Richard Seale’s Epic Takedown of “Rum has no rules”

The Ministry of Rum and Global Rum Club forums on Facebook are hotbeds of enthusiasts engaging in lively debates about all topics rum-related. Foursquare Rum Distillery master distiller and rum icon Richard Seale is a frequent contributor, injecting actual, real-world experience at every turn.

Recently, I shared my article on Cuban rum regulations, which started out, “Rum has no rules? Think again!”–a topic I’ve written about before.

In response to my post, Richard wrote an extremely long and well-articulated comment that’s simply too informative to lose in the desert of Facebook comments. So with Richard’s permission, I’m reprinting it here with just slight touchup of typos and such.

Quoth Richard:

Rum has no rules? Honestly, how could something so completely inane be not only spread but be believed and repeated again and again with authority?

And the notion that this “lack of rules” was somehow wonderful, so producers can be “creative.” What nonsense.

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Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet

There’s a hint of mythology regarding Cuban rum – a certain cachet, a promise of elegance. Much as the mere mention of “Japanese whisky” gets the single-malt fanatic’s heart racing, the Cuban rums of yoresan hold a special meaning for rum connoisseurs. It hearkens us back to U.S. Prohibition, when thirsty Americans took a quick hop to Cuba to legally enjoy Cuban rums in the now classic drinks invented on the island: The Daiquiri. The Mojito. The El Presidente. In the fifty-plus years since America’s embargo on Cuban product began, its rum has become highly valued contraband, covertly acquired and doled out on the sly by generations of American imbibers.

Despite being cut off from the American market and its estimated forty percent of the world’s rum consumption, Havana Club and other Cuban rums are still the third most consumed Caribbean rum worldwide. They trail only Bacardi and Captain Morgan, if you can believe that. Bacardi was born in Cuba and the company still touts its Cuban roots and production processes first used in Cuba. Consider just Bacardi and Havana Club alone, it’s clear that Cuban “style” rum is far and away the most prevalent type of rum consumed today.

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Rum Has No Rules – Neither Do Whiskey & Brandy

What if I told you that whiskey has no regulations?

Smart person that you are, you’d reply “Of course whiskey has regulations! Straight bourbon must be made in America and start with at least 51% corn in the mash. Aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. And Scotch whiskey must be made from barley, pot distilled and aged in Scotland.”

But I press on: Brandy has no regulations.

You’d think I’ve lost my marbles. Obviously Cognac is limited to certain grapes from certain regions of France, and it must be pot stilled. Peruvian pisco is also confined to certain grape varietals, and can only be distilled once in a copper pot still.

And yet if I said “Rum has no regulations”, many people would nod in agreement. I could point out countless articles saying the same thing.

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The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC

In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. As a prelude to my individual distillery write-ups, this post introduces the key concepts of French agricole rhum. I’ll build from these topics in the individual distillery articles.

Within the rum world, once you move past Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan, the brands drawing most of the attention hail from the former colonies of England and Spain – think Havana Club, Mount Gay, Appleton, El Dorado, or Brugal. Somewhere in the distance behind them (with regard to general awareness) are the offerings from the French outposts in the Caribbean. The cane spirits of the French West Indies struggle to crack the consciousness of the casual rum consumer, who’d be hard pressed to name a single brand from Martinique or Guadeloupe. And that’s unfortunate, as the French islands in the Caribbean offer some of the most flavorful and authentic close-to-the-soil distilled spirits available anywhere.

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Black Rum: Setting the Record Straight

A recent online piece from Bon Appetit, Why We’re Drinking Black Rum, a Caribbean Spirit Even Whiskey-Drinkers Can Love, really got my dander up. Not that Bon Appetit is on my regular reading list, but when the linked passed by in my Google News alert for rum, I naturally had to see what a “mainstream” and respected food and drink magazine had to say about rum. As it turns out, the same-old blatantly incorrect “conventional wisdom.”

Quoting the article:  “So, what separates black rum from its lighter counterparts? For one, it’s aged for much longer than white rums. The aging process takes place inside a well-charred barrel, where the molasses-based spirit takes on the smoky characteristics of its environment. The result is that black rum shares taste characteristics with your favorite whiskeys, but with a touch more sweetness.”

Say it with me:  No, no, no, no, NO!

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Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”

While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y.  Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.

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