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!
Before going any further, let’s first get a formal definition of what “black rum” is.
Wait! There is none!
There’s no formal or legal definition of black rum, so all we can point to is a general acceptance that black rums are on the very dark end of the color spectrum. There’s not even a solid understanding of the difference between “dark” and “black” rums. They seem to be used interchangeably. As I wrote in this article, classifying rums by color is a horrible way to go about it. Next time you dine out, why not order “brown meat?” Nonetheless, black (or dark) rums are the topic at hand.
I don’t expect a short article like this one in Bon Appetit to go full metal rum-nerd in the short space allotted, but in their piece shows a serious lack of research and understanding.
For starters, even the most basic investigation reveals that a typical black rum is aged for around three years–about the same duration as aged and filtered “white” rums such as Havana Club Anejo 3 Años, Plantation 3 Star, and Caña Brava.
This “aged for much longer” trope reinforces a huge misconception that many consumers hold about aged spirits: The darker they are, the longer they’ve been aged–and thus the better they are. The fatal flaw in this theory is that spirits producers routinely add coloring to their products, and none more so than producers of black rum.
Take a look at the photo at the top of this post. From left to right, you have:
- Two black rums (Gosling’s, Coruba), aged around three years
- A three-year aged and filtered Havana Club. (About the same age as the first two)
- Hampden Estate gold rum, unaged with coloring added
- Golden Devil – A nine year aged Jamaican rum
Knowing the details about each bottle, it’s easy to see that age and color have just about zero correlation in the rum world.
Now, a heavily charred barrel does impart some amount of coloring, but not enough to make the rum nearly opaque. Take a look at the color of Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, in the middle below. It’s a nice golden hue, not black like the heavily colored Cruzan Black Strap to the left. And if age were proportional to darkness, the 24 year Golden Devil to the right (from a different distillery) should be a black hole, but it’s clearly much lighter than the other two, despite an age around ten times greater.
By this point, it should be clear that when you’re eyeing the bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal or Captain Morgan Black, know that you’re looking at large amounts of spirit caramel and/or molasses. The addition of molasses is common in very dark rums, giving them a particular flavor very different from rums that are free of additives (e.g. sugar, wines, and coloring).
Bon Appetit’s piece also states: “…black rum shares taste characteristics with your favorite whiskeys, but with a touch more sweetness.” Why is this? Is it because rum is made from sugar so it must be sweet? The answer is categorically “No!” This is perhaps the most pervasive misperception about rum, and I’ve ranted about it here before. Properly made rum is no sweeter than bourbon, Scotch whisky, or tequila. Any sweetness in a rum is the result of the producer adding sweetening agents after distillation.
The price of most black rums is fairly inexpensive, a telltale sign that they’re not long aged; a 750ML bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal is around $15 U.S., whereas something like Angostura 7 (aged for seven years) runs around $22 U.S. Do you really think that $15 Gosling’s was aged for a decade or longer? Heck, the Coruba page even comes out and says “…aged for at least two years in American oak barrels.”
Finally, if I wanted to turn a whiskey drinker on to rum, the black rums are the last place I’d start. I have nothing against black rums and I own a number of them, which I use in mixed drinks. My friend Josh Miller at Inu a Kena has a great roundup of some dark rums, if you’re interested. But if I were tasked with introducing a whiskey drinker to rums, I’d lead with longer aged, additive-free rums from brands like Appleton, Foursquare, Mount Gay, Rhum Clement, and rums from independent bottlers like Duncan Taylor. Also, many black rums have a noticeable flavor of added molasses, definitely not something a whiskey drinker associates with their favorite tipple.
So who cares if Bon Appetit gets it wrong? While I don’t have the readership numbers of Bon Appetit, it’s important for me to respond to these misconceptions with a fact-based response.
The rum industry is at a crossroads. Renewed interest from the drinking community and press says rum is “hot” right now. Enthusiast drinkers are discovering great rums from producers like those I just listed above, which are equal to or better than popular bourbons and single malt Scotch whiskies. However, the casual consumer is sometimes still surprised to learn there’s more to the rum category than Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan.
The rum category is poised to elevate itself past the idea that it’s just an inexpensive mixer for beach drinks, but articles like Bon Appetit‘s reinforce the incorrect perceptions dragging down rum’s perceived value. As somebody’s who’s passionate about rum, I chose to use my platform to promote a more nuanced and complete understanding of this remarkable spirit.