum that stand out?
Before we begin to elaborate on all the differences between the two beverages, and tread further on the whisky vs rum debate, we should first go over all the similarities shared by both.
Both Whisky and Rum are distilled alcoholic beverages that are matured for a few years in oak barrels after they undergo distillation. While whisky is distilled from a fermented mash of food grains such as barley, corn, wheat and rye, Rum on the other hand is distilled from sugarcane molasses, or juice.
Whisky and Rum both have certain types that they are classified in. Whisky is classified differently on the basis of its country of origin and also for how it was made. Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, American Bourbon and Indian whisky are all designated regions where whisky is produced, whereas single malt, single pot still, grain whisky, blended whisky, straight Bourbon and rye whiskey are just some of the types of whisky.
Rum too, is classified into different types such as dark rum, white rum, spiced rum and flavoured rum among others. Unlike whisky, not much emphasis is placed on the country of origin for the whisky although one can tell the difference upon careful observation.
Whisky and Rum are both excellent cocktail and mixing base spirits with an astonishing number of cocktails around for both. It is another important similarity for these wonderful drinks.
When it comes to alcohol content, the difference between whisky and rum all but disappears. Both beverages are bottled at 40% ABV, although rum can be bottled at lower strengths, and sometimes higher. Whisky on the other hand does not go below 40% ABV, but does go higher in case of cask-strength whiskies such as the Aberlour A’bunadh, or The Glenlivet Nadurra Series.
Since we are finished with discussing the similarities of Whisky and Rum, it is time for us to uncover what are the key differences between the two. While there are clearly more than a handful of similarities them, there are more than a fair share of differences between whisky and rum too.
A key difference between whisky and rum is the taste of both beverages. The Whisky vs Rum taste debate is not a short one but can be summarized in the following manner. Whisky has a lot of varying flavours and aromas, whereas Rum is definitely the sweeter drink since it is made from sugarcanes. Whisky can have a different profile depending on the mash bill, the maturation and many other factors. Single malt whisky from Islay in Scotland is salty, iodine rich and heavily smoked, whereas Speyside single malt Scotch is light, sweet and fruity. Bourbon has a burnt caramel and aromatic vanilla profile, and some Sherried whiskies are even fruity, sweet and spicy.
Another interesting difference between whisky and rum is their colours. Rum is often either light (read: colourless) or dark in colour, whereas whisky can range from light yellow/brown to the deeper amber and ruby colours. Most whiskies are often artificially coloured, but some are heavily influenced by the barrel from which they absorb their colour.
Since we know that whisky is distilled by fermenting food grains, and rum is distilled from fermented sugarcane molasses, we would like to point out an interesting phenomena that commonly takes place in India. While most premium Indian whiskies such as Blenders Pride, Royal Stag and Imperial Blue choose to blend their product with grain whiskies, other Indian whisky brands conflate whisky and rum to create a cheaper blended whisky. Royal Challenge, McDowell’s No.1, Officer’s Choice and Director’s Special are some examples of whiskies that contain neutral tasting, molasses-based spirit. This was once famously pointed out by Eric Felten of The Wall Street Journal, who spoke of Royal Challenge whisky by calling it a ‘rum flavoured to pass as whisky’ due to its overwhelming content of molasses based spirit.
When it comes to popularity, whisky is by far the more popular drink since it does phenomenally better in sales figures as compared to rum, both in terms of revenue and volume.
Worldwide, whisky brands sold more than US $80,586 Million worth of product in 2019. India lead the way when it came to generating revenue for whisky brands not just in India, but worldwide with more than US $18,791 Million of sales in the last financial year.
The rum industry too has done decent business, racking up more than xxxxx Million in revenue in the previous financial year. xxxxxx was the leading country when it came to rum sales with more than xxxxxx in revenue.
Whether speaking in terms of vibrancy of flavours, quality of spirits and global appeal, the whisky industry does much better than the rum industry. Of course to make a decision in the whisky vs rum – which is better debate would be wildly subjective, but when it comes to a tangible evaluation of facts and figures, whisky does have a massive advantage over rum and other spirit based alcoholic beverages.