Categorically Flawed – How Rum’s Classifications Hold It Back

rum production

Think for a moment about your vehicle. Or if you don’t drive, picture the nicest car you’ve ever been in. What would you answer to someone who asked what it kind of car it was? Odds are you wouldn’t answer “Red” or “Purple.” It’s also a safe bet you wouldn’t reply, “An aluminum frame, two door, four cylinder front-mounted-engine car.” And as oddly specific as that sounds, it still may not convey what it is – after all, you might be talking about a Mini Cooper or a compact pickup truck.

Even specifying a brand doesn’t help. Simply by naming Chevrolet or BMW, you could be referring to a super sporty race car like a Corvette, or a sport utility. We’re used to using all sorts of categories for vehicles (color, manufacturer, size, country of origin, intended use), and we instinctively use the right category to describe the situation at hand. When watching for our Uber to arrive, we care more about the color– not whether it was made in Japan versus Brazil. But when it’s time to register that vehicle, the make and model are paramount.

What does all this have to do with spirits? Well, the world of rum shares many close similarities to the vehicle classifications above: The community instinctively talks about “white,” “Jamaican,” “column stilled,” “English style,” and “overproof” rums. We instinctively understand and use many different rum classification systems, although we may not overtly think of them as such.

The problem with these long-standing rum designations is that we lump vastly different spirits into ill-defined and often flat out meaningless categories – they convey little or no useful information. That in turns leads to broad misunderstandings about rum, which holds it back from greater acceptance in the world of distilled spirits. Rum is a noble spirit, on par with the finest Scotch whisky, Cognac, or Bourbon. But pervasive talk about “silver rum,” for example, makes that acceptance by a wider audience much more difficult.

All manner of spirits have classifications specific to that spirit. Take Cognac, for example. We’ve all heard the terms VS, VSOP, XO, and hors d’âge. These classifications have precise meanings–defined by a French agency and oriented around the minimum time spent aging. Peruvian Pisco has Puro, Acholado, and Moste Verde designations, which describe the types of grapes used and fermentation process used. And when talking about Scotch, we specify single malt or blended, which have precise, regulated definitions.

However, when it comes to rum, precious few categories and specifiers unambiguously indicate something meaningful about the rum in the bottle. Let’s take a walk through the common categories to understand why they’re so ineffectual for the spirit. I’ve deliberately ordered this list from worst to best in order to build up to a critical point in the conclusion.

Colors – White, Silver, Light, Gold, Dark, Black

The color of a rum has absolutely no bearing on its taste, how long it’s been aged, where it originates, or its alcohol content. Judging a rum by its color makes as much sense as selecting a vehicle by color alone.

So-called “white,” “silver,” or “light” rums may be unaged–or may have years of aging followed by carbon filtering to remove color. When any rum comes off the still, it’s naturally clear. Many distillers sell unaged rum, perhaps adding a bit of water to bring down the proof, and that’s absolutely fine. These rums are typically raw and flavorful, and work well in mixed drinks. However, it’s ridiculous to compare an unaged “white” rums side-by-side to aged and filtered rums like Plantation 3 Stars, Banks 5 Island, or Denizen Aged White rum. All of these are crafted blends of rums from different Caribbean islands that were filtered, and are quite enjoyable neat or perhaps over ice. And, of course, will also make a better cocktail.

Beyond merely the flavor, we come to the issue of strength. The “white” designation is easily applied to clear Jamaican rums like Wray & Nephew overproof. At 126 proof, it’s a funky ester bomb of a rum that packs serious heat. Woe to the uninformed bartender who grabs Wray & Nephew overproof rather than the innocuous Bacardi Blanco because they both look “silver.”

The “gold” category is particularly fraught with peril. There’s a common misconception that the more dark (“golden”) the rum, the longer it’s been aged. However, the amount of color induced by aging in oak barrels is highly dependent on a number of factors, including:

  • The age of the cask: The more times a cask is used, the more “neutral” it becomes–and the less color and flavor it imparts.
  • The amount of cask charring: Some casks are lightly toasted, others are heavily charred. The latter will typically impart more coloring.
  • Where the aging occurred: The rate of aging is very different in the Caribbean compared to cooler climates. Many independently bottled rums are aged in Europe, rather than the Caribbean.

There are plenty of premium rums– aged fifteen years or more, with no coloring added–that exhibit a straw color that’s far lighter than Bacardi Anejo, aged up to three years. This seems to be especially true with rums from independent bottlers like Duncan Taylor that age in Scotland.

What’s even more insidious about the “gold” category is that the rum’s hue may be partially or entirely the result of caramel coloring. A perfect example of this is my beloved Hampden Gold. It’s a super funky Jamaican from Hampden Estates, but the distillery is completely up front that this spirit is unaged product with coloring added.

And then there’s “dark” or “black” rum. Well-known examples include Gosling’s Black Seal, Myers’s, Coruba, Plantation Original Dark, and Hamilton Jamaican Black. They surely can’t be the result of decades in the barrel, right? At the relatively inexpensive price point these rums sell for, the answer should be an obvious “no.” It’s practically guaranteed that the coloring in a dark rum comes from spirit caramel, which adds color without strongly impacting taste. In my experience, overuse of spirit caramel tends to add a touch of bitterness, but given that most “dark” rums are primarily intended for use in tropical cocktails, it’s often not that big a deal.

A pot still at Hampden Estate, Jamaica
A pot still at Hampden Estate, Jamaica

Alcohol Content – Overproof, Navy, Gunpowder

The use of “overproof” as a rum category is a grave disservice to the consumer. Over what proof? For the sake of argument, let’s assume 40 percent ABV (80 proof) is normal. You’ll find many rums in the 86 or 90 proof range. Are they overproof? What about Smith & Cross, at 114 proof? Surely, it’s overproof. However, even higher on the ABV scale are the Jamaican overproof rums like Rum Fire and Wray & Nephew, coming in at 126 to 130 proof. And let’s not forget the big guns – the 151-proof beasts like Bacardi 151 and Lemon Hart 151.  If Smith & Cross at 57 percent ABV is overproof, does that make Lemon Hart 151 at 75.5 percent mega-proof? (And yes, there are even higher proof rums, but I’ve made my point.)

Picture a (sloppily written) cocktail recipe that calls for overproof rum. Here’s one such disaster, the Caribbean Punsch from Absolut Drinks:

  • 2 Parts Overproof Rum
  • 1 Part Malibu Rum
  • 1½ Parts Lemon Juice
  • 1 Part Amaretto
  • 1 Part Galliano
  • 1 Part Grenadine
  • Pineapple Juice

Leaving aside the obvious mixological horrors (Amaretto and Malibu…really? And how much pineapple juice? A dash or a can?), there’s “2 parts overproof rum.” What to do here?

Two ounces of Captain Morgan 100- proof Spiced isn’t going to screw up this recipe any more than it already is. But two ounces Bacardi 151 makes this a fast trip to “One and Done – Where’s that toilet?”

The rum purist in me is also compelled to mention that, while “searing heat” is the first flavor note most people associate with 151 proof rum, when properly used as a base for cocktails, there are vast flavor differences between Bacardi 151 (i.e., “not that much flavor”) and Lemon Hart 151, which is rich and smoky.

As for the Navy and Gunpowder designations, they’re innocuous; a fun reference to a past history of rum traveling around in barrels and sailors consuming it on a daily basis – see Black Tot. Generally speaking, when I see “navy strength”, I simply translate that to “around 114 proof”. That particular proof (in theory) is the minimum alcohol content that allows a mixture of rum and gunpowder to still ignite. Sailors of yore absolutely didn’t want a leaky rum barrel to accidentally render their gunpowder useless.

The most universally recognized navy strength rum these days is Smith & Cross, at, you guessed it, 114 proof. And Pusser’s recently introduced a Gunpowder rum that (strangely) clocks in a tad lower at 109 proof.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking navy strength and navy style are the same however. While there’s no official definition of navy style, it’s generally accepted to be a blend of rums from different Caribbean basin countries, typically including Guyana and Jamaica. The British navy in particular bought rums from all over, shipped them back to England, and blended them before sending the results back out on navy ships for consumption by British sailors. These days, Pusser’s is the most well-known navy style rum, but Sweden’s Gunroom Spirit has a particularly interesting navy style rum at a powerful 130 proof.

Sipping vs. Mixing

It’s natural to mentally segregate rums based on price point into sipping and mixing categories. In short, mixing rums are inexpensive enough to use in cocktails, while sipping rums (supposedly) are more pleasing on the palate and should be savored neat, or perhaps with just an ice cube. However, there are plenty of rums on my shelf that most people label as “mixing” rums, but I’d happily sip neat. Rums like Smith & Cross, Denizen Merchant’s Reserve, or El Dorado 8 year are a few examples.

The pernicious issue with the “sipping rum” label is that it’s become somewhat synonymous with highly sweetened rums sold at a premium price point:  Think Zacapa 23, El Dorado 12, Abuelo 12, Diplomatico Reserva Exlusiva, Plantation 20th Anniversary, and Cartavio XO. I own all of these rums, and enjoy them on occasion. However, I understand that they’re very different experiences, flavor-wise, compared to premium rums like Appleton 21, Doorly’s 12, Mount Gay XO, or any number of independently bottled rums from brands like Mezan, Duncan Taylor, or Samaroli. All of those rums are free of sugar and (presumably) free of additives: Just rum and a barrel, nothing more required.

The debate about additives in rum has been going on for a while now and likely won’t abate soon. However, the growing expectation that sipping rums need to be sweetened to the point of being nearly a liqueur is harmful to the efforts being made to showcase rum’s true value–and to encourage aficionados of other spirits to give rum a fair shake as a serious spirit. Newcomers to rum often say a sipping rum is “smooth,” not realizing it’s likely the added sweeteners giving that impression, rather than masterful distilling and aging.

Nobody expects their nice sipping Scotch whisky to be highly sweetened. In fact, you couldn’t call it Scotch whisky if you did. So why then has sweetness become the expectation for a sipping rum? The irony here is that many of the rums considered “mixing rums” have far less or no sugar added. This makes me gravitate toward them even more for sipping.

Dunder tanks at Hampden Estate, Jamaica
Dunder tanks at Hampden Estate, Jamaica

Solera

The solera aging process has a long and distinguished history. Originating on the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain and Portugal), it was first used to age wines, sherry, and brandy. The solera system uses a system of many barrels, stacked in several layers. Newly made wine or spirit goes into the topmost barrels. The finished product is taken from the bottom (oldest) barrels. Periodically, each layer of barrels is partially refilled from the row above. Each drop of liquid spends time in each layer of barrels, and because of the periodic mingling across many barrels, the finished product changes very little over time.

Given the large influence of Spain in the rum-producing Caribbean, it’s only natural that the solera process would take hold there. The most well-known solera aged rums today include Zacapa, Dictador, Santa Teresa, and Cartavio.

Recently, solera aging has become somewhat of a dirty word in the rum community. Not because it can’t create great results, but because marketers often use the term to mislead. For instance, Ron Zacapa Centanario–with “23” prominent on the label–is a solera-aged rum, but gives the impression that the rum in the bottle has been aged for 23 years. However, with the solera process, there is no true age. Every drop is different. Some molecules may have spent thirty years in the solera, while others may have spent far less than a decade.

At best, you can specify an average age for a solera-aged rum. For a drinking public who understands an age statement like “23 years” to mean every ounce in the bottle has spent at least 23 years in a barrel, solera aging is confusing and often leads to over-inflated expectations about how much aging has actually occurred.

Beyond the actual age, another issue with self-described solera rums is brands simply misusing the term: Aging your rum in a series of unrelated barrel types doesn’t make it solera. Sure, you might first age a rum in ex-bourbon casks, then a French oak, ex-brandy cask, and then a Pedro Ximinez sherry cask. The end result may be delicious, but it’s not a true solera.

Country of Origin – Jamaica, Puerto Rico, etc.

Frequently cocktail recipes specify a rum ingredient by country of origin. For example:

  • 1 oz. Jamaican rum

or

  • 0.5 oz Puerto Rican rum

The concern here is that any country making a rum very likely makes a broad range of product, from raw, unaged spirit to premium, long aged rum.

Among rum aficionados, we have a general understanding that rums from certain countries have an identifiable flavor profile. We expect Jamaican rum to be funky and redolent of overripe banana. We expect Guyanese rums to be smoky and earthy. Rums from Cuba and other ex-Spanish colonies, being column stilled, are typically lighter and get more of their flavor from barrel aging rather than a long-fermented mash like Jamaican rums. And we expect rhum from Martinique and Guadeloupe to have the grassy, funky flavor associated with fresh-pressed cane juice, generally referred to as agricole.

That said, Wray & Nephew Overproof is completely different in flavor, alcohol content, and color from Appleton 12, despite both being Jamaican. In fact, both are made by the same company (J. Wray & Nephew). If you’re making a cocktail and you care about what it tastes like, these differences between these “Jamaican” rums matter. Likewise, specifying a Bajan or Demerara run in a cocktail recipe without any further context like age or proof is just sloppy.

Don’t get me wrong–categorizing rums by country can be useful when done in the right context. Countries like Barbados, Martinique, and Jamaica have basic regulations in place about what’s allowed in rum production within their borders, or more accurately, what can be labeled as Jamaican rum, for instance. They also have relatively few distilleries and a strong cultural identity around what rum from their country tastes like. Other countries like Trinidad and St. Lucia, for example, only have one large-scale distillery, so that distillery’s style is effectively the country’s style.

On the other end of the spectrum is American rum. Hundreds of distilleries across the U.S. make rum in all manner of styles–some from molasses, others from sugar or cane syrup. One Hawaiian distillery even makes an agricole-style rum using cane juice grown locally. Pot stilled and column stilled – both are in widespread use. Most American rums are unaged or very lightly aged, but then there’s the crazy flash-aging utilized by Lost Spirits. The diversity and learning is great, but we’re a long way off from anything resembling a cohesive American style rum.

The point of all this is that categorizing rums by country is useful in some situations, but not in others.

Colonies – Spanish / French / English

A common device to illustrate rum’s huge breadth utilizes the centuries-old history of the Caribbean basin. The European powers, including England, Spain, and France, colonized all the major Caribbean islands and the eastern sides of what is now North, Central, and South America. More than once, these colonies changed hands depending on the rise and fall of that country’s naval power. Jamaica is a prime example of an island that changed colonial overlords, transitioning from the Spanish to the British in 1655.

Islands like Barbados, Jamaica, and St. Lucia, and South American colonies like British Guyana are associated with the English style of rum. Loosely defined, that refers to rum made from molasses rather than cane juice. This style of rum is also associated with pot stills, which (generally speaking) create a bigger, bolder flavor profile than column stills. This isn’t to say that all English-style rums are completely pot stilled, however. Many, in particular rums from Barbados, are a masterful blend of pot and column distillate.

The French style of rum is very frequently referred to as agricole, which translated to English means agricultural. It’s primarily made on the French West Indies islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, using freshly pressed cane juice, rather than molasses. It’s almost exclusively column distilled. The resulting rhum is often described as grassy, vegetal, or funky– an acquired taste for many. If aged, the wood used is frequently French oak, similar to what’s used to age Cognac, and which imparts a flavor distinctly different from American oak (typically ex-bourbon) used in non-French locales.

It’s important to note that France has precise regulations on what can be labeled an Agricole rhum, including the use of local cane juice. These rules are an example of an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). These French regulations don’t mean other producers elsewhere can’t make rhum in the same manner. They just can’t be labeled as agricole in France or its colonies. Non-French producers have an unfortunate habit of labeling their products as agricole without truly understanding what that means. (My friend Josh at Inu a Kena has an informative rant on this.)

For fans of cachaça, it’s worth noting that this spirit is conceptually closest to the French style. Both use fresh cane juice, and column distilling is frequently used in cachaça production, but there are subtle differences beyond that, such as types of wood used – Brazil has dozens of natives woods such as Amburana that induce interesting flavors not found in rhum agricole

Spanish style rums are (you guessed it) made in countries formerly controlled by Spain, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Colombia. While they are molasses-based like English style rums, they’re mostly from column distillate and tend to be lighter in flavor. Generally speaking, more of Spanish style rum’s distinct flavor comes from the barrel aging process than pot-stilled English style rums.  Bacardi, the world’s bestselling rum brand, is considered Spanish style.

While English, French, and Spanish are somewhat useful terms for lumping to together similar production practices, i.e. source material and distillation technique, they’re woefully imprecise beyond that. Rums from Guyana (Demerara) and Jamaica are vastly different in flavor profile, but are both considered English style. Differences in source material, mash formulations, and fermentation techniques can yield vastly different outcomes, even though other parts of the process are similar.

Of the three styles, rhums in the French style tend to be more similar to each other than English or Spanish style rums. This is due in part to the more defined regulations for what constitutes an Agricole AOC rum.

Traditional column still at Long Pond, Jamaica
Column still at Long Pond, Jamaica

Gargano Classification

In the past year, Luca Gargano of Velier and Foursquare master distiller Richard Seale have put forth and promoted a classification system commonly known as the Gargano classification. In Richard’s words, the four categories are:

  • Pure Single Rum – 100 percent pot (i.e., batch) still
  • Single Blended Rum – a blend of only pot still and traditional column still
  • Rum – rum from a traditional column still
  • Industrial Rum – modern multi-column still

The Gargano system is entirely oriented on two aspects of rum production – the type of distillation and blending. It does not cover these portions of the process that also affect the flavor:

  • Source material, e.g. molasses, cane juice, cane syrup, etc.
  • Fermentation – Longer fermentation typically creates more flavors, at the expense of alcohol content. The Jamaican producers in particular will ferment up to a month to create high-ester, highly flavorful rums. Admittedly this is hard to categorize, but the fermentation process has a dramatic effect on flavor.
  • Aging – Neither duration nor type of cask is part of the categorization.

The Gargano classification is not about flavor profile or any of the above. I highly doubt you’ll ever find the Gargano classification used in a drink recipe. So what good is it then? Again, quoting Richard:

”The order of the categories is an order for authenticity, complexity, and real intrinsic value. It is not an order of preference.”

Reading between the lines, it appears to me that Richard and Luca are seeking to highlight the difference between traditional rum distilleries and modern mega-factories with massive, multi-column stills creating near-tasteless distillate. Rum makers using traditional methods—such as Appleton, Mount Gay, and Foursquare–are competing in the same price-sensitive rum market alongside huge producers like Bacardi and Captain Morgan, which fall into the Industrial Rum category. The products from the mega-producers are far less expensive and vastly less complex in terms of flavor.

Generally speaking, all rum produced are easily mapped into one of the above categories. The exception would be a rum blend across categories, e.g. Pure Single Rum, blended with an Industrial rum. (For instance, you could (hypothetically) purchase multi-column distillate from Bacardi and blended it with pure, single rum from Appleton. Not that you’d want to do that, but you could.) In talking with Richard about blended rums from multiple sources, he was very clear that the resulting rum belongs in the lowest value category of any of its component rums. Thus, in the above example, a single drop of industrial rum in a blend puts that rum into the Industrial category.

By making simple, indisputable categories, the Gargano classification aims to educate consumers that there are different grades of rum, much in the same way people expect to pay more for a single-malt Scotch than a blended grain whisky. However, Gargano is not the only game in town.

Mash room at Hampden Estate, Jamaica
Mash room at Hampden Estate, Jamaica

Cate (Smuggler’s Cove) Categorization

In their ambitious and highly readable book, Smuggler’s Cove – Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, Martin and Rebecca Cate lay out a new classification system that’s by far the most detailed of any I’ve covered so far. The system latches onto a few critical dimensions (source material, distillation process, and aging) to create a bevy of categories. In my review of the book, I summarized the 21 categories like this:

  • Pot Still (Unaged, Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
  • Blended (Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
  • Column Still (Lightly Aged, Aged, Long Aged)
  • Black (Pot Still, Blended, Blended Overproof)
  • Cane (Coffey Still Aged, Pot stilled Unaged, Pot Still Aged)
  • Cane AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole (Blanc, Vieux, Long Aged)
  • Pot Still Cachaça (Unaged, Aged)

The Cate categorization is essentially a superset of Gargano. It includes the distillation aspect (pot vs. column), but collapses “traditional column still” and “modern multi-column still” into a single “column still” dimension. This results in Industrial Rum disappearing from the Cate categories. No value judgement about traditional vs. modern multi-column there.

A critical dimension in the Cate system is source material. The first four categories in the summarization above are molasses and evaporated cane rums (per the book). The remaining three are fresh cane juice rums (again, per the book). Notably, the French Agricole AOC warrants its own categories separate from agricole-style rhum from Gaudeloupe and other French territories. Naturally, “Cane AOC” rhums are limited to Martinique rhum, per the AOC rules.

Another vital dimension in the Cate classification is age. Aging is anything but a black-and-white topic in the rum world. The number of years spent in a barrel is only one of several critical factors related to aging. The location where maturation occurs and the barrel’s prior usage history have a huge impact. Rather than throwing up its proverbial hands, the Cate categorization wisely takes a crude but sensible approach, dispatching with years in favor of unaged, lightly aged, aged, and long aged buckets.

The Cates’ book helpfully includes solid but not exhaustive lists of rums for each of the 21 categories. Here’s the list provided for the Blended Lightly Aged category:

  • Appleton Estate Signature Blend (Jamaica)
  • Banks 5 Island and 7 Island (region blend)
  • Cartavio Selecto 5 (Peru)
  • Chairman’s Reserve Silver (St. Lucia)
  • Cockspur Fine (Barbados)
  • Denizen (regional blend)
  • Diplomatico Anejo and Blanco (Venezuela)
  • El Dorado 3 year (Guyana)
  • Mount Gay Eclipse (Barbados)
  • Plantation 3 Stars (regional blend)
  • Real McCoy 3 year (Barbados)
  • Santa Teresa Claro (Venezuela)

Here’s the interesting twist: The above rums very widely in flavor profile. The Appleton Signature Blend tastes quite different from the Plantation 3 Stars, while Banks 5 Island is nothing like Cartavio Selecto. The categorization is absolutely correct. However, as we’ve seen already, categories and flavor profiles aren’t one and the same. Other variables such as fermentation style, aging techniques, and (possibly) additives can make different rums within the same Cate categorization taste completely different. This isn’t an entirely academic point.

The Smuggler’s Cove book is chock full of wonderful recipes for Tiki cocktails. And those recipes are unusual, in that rather than specifying a “white” or “Jamaican” rum, they utilize the books categories, as seen in the Golden Gun, which specifies:

  • 1 ounce blended aged rum
  • 1 ounce lightly aged rum

Utilizing the book’s categories is a bold choice. It’s doesn’t lock the reader into a specific brand, or even a specific country, e.g. “Jamaican rum.” Overall, this is a positive move. It encourages the reader to actually understand the rums they use in a recipe, as well as providing a sandbox for experimentation. After all, Tiki is often about making harmony out of multiple rums, so why limit yourself to exactly what the recipe calls for?

The flip side to this is that without truly understanding the rums you’re working with, you can create a drink that’s distinctly different in taste from what you’re imagining or what might have been originally intended. In my review of the book, I refer to Cockspur VSOR and Dos Maderas 5+5, both from the Blended Aged category. The Cockspur is a dry, Bajan rum, while the Dos Maderas is heavily sherried, practically a liqueur. Using each in a daiquiri will result in two vastly different tasting cocktails. Both may be great in their own way, but if you’re trying to replicate a specific flavor profile, you’ll still need to understand the flavor profile of your ingredients (the rums) and not rely blindly on categories.

In terms of understanding how a rum is made, the Cate system may be the most complete answer currently available. However, for use in recipes, the Cate categories, along with some additional context such as “funky, like a Jamaican rum” or “grassy, like an agricole-style rhum” is the way to go. Jason Alexander, Tiki master at Tacoma Cabana, has gone down this path and is currently training a new bartender to use the Cate categories in recipes, rather than remembering rums in terms of white, overproof, or navy.

Molasses at Clarendon, Jamaica

Where Do We Go From Here?

We’ve already established that the rum category is incredibly diverse. There’s a rum for any need, from party punch to sturdy backbone of classic cocktails to divine rums costing hundreds of dollars a bottle and well worth every penny. Within the community of rum enthusiasts, there’s no quibble with this. The ethos seems to be, “Drink what you like. And know what you’re drinking!”

However, within the broader world of cocktails and spirits, there remains a pervasive thought that rum is too sweet, or only for punches–and shock and surprise that anybody might actually drink rum neat, like they would a bourbon or single malt whisky.  You might think, “Why does this matter?”  It matters because artisanal producers of high quality rums can’t compete price-wise with mass-produced rums from the mega producers. So in a market that mainly differentiates rums only by price point, the artisanal producers ultimately get squeezed out, and the variety of different rums available on the market diminishes for everyone.

Other spirit categories have addressed these challenges effectively by creating simple, easy to understand designators of quality. At one time, the American whiskey industry was faced with cheaper whiskey flowing over the border from Canada. American producers responded by (among other things) crafting concise, enforceable definitions of what constitutes bourbon, and defining clearly what “bottled in bond” means. As Richard Seale has pointed out, it helps to think of these items as “protections” rather than “rules.” American producers are protected from competitors making an inferior product for less money, yet labeling it as bourbon and selling it to an unsuspecting public.

Now, while other spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, bourbon, Peruvian Pisco, and single malt Scotch whisky offer these protections, they also have something else equally valuable: A single government or national organization responsible for defining and enforcing those protections. Cognac is protected by the French, Bourbon by the U.S., and Peruvian Pisco by–you guessed it–Peru.

Rum, currently being distilled all over the globe, and has no single entity with a vested interest in protecting what’s allowed to be called “rum.” Sure, there are countries such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Martinique which have protections for the local rums made there. As such, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re getting a decent quality rum from those countries. However, no other global authority says that rum made in Puerto Rico must meet the same criteria as rum made in, say, Barbados.

The unfortunate truth is that there are any number of mega-producers out there making inferior rum with barely any flavor, and sold at a bargain basement price. Or worse, producers making essentially pure ethanol and then doctoring it with “rum flavoring.” These companies are big business in the countries where they produce, and it’s unrealistic to expect a local governing authority to say they can’t call their product “rum” unless it meets the standards of some other country—to the detriment of their local community. Each country looks out for its own economic best interest. And unfortunately, traditional, artisanal rum suffers because there’s no real global consensus about what’s fair game and what isn’t.

While the situation looks bleak, it’s not completely without hope. Many of the rum producers of the Caribbean basin countries have formed an entity known as WIRSPA (West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association Inc.), which has been around since the late 1960s. WIRSPA promotes Caribbean rum as a premium category by way of trade advocacy, training, and educational outreach. Among the tools in their portfolio is the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) designation, which can be used by WIRSPA members on products meeting a minimum set of requirements.

While the ACR marque is a reasonable start, it’s hamstrung by a few issues. First, outside of hardcore rum enthusiasts, the appellation likely means little to an average or even curious consumer. This is mostly a matter of education and building brand awareness, always a challenge when an organization’s budget is tight and paid for by a loose coalition of countries, many of whom aren’t well off financially.

Second, the ACR marque conveys relatively little about the production methods of the wide variety of rums that bear the logo. With so many rums wanting the ACR logo, it’s a race to the lowest common denominator. For example, the ACR marque doesn’t prevent the addition of sweetener to a rum.

A first step to improve things would be for artisanal producers to agree on a baseline categorization that educates about what’s in the bottle and conveys relative value. The Gargano classification is an obvious candidate for the value conveyance part of the equation, but as described above, leaves critical aspects like source material and aging out of the mix.

As a rum wonk, I’d love something like the Cate categorization to appear on every bottle. However, to an only slightly interested consumer, twenty one categories is likely overwhelming, especially without some context as to what something like “blended lightly aged” means.

There may be value in using a small matrix of easily understood dimensions that appeared on every bottle participating in the effort. For instance:

  • Source material: Molasses, cane syrup, cane juice
  • Distillation: Batch or continuous, or a blend
  • Origin: Single distillery or multi-island blend
  • Aging: Unaged, light, moderate, or long-aged (with clear definitions)
  • Flavorings, including sweeteners

Obviously, some of these are subjective–and there’s the question of who would define and enforces such things. However, an entity like WIRSPA, but with more global scope would be a place to start.

If this sort of labeling appears on enough bottles, and with enough well-known producers like Mount Gay, Appleton, Brugal, and Havana Club getting behind this effort, it may just push other producers to adopt it. Especially if the buying public comes to understand that the absence of this disclosure means the producer may be hiding something.  A large part of that effort should entail replacing some of rum’s more misleading nomenclature with meaningful, understandable terminology. Part of that is easily done by the producers themselves – Stop using terms like “silver” in the name, and replace them with more meaningful terminology – see above!

I harbor no illusions that such an endeavor would be easy, and without thorny issues and misinformation, but at this point, getting producers of high value rum to act globally for the sake of the category may be the best bet we have.

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12 thoughts on “Categorically Flawed – How Rum’s Classifications Hold It Back”

  1. Very nice. I have a guilty conscience now for using similar terms in lots of cocktail recipes (and sometimes even from different groups in a single recipe, like “1 oz Jamaican rum, 1 oz light rum”). That’s something I’ll be giving much more attention in the future.

    Regardless of the bad feelings you gave me :), that’s a beautiful article, with lots to think about. The problem was always present in our rum lovers’ minds, but not in such a concise form.

  2. Dear Matt,
    i would like to add some considerations (in my bad english …)
    regarding your interesting article about classification.
    1) Could you produce a Cognac in a continuos still? How is the difference among a Pure Single Malt Whisky ,Grain Whisky and Blended Whisky? How is the main difference between a Calvados Pays d’Auge and a Calvados? Could you distill a great fruit Eaux de Vie in a continuos still?How is the difference between Mezcal and Mezcal Artisanal?
    The main answer to theese question is the distillation process who ,in the case of a batch distillation or a traditional column permit to separe and extract with precision the different components who make distinctive any spirits.
    This distinction exist in all spirits categories apart rum.
    the different raw materials,fermentation tecniques,style in aging are complementary and can integrate the classification:
    A pure agricole single rum is a rum produced by a batch distillation from fresh sugar cane juice. A jamaican Pure Single Rum is a rum coming from a batch distillation made in Jamaica,
    a high ester Jamaican Pure Single Rum is a rum made from a batch distillation in Jamaica with high congeners….ect ect
    a 12 y.o Jamaican Pure Single Rum is a rum distilled by a batch distillation in Jamaica and aged 12 years….
    If somebody think that from a multicolumn apparatus is possible to make a typical and original spirit able to interact with wood in a aging process is completely wrong.
    And Cognac people,Whisky People ,Mezcal people,Calvados people will never allow to call cognac or pure single malt a spirit coming from theese stills….
    Rum is produced every where in the tropics,using different raw materials always coming from sugarcane(not only fresh juice,syrup or molasses but also canesugar,cooked juice,sugarcane vinegar …),with different fermentation processes but all theese elements are converted or not in a original spirit by the distillation process.
    Regarding cocktail recipes i dont see any problem 🙂
    do u prefer write Jamaican rum(today so different eachothers)
    or Overproof High Ester Jamaican Pure SingleRum?
    Last but not least, my classification is applicable only to rum where is possible to track exactly where come from…
    this is another subject above the classification…
    authenticity …How many rums are only a label,a name…
    Ciao

    1. Thanks for your reply Luca! It’s very much appreciated.

      I chatted with Richard for a bit after I posted it. My understanding is the categorization have evolved over time, and that I looked at a particular snapshot. I will likely go back and add some additional clarity, along the themes you mentioned.

      The additional qualifiers that you say can be added, e.g. “agricole”, in conjunction with “pure single rum” are great. I absolutely think they should be promoted. However, it’s not very clear from the synopsis description that I cited, nor from the “Tale of Two Stills” post. Clarifying the basic “rules” of the classification (for example, how does it work with multi-island blends) in some additional bullet points would be very helpful. To be honest, I had not seen the Rumaniacs page with this expanded definition.

      To answer your question “do u prefer write Jamaican rum(today so different eachothers)or Overproof High Ester Jamaican Pure SingleRum?”

      I absolutely would prefer it if bottles would say exactly that. However, there needs to be consistently used, standardized terminology adopted. For example, who decides what “high ester” means, and how is it determined?

      Again, thank’s very much for weighing in, and your contributions to promoting great rum!

    2. I think what is needed for the Gargano Classification to gain greater traction, is a complete and detailed conceptual document that covers *all* the bases and is posted up somewhere as the definitive version of what the categories are, how they work, any weaknesses or outliers, and avenues for further development.

      So far promotion has been in Master Classes, seminars, conventions, conversations, Rum Festivals and in occasional long posts such as this one, or in the Rumaniacs. But it should be documented more formally so that arguments and discussions can lead to its development and (potentially) greater acceptance

  3. An excellent description of the complexities involved. What I got out of the possible solutions is: the Gargano Classification doesn’t really do the job, the Cate classification works well for only a very knowledgeable audience. and some variant of short list of properties, however hopeless adoption might be, would help a lot.

    Just to confirm, if many rums had your short list of properties, could viziers like you easily advise mortals like me whether a rum would be good for sipping or for making a reasonable range of tiki drinks?

    If, narrow-mindedly, I disliked Jamaican funkiness, that would be outside the short list of properties, I assume.

    Thanks,
    David

    1. Thanks David!

      The fundamental problem is that tastes is very subjective. One person’s “rotting bananas” may be another person’s “burnt caramel”. It’s a critical thing people want to know about, but is the hardest to quantify. The best we can offer in this realm is the review, an other than adding someone’s (relative) brief tasting notes like some bottles have, I don’t know what the ideal answer is.

  4. I’m not convinced that the lack of a universal classification system is what’s “holding rum back” from being taken seriously. Scotch, cognac and bourbon are fundamentally different from rum in that their production is limited to a single nation/region, which facilitates easy classification and standardization. Insofar as rum is produced around the world, it is much more comparable to wine, which flourishes despite the various regional classification schemes being so complex they require dedicated study to master. Everyone, even connoisseurs, still speaks of “red wine” and “white wine” yet anyone with the least bit of familiarity with wine realizes that these are oversimplifications.

    What is holding rum back from being popularly understood as an equal of scotch, cognac and (more recently) bourbon, is the fact that the average drinker associates rum with college beach parties, Hawaiian shirts, and most of all fruit juice heavy drinks served in Tiki mugs with absurd tropical garnishes and lit on fire. Yes, those other spirits are served in cocktails as well – but the Old Fashioned, Rob Roy, and Side Car are in another universe, image-wise, from Tiki. And yes, plenty of rum enthusiasts enjoy both tiki and premium sipping rums – but the broader public is not good at simultaneously entertaining radically different marketing strategies/approaches to using the same product. So when the new rum drinker buys his first good quality bottle of rum and assumes he should mix it with 3 fruit juices, 2 sugar-laden syrups and a swizzle rather than pour a neat dram and evaluate the rum on its own merits….it’s no surprise he/she won’t see rum as a spirit on par with single malt scotch, and will be perplexed as to why additives in rum should matter at all. Using examples of recipes to argue for better classification further entrenches rum as a cocktail ingredient, whereas you’d be very hard pressed to find a scotch-focused blog which discussed cocktails as any more than a use for cheap blends (which, by the way, don’t seem to be hurting sales of high-end blends from the likes of Compass Box despite there being no difference in official classification).

    I have nothing against Tiki, and cocktails are delicious, but if that fun, kitschy image is what the rum industry projects, new drinkers are going to have a hard time understanding why they should shell out for a hard-to-find, artisanal, additive-free rum to sip neat by the fireside. But actually I don’t see this as much of a problem for rum. If you’ve looked around at the rising prices and sales of rums from Velier, Kill Devil, Silver Seal et al. there would seem to be no shortage of those who do take rum seriously and appreciate artisanal quality. What would advance the popular status of rum immeasurably is if these producers realized that a market exists for their products in North America and beyond.

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