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.
Rum, whiskey and brandy are all made around the globe, in a variety of different styles. There are no international governing bodies setting regulations for any of them. There’s simply a global understanding the whiskey is made from grain, brandy derives from fruit, and rum is made from sugar cane.
The success and prestige of spirits like single malt Scotch whisky or Cognac or tequila is due to rigorously defined and defended regulations, crafted and enforced by the country where the spirit originates. Mexico, where tequila is made, defines the tequila production process and what must appear on the label. The same for Armagnac in France. The spirit types that we know and love – tequila, Armagnac, Cognac, single malt Scotch whisky, bourbon, rye, and so on – they’re all examples of appellations. Wikipedia defines an appellation like this:
Appellation of origin, or geographical indication, a name or sign used on certain products or which corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin.
Cognac is a type of brandy. But not all brandy meets the Cognac appellation requirements. The word “Cognac” on the label conveys that it was made in France, using French methods. You wouldn’t expect a bottle saying Cognac to be made in Costa Rica, for example. Having Cognac rather than brandy on the label raises the consumer’s quality expectations.
As it turns out, the world of cane spirits has appellations as well. The two best known examples are:
- Rhum Agricole from Martinique, with its French appellation d’origine controlee.
- Cachaça, from Brazil.
In 2013, the Cachaça category got a big boost from the U.S. TTB, when it was recognized as a distinct type of spirit, and not just “rum from Brazil”. This may not seem like a big deal, but it helps Cachaça companies promote their product as unique and special, rather than “just another rum.” The average consumer believes they understand rum, but may cock a quizzical look when you say Cachaça, creating an opportunity to educate.
Appellations convey value and something special. They’re treated by consumers as a guarantee that the product is from where it claims to be, and made the way you’d expect it to be crafted there.
The value of appellations is easily seen at the point of purchase. Take a look at Binny’s, a major online retailer, where the big four spirit categories are listed like this:
Binnys believes that single malt, bourbon, rye, American, and Canadian are all worthy of splitting out from the general whiskey category. Likewise, Cognac, Armagnac, calvados, and pisco are deserving of their own subcategory, distinct from “other brandy”. The producers in those appellations benefit from having their product category listed separately from the hoi polloi of whiskey or brandy.
But look at the rum column. It’s pathetic. Over two hundred different rums from well over a dozen countries, all lumped together under “other rum”. It apparently not even worth giving rhum agricole its own subcategory, much less Caribbean rum, or Jamaican rum, or Bajan rum. If Binnys lumps 95% of the rums it carries into “other rum”, they must all be pretty similar, right?
Mind you, I’m not picking on Binnys. You’ll find this dismissal of rum’s unique, distinct varietals nearly everywhere spirits are sold.
If the world’s rum producers hope to elevate the category’s perception with the average consumer, more regulations or a global oversight board is not the answer. The answer is already out there and it’s been done before. Cognac, bourbon and pisco are doing just fine without global regulations. What’s different is that producers in those categories banded together to define, promote and educate people about their particular appellation. Rum producers who want to raise their product’s stature beyond pirates and mojitos should take a page from that book, and think about how to adopt those lessons to rum’s particularly unique situation.