In my all-too-infrequent visits to Seattle’s Rumba, I never fail to encounter this passage from Wayne Curtis’s And a Bottle of Rum:
“Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of ‘America’s spirit,’ drink one of the most regulated spirits known. To be labeled bourbon, it has to be made with a certain percentage of corn and aged in a certain kind of barrel. But excessive regulation is not the spirit of America. Unrestricted experimentation is. Rum embodies America’s laissez-faire attitude: It is whatever it wants to be. There’s no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites. Rum is the melting pot of spirits – the only liquor available in clear, amber, or black variations.”
I know the passage well — it hangs in a certain, shall we say, hard-to-miss location in the men’s restroom. I particularly like it because the passage succinctly outlines the opportunities and challenges the rum industry faces.
There’s no shortage of coverage in the spirits press lately about how rum is in resurgence, how rum is the next big thing, and how brown spirits drinkers are turning to aged rums as the bourbon craze (Pappy Van Winkle, anyone?) plays itself out.
Most of these rum stories follow a predictable pattern, including some or all of the following:
- It’s not just for pirates anymore!
- It’s good for something besides mixing with Coke!
- There are aged rums!
- You can enjoy rum neat, like a bourbon or a single malt scotch!
As someone who drinks and writes about rum extensively, I have mixed emotions about these articles. Rum’s designation as the new “it” spirit brings much needed attention to the category. Here in the U.S. we’ve already seen an upswing in the availability of smaller brands — I absolutely want quality rums to be readily available on store shelves the way premium bourbons, single malts, and tequilas already are. Nonetheless, there are hundreds of amazing rum brands that aren’t available in the U.S., in part because importers won’t take a chance that they’ll sell enough. Generally speaking, the increased awareness of rum brands beyond Bacardi and Captain Morgan is a positive thing.
However, as an avid follower of rum, I see clouds on the horizon. Sensing money to be made in the rum market, producers (existing, as well as those new to the category) are creating new “premium” bottlings designed to appeal to consumers looking for something new and more upmarket. You can often identify these rums from marketing that focuses on an inspiration — historical figures are a favorite – with precious few details about the rum’s actual production. Some of these new rums are cheap, commodity products masquerading as quality rums in pretty packaging. Frequently their natural flavor is heavily altered by additives. And in some cases, once well-regarded rums have been reformulated to make them cheaper to produce. More on all of this in a bit.
With these new “premium” rums clamoring for attention, there’s a real risk that bad experiences will sour people on the idea that good rum is equally as worthy as the finest Scotch whisky, bourbon or cognac.
As with all spirits categories, there is a passionate online community of rum aficionados. Many aren’t afraid to ask hard questions, push back a bit on a brand’s marketing, and in some cases, run their own tests on what’s in the bottle. Countless Facebook posts have erupted into comment wars about the veracity of a brand’s claims. Luckily, there are a number of highly informed people who participate in these threads. If somebody makes a dubious claim, the community is quick to call shenanigans. One recent example involved Parce rum from Colombia. The brand’s CEO stated in a comment: “Rum may contain residual sugar from distillation and blending process all coming from molasses.” He was quickly shut down by none other than Foursquare Master Distiller Richard Seale, a major proponent for truth-in-labeling. I’ll come back to this particular point in a bit.
There’s a general consensus within the rum community that making quality rum should be straightforward: Ferment molasses or sugarcane juice, distill it, then age it in barrels. Bottle it, and label exactly what went into making that rum. If you aged it for seven years or more, call it a seven year aged rum. End of story.
In the high-end whiskey world (e.g. bourbon, scotch, etc.), production techniques are very similar to the above, although with grains instead of sugarcane as the raw material. To be labeled bourbon or Scotch, there are regulations which seem rather obvious and common sense, including:
- Minimum mash bill components. For bourbon, it’s at least 51 percent corn. For single malt scotch, it’s 100 percent barley.
- Maximum distillation ABV: For bourbon it’s 80 percent ABV. For Scotch whisky it’s 94.8 percent.
- The spirit must spend at least a certain amount of time undergoing barrel aging: Two years for “straight” bourbon, three years for Scotch whisky.
- The age statement on the bottle (e.g. “7 years”) is a minimum time that every drop of spirit has spent aging.
- Nothing other than water can be added to change or impart flavor.
Because of these regulations, you can be reasonably sure that in a bottle of Willett 9 year bourbon, every single drop in the bottle has spent at least nine years in a barrel, and that nothing other than water (for dilution) has been added.
Lest you think the requirements for bourbon and Scotch are unique, cognac has similar requirements, including:
- Must be made from a specified set of grape varietals grown in the Cognac region.
- Must be twice distilled in copper pot stills.
- Cannot be distilled above 72 percent ABV.
- Must be aged for at least two years in French Oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.
Without going into the details here (although I have in other posts), tequila and Peruvian pisco have similar requirements about their source material, distillation process, and aging process –or lack thereof, in the case of pisco. For the sake of brevity I will refer to a spirit’s regulations (such as the above) as “common sense” regulations.
In the carefree, unregulated rum world, these common sense regulations don’t exist – at least not on a global scale. There’s no regulating body that requires all rums from around the world to use consistent production techniques and labeling. In this regard, other spirits have a distinct advantage over rum. Bourbon must be made in the U.S., so is subject to U.S. regulations. Scotch must originate in Scotland and is thus subject to Scotch whisky regulations. Ditto for tequila, cognac, Peruvian pisco, and many others. Rum is one of the few distilled spirits categories made in many countries, and since every country is looking for a leg up for its producers, there’s little chance that international commonsense regulations regarding rum will come to pass.
While the hardcore rum community has a good idea about which brands make quality rums and play by the common sense rules, this sort of information isn’t readily available to the casual consumer. Should they buy Appleton 21 or Zacapa XO? One has sugar and (quite likely) glycerol added, the other doesn’t.
Where Quality Rum Goes Off the Rails
How do rums violate these seemingly common sense production and labeling standards? Here are the major points of contention:
Added sugar: Of all rum’s battlefields, the addition of sugar to rum prior to bottling is the most hotly debated.
Most people respond positively to sugar. As Mary Poppins sang, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Like salt, sugar can enhance existing flavors, and dissolved sugar adds thickness (or “body”) to a liquid like rum.
Many of the world’s beloved rums are sweetened, often heavily. Prime examples of sweetened rum include certain expressions from Zacapa, Zaya, Diplomatico, El Dorado, and Plantation. These high-end rums like Zacapa 23, Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva and El Dorado 12 are often labeled as “sipping” rums because they’re very “smooth” and are easily consumed in much the same way as a liqueur.
It may surprise some people, but properly distilled rum has essentially zero residual sugar, the same as whiskey, tequila, pisco, cognac, or any other spirit. The sugar in rum mash doesn’t make it through the distillation process. Put another way, rum is not inherently sweet. If you’re drinking a rum and it tastes sweet, it’s almost certain that sugar or some other sweetener was added to it after distillation and before bottling.
If premium brands like the aforementioned add sugar, what’s the point of contention? If people are happily consuming Zacapa and Diplomatico rums, why does anybody care? It’s really a truth-in-labelling issue. Many brands steadfastly deny that they add sugar and remain mum on laboratory tests by governments (Finland, Sweden) indicating added sugar. Nothing on their labels indicates that sugar is an ingredient, and especially not how much sugar. In some extreme cases (especially spiced rums) it’s almost soft-drink levels of sugar. Adding sugar is one way to cover up an inferior product—though, of course, not all rum producers who add sugar have anything to hide. Plantation, a French company, is one of the few producers that openly state that they add sugar – they compare it to the dosage used in champagne production, and no one is storming the castle over added sugar in their bubbles.
One interesting phenomena that’s grown from the interest in sugared rums is the home hydrometer test. While laboratory testing is required to determine exactly what’s been added to a rum and in what quantity, a simple test that anybody can perform provides a rough estimate of how much sugar is in any spirit. Without going into too much detail about exactly how the test works, it hinges on the fact that sugar in rum changes the rum’s density, which in turn alters the reading that a hydrometer provides. By measuring the proof with a hydrometer and comparing it to the labeled proof, an estimate of the added sugar can be made.
Hydrometer testing is nowhere near as accurate as laboratory testing, but several rum enthusiasts have selected rums that have already undergone laboratory scrutiny and tested the same rums with their own home hydrometers. Their estimates and the lab results were roughly equivalent. Johnny Drejer and Wes Burgin have tested extensive portions of their collections and posted the results online.
For about $20, you can purchase a hydrometer and run your own tests, should you need another hobby. The hydrometer is just a tall test tube and what looks like an oversized thermometer. You put a bit of rum in the tube, float the “thermometer,” and read the ABV from the scale on the side. You then input your ABV reading and the labeled ABV into a simple chart to obtain an estimated sugar content per liter of rum.
Other unlabeled additives: Besides sugar, a variety of rums have been tested and found to contain additives that can’t be explained by barrel aging. Among the highlights here are glycerol, which adds a thicker mouthfeel and sweetness, and artificial vanillin. A little glycerol goes a long way though, so its presence isn’t as easily detected outside of a laboratory. Per this post on durhum.com, laboratory testing points to Don Papa, Zacapa, and Angostura rums as containing glycerol.
A particular favorite way to induce lush flavors into rum is casking it in ex-sherry barrels, in particular, sweet PX sherry or Oloroso barrels. While you might expect the residual sherry left in a cask to add a hint of sweetness and sherry flavors to a rum, an expression like Dos Maderas PX 5+5 makes you wonder if those sherry casks weren’t completely empty. I enjoy the Dos Maderas 5+5, but I’m well aware that it’s not exactly rum per the common sense regulations.
Over Distillation: Some rum distilleries also happen to make pure ethanol at around 195 proof, mostly for industrial uses. At this level of distillation, there’s no chance for chemical compounds that give rum its flavor to be present in any discernible quantities. If you were to design the optimal column still for making a flavorful rum, it would be different from the optimal still for making tasteless, pure ethanol. Yet some producers use the same stills for both rum and ethanol production.
While the use of this pure ethanol is commonly known to be a starting point for making gin, the output from an ethanol still is less than ideal for making rum. It’s certainly conceivable that an unscrupulous producers could make up for this lack of flavor by using flavor additives, creating in essence, rum-flavored vodka.
Selling somebody else’s rum: There are a number of distilleries that sell bulk rum to other producers. Well known examples are Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) from Guyana and Angostura from Trinidad, both which have house brands, El Dorado and Angostura, respectively. If your rum label says Guyana or demerara rum on it, odds are it’s from DDL. If it says Trinidad rum, it’s very likely sourced from Angostura.
When considering a multi-island rum blend — Plantation Three Stars, Banks 5 Island, or Denizen Aged White come to mind,–the fact that Plantation, Banks and Denizen didn’t make the source rums is completely kosher in my book. Likewise, if you’re an independent bottler and clearly label the rum’s provenance, that’s fine as well. (More on independent bottlers in a bit.)
The moral questions arise when companies claim or imply that they created and aged the rum themselves. A number of private label rums purchase their rum in bulk from elsewhere; labels such as Caña Brava or Copacabana 1940 proudly state exactly who produced their rum. Others are more opaque–for instance Ron del Barrilito, which is widely suspected to be sourced from Bacardi but doesn’t say as such on the label. There’s a similar debate going on in the bourbon and rye worlds, with many brands all sourcing their spirits from the same distillery.
This topic of rum sourcing was recently in the news when Diageo’s Captain Morgan unit in St. Croix came under U.S. Department of Justice investigation for importing what government investigators say is foreign-produced rum. Diageo disputes the claim, calling it “sugar cane intermediate” for testing purposes. (No update on this issue has been reported at the time of this post.)
Misleading Age Statements: When you see a statement like “12 year aged,” you’d like to think that the minimum age of all the rum in the bottle is 12 years. For some producers, however, that number may represent an average age. For others, it could be the age of the oldest drop in the bottle—no matter how many or how few drops are present. There is currently no international standard dictating what rum age statements mean.
One of the biggest sources of misinformation relates to age statements of solera-aged rums, wherein a number of barrels are used in a continuous process, year after year. Imagine a collection of barrels stacked several rows high. Newly made rums goes into the topmost barrels. Finished rum comes out of the bottom barrels. Periodically, each row of barrels is partially refilled from the row above. The net effect is that each drop of rum spends time in each row of barrels, and the finished rum changes very little over time.
Solera aging can produce great results – sherry has been aged this way for hundreds of years. However, assigning an age statement to a solera rum is tricky. The best known solera-aged rum, Ron Zacapa Centenario 23, claims a mix of rums between six and 23 years. While this may be true, the fact that the name includes “23” can lead buyers to believe that the entire bottle was aged for at least 23 years. Rhum caveat emptor.
Zacapa’s age statements are remarkably clear compared to some, though. Flor de Caña has a number of rums boldly displaying numbers such as 4, 7 and 12. Up till recently, those numbers were actual age statements. Today though, those numbers merely suggest an age without claiming it as such. Thus, today’s Flor de Caña 7 may be similar in flavor profile of Flor de Caña 7 year of old, but the rum within has no guarantee of seven years of aging.
An even more egregious example is Zaya. What was once a highly sought-after rum from Guatemala transitioned into a 12 year aged rum from Trinidad. That was bad enough, but recently the fine print on the label was changed to indicate it’s a blend of 12 rums – no age statement or country of origin at all. Compounding the problem, online retailers have been slow to update their databases, so most still say it’s a twelve- year Trinidad rum. This a great way to breed consumer mistrust.
Who Speaks for Quality Rum?
While we rum nerds of the world have a collective understanding of which brands are honestly produced and which are backed by chicanery, this wisdom isn’t widely known or disseminated to the average consumer or starter nerd. There’s a very real risk that neophytes cautiously dipping their toes into the premium market will encounter a slickly marketed, overly sweet, glycerol laden “premium” rum. After a few bad experiences they’ll write off the entire category, dumping out the baby with the bathwater. This is my concern in a nutshell. It’s a race between opportunist looking to exploit a category, and rum fanatics seeing to educate and elevate rum’s standing in the spirits world.
So what should the curious consumer do? What should they look for when seeking out rums that are worth buying?
While there are no global regulations, a few countries with a rum history going back hundreds of years– including Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique–have instituted regulations on locally made rums. Their regulations are variations on the same common sense rules that I outlined above. Here are some of the better known brands from these countries:
- Jamaica: Appleton
- Barbados: Mount Gay, Cockspur, Foursquare (Doorly’s)
- Martinique: Clement, Rhum JM, Neisson, Depaz
Of course, rums from other countries may be honestly made and labeled, but it’s up to the consumer to know which brands these are.
In the absence of international regulations governing rum production, a number of rum brands with a vested interest in promoting quality rums founded the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association Inc, (WIRSPA). Quoting from their web site:
WIRSPA was founded in the late 1960s and is an association of national associations of rum producers in the ACP Caribbean. Based in Barbados, WIRSPA was originally set up to promote and protect the interests of members concerned with the distillation, export and marketing of rum.
Recently WIRSPA established the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) marque. Rum producers must be certified, after which they can use the ACR logo on their bottle and for marketing purposes. Some of the better known ACR certified brands currently include:
- Cockspur (Barbados)
- Doorly’s (Barbados)
- Mount Gay (Barbados)
- St. Nicholas Abbey (Barbados)
- El Dorado (Guyana)
- Barbancourt (Haiti)
- Hampden (Jamaica)
- Moneymusk (Jamaica)
- Barceló (Dominican Republic)
- Brugal (Dominican Republic)
- Chairman’s Reserve (St. Lucia)
- Angostura (Trinidad)
The ACR performs education and outreach, including trainings and booths at spirits conferences like Miami Rum Renaissance and the California Rum Fest. By far the coolest thing they do is take groups of aficionados to the Caribbean on barnstorming tours of distilleries across many countries. My good friend Josh Miller from the Inu A Kena blog was selected to do this recently and has written several posts about the experience, starting with this Foursquare visit. More recently, I also took a WIRSPA-sponsored trip and visited every working Jamaican distillery, save one. My overview can be found here.
Independent of WIRSPA, Richard Seale and Velier’s Luca Gargano have started promoting a proposal to standardize on rum classifications, dispensing with meaningless categories like white and gold, and instead using terms somewhat akin to the various categories of Scotch whisky.
Another source for high quality rum with an impeccable pedigree is independent bottlers; their entire business is based on sourcing high quality casks and providing a higher level of detail about the rum’s provenance. In the U.S., only a handful of independent bottlers have distribution, among them:
There are quite a few more independent bottlers with distribution in Europe, so be on the lookout to pick up these during your travels. Among the highlights:
- Bristol Classic Rum
- Rum Nation
- Silver Seal
And finally, although it takes more research and existing knowledge about producers, you can find high quality gems in private label brands. The key thing to look for is whether they’re open about the source of their rum. I’ve already mentioned Caña Brava and Copacabana 1940, which proudly promote that their rum comes from PILSA in Panama. Another such example is The Real McCoy rum, sourced from Foursquare in Barbados.
Summing this up, I’ll paraphrase something Richard Seale stated at a presentation during Rum Renaissance this past April: Rum is at a crossroads. Will consumers expect and demand high quality rums, or will the market go the way of vodka, where fancy bottles and slick marketing convey perceived value, rather than actual quality? It’s not a slam dunk in either direction. My hope is that consumers educate themselves and vote with their wallet for rums of solid value.