Four Questions For Your Rum Categorization: A Spirits Educator Weighs In

One of the joys of my jumping headlong into the world of distilled spirits is meeting highly educated and passionate people who change your perspective and point out rabbit holes you didn’t know existed. One such example was this past October, when I had the pleasure of meeting Nicholas King of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Nicholas and I were on the same ACSA judging panel for American whiskies. Fancy me, a rum-fixated writer judging whiskey!

If you’re not familiar with the WSET, they provide education and accreditations for wine and spirits professionals, culminating in titles like Master of Wine, an exceedingly difficult program that my friend Maggie Campbell of Privateer Rum has undertaken. Nicholas works for WSET and has been writing the course book for a new WSET Award in Spirits. I’ve seen excerpts, and it’s shaping up as a fascinating, eminently readable look at spirits production across many categories. The WSET course, which builds around Nicholas’ book, should be ready in August 2019.

Since meeting, Nicholas and I have corresponded frequently about Caribbean rum and the fierce debates currently embroiling it. Naturally, the topics of geographical indications (which I’ve written about here, here and here) have come up. As a highly informed spirit educator with a breadth of knowledge across many categories, Nicholas is particularly well suited to offer an informed perspective on recent categorizations and geographical indications.

He offered to share his thoughts in a guest post, which follows below. Starting from the wine world, he moves through Cognac and Scotch whisky, name checking Alexandre Gabriel on his way to Gargano/Seale and Cate. He ends with a set of questions to ask of any categorization scheme.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, its hopefully good fodder for civilized debates.

Appellations what are they good for?  (Nicholas King, DipWSET)

There has been an ongoing discussion in the rum community about the pros and cons of European-style appellations. There is one that obviously exists in the rum world which is Martinique appellation d’origine contrôllée (AOC) which Matt has done a sterling job of translating here. This is hardly a surprise given that Martinique, along with Guadeloupe, is designated a French Overseas Territory, in other words it is part of France, and the French do love their appellations for, well everything. Wine, cheese, chickens, milk, cider, spirits all have various appellations for regional products all of which are overseen by the mighty bureaucracy of the INAO in Paris. If you are ever struggling for sleep, then visit their website.

My background in the alcohol business is as a retailer and now as an educator. I have spent rather too many hours than I care to remember trawling through legal documents (and other more fun stuff too) in order to understand what is going on in the worlds of wine and spirits and why. Matt has asked me to take a wider look at appellations. I will take a look at where they came from, what they are trying to achieve and how relevant or helpful they are in places (such as France) where they have proliferated into nearly every corner of the agricultural world.


Using the widest possible of wide lenses what we are looking at here are geographical indications or GIs. There are clearly established international laws that define GIs in very simple terms. In short, a product that claims to be from place X should be from there and it is protected from someone else from place Y passing off their products as coming from place X when it does not. This very simple definition offers a level playing field which allows countries to negotiate effective trade deals and recognise each other’s GIs.

For example, for many years there were Australian wines that were sold in Australia that used labelling terms such as ‘White Burgundy’ or ‘Sherry’. They couldn’t be labelled like this when they were imported into the EU, but there was nothing the EU could do to stop this from happening in the Australian market even though the labels were, as far as the EU were concerned, passing off European GIs. Then the EU and Australians sat down to work out a trade deal. The Europeans offered better market access but in return the Australians were to stop using European labelling terminology, period. The deal was done and the old labelling terms died.

GIs that recognise a place or origin can be found throughout the wine world, such as Rutherford (California) and Coonawarra (South Australia), but none of these GIs seek to define anything other than the place where the grapes that are used to make these wines are grown. Grape growers are free to grow whatever grape they choose. Winemakers are equally free to make the wines however they please. However, this lack of rules has not prevented either of these two GIs from establishing a world class reputation for wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon.


In the EU things are somewhat more complicated. The GI system operates under the same basic legal framework but individual countries are allowed to embellish their GIs with extra rules and regulations. Why has this happened? Well in truth the original rule makers, in large part, had exactly the same motivation as anyone else who wants to set up a GI: they wanted to protect their product from being passed off by imitators. They also wanted to protect the quality of their product and this was the desire that produced rules, lots of rules. Both of these are honourable in their intentions but when humans start to legislate in detail there is almost always a mass of unintended consequences; in this case proliferation and confusion, poor quality control and, the stifling of innovation.


In France local traditions and how they differ from those of your neighbours, even close neighbours, matter. This has resulted in an incredible proliferation of appellations in every wine region in France. New ones continue to be approved today. This is mind-numbingly complex and to some extent I am pleased, it keeps me in a job, but for the consumer…..well prepare to be very, very confused. Let’s take the wine regions of Bordeaux as an example…..strap in, or if you don’t want your grey matter turned to moosh flick to the end of the section.

There are 57 appellations, including other hierarchies, nested and overlapping within the overarching appellation of Bordeaux. I have no intention of naming them all but I will use two sets of examples. The first from the Médoc, the area north of the city of Bordeaux itself that runs on the left bank of the Gironde. The second from the area surrounding the town of Libourne off to the north-east of Bordeaux

Médoc – The Médoc has eight appellations. They are Médoc, Haut-Médoc, St. Estèphe, Paulilac, St-Julien, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis, Margaux. Within this area there are 62 producers who use a five-tiered classification system that was set up in 1855 based on the barrel price for these wines at the time. This system pre-dates the appellation system and has never been part of it. It is more of an honorific title that was awarded to the producer who can buy and sell land at will, it makes no difference. These wines use the labelling term Grand cru classé. Since 1855 the list has only seen one change.

For those producers who did not make the cut in 1855 there is the term Cru bourgeois. If any of you take pleasure in legal shenanigans, you can read the very tortured history of this grade in the early twentieth century as is staggered from legal challenge to legal challenge. By 2010 everyone had finally had enough and it was agreed that is would be an honorific title awarded annually to those wines that made the grade. How much rigour or consequent jeopardy there is for producers to lose the grade is a point of debate.

Libournais – This is the area around the town of Libourne where in an area far smaller than the Médoc there are 14 appellations. The stars of the show are Pomerol and St-Émilion but each has their own satellite appellations: Laland-de Pomerol, Lussac St-Émilion, Montagne St-Émilion, St-Georges-St-Émilion and Puisseguin St-Émilion. The others I will spare you from. However, if that wasn’t enough St-Émilion has a sub appellation called St-Émilion Grand Cru. This appellation is awarded to individual producers and is itself divided into Premier Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru Classé. This is subject to periodic review and yes, this too ended up being engulfed in a tidal-wave of lawsuits in the early twentieth century.

If you are not confused yet, then you have either learnt it already or have a mind that is unusually well adjusted to understanding the arcane. This is just one wine type (red) in two areas of just one region. The producers in each of the regions are very proud of their appellation and the recognition they feel it gives them but what advantage does it offer?

Well, the sad truth is that even though appellations in the French wine industry continue to proliferate, the average consumer does not give one hoot about the parish politics of rural France; or the warm fuzzy feeling a handful of farmers get when they win their hard fight for appellation status; and they do not have the first clue as to what any of these labels mean.

Confused consumers very rapidly become alienated consumers who just walk on by. Those who do care about all of this are the ones who are happy to spend time familiarising themselves with the details and look down on those who, quite understandably, have better things to do with their time. Result, more alienation amongst consumers who don’t much like being sneered at.

Arguably the only possible merit is that the appellations discussed give some indication of wine style because they dictate what grape varieties can be used. By and large the wines discussed above are made from the grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, this could be communicated just as easily if the label just said Bordeaux or …radically… Bordeaux Cabernet-Merlot. It worked for Napa, and the producers there don’t have any difficulty charging high prices for some delicious wines! The traditional regions in France do not use varietal labelling even though, some might say despite of, the fact that it works wonderfully well for everyone else.

Quality Control?

An appellation’s regulations can state what grapes can be grown, when and how they can be harvested, the volume of the harvest, the sugar ripeness of the grapes, how the wine can be made, how long they can be aged for and in what, how they can be labelled and how these terms relate to grape ripeness or winemaking. This is just the tip of a very deep iceberg. Why do such detailed rules exist? Simply put the rule makers wanted to protect the quality of the products made in their regions and believed that adding layer upon layer of rules would help to achieve this goal. Well, it doesn’t.

Take the world famous sparkling wine Champagne. Anyone who has had, for example, mature vintage Pol Roger can tell you that Champagne is a wine region that is capable of producing beautiful and outstanding wines. However, Champagne is also stamped onto wines that are at best average and at worst miserably acidic and utterly joyless. Champagne is unusual in that there is only one appellation and everyone has to abide by the same regulations and yet these rules do not produce a uniformly high standard of quality.

This is one of my biggest issues with appellations. The claim that they are preserving quality is all too often found wanting. There is nothing inherent in a long list of rules that ensures quality. You can play the same game with almost any French wine region you care to mention and….to finally bring it back to spirits…..Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados.

What is the origin of quality if it does not come from a set of rules? Again there is a simple answer; human skill. Consider the legendary Franco-American distiller Hubert Germain-Robin who set up his eponymous distillery in California in 1982. He largely stuck to the Cognac method and in particular the use of the Alambic Charentais, the traditional directly heated copper pot still with worm-tub condenser that must be used in the production of Cognac. These are notoriously difficult stills to operate and they need to be constantly supervised if you are going to make top-rate spirit. Managing the heat is hard, the timing of the cuts varies depending on the grape variety being distilled or when in the distilling season it is happening, the fine tuning is endless.

Hubert was a master of this, as much as he was a master of all the other processes that led up to distillation and the ones that followed. This is the point: the quality of his spirits was not just the result of one process/technique it was the net result of all of them and how well they were used together. An incompetent distiller following all the rules using all the fancy gadgets you can think of will produce bad spirit as reliably as the person who is skilled and knowledgeable no matter how simple their equipment. Artisanal Mezcal anyone?

Stifling Innovation

It is a simple fact that rules limit your choices. This can be entirely beneficial but in the creative process rules can be a significant impediment to innovation. The Champagne method for making sparkling wines was developed throughout the course of the nineteenth century and when the rules were created any further innovation was stopped dead.

Those familiar with Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand, will know that he rails against the rules that were created for Cognac in 1936. His particular complaint is that oak became the only permitted wood for maturation barrels whereas previously other woods such as chestnut were also used. Ever the experimenter, he has made a spirit from grapes grown in the Cognac region which has been aged in chestnut barrels. However, he cannot call it Cognac. If one were to extend this, why cannot other techniques be introduced? Change the still design, introduce new grape varieties, sell unaged Cognac (even the Armagnacais managed that!). Why must one look to the past?

The past can be a reassuring place, a place of stories and traditions which appeal to humans; producers and consumers. The irony that should never be lost is, of course, what is now traditional was once invented. Why are the innovations of the dead acceptable but the imaginings of the living so often the source of bitter controversy? It is utterly illogical unless you have a vested interest, financial or political, in the status quo. Nevertheless, the appeal of the past is so strong, that even where the rules permit innovation, it simply doesn’t happen.

The rules for Single Grain Scotch Whisky do not state what grains must be used, other than malted barley for its enzymes. Nor do they state how it must be distilled other than the fact that it cannot be distilled to a strength higher than 94.8% abv and it must be made in one distillery. However, tradition, conservatism and (this is the rub) a hearty dose of commercial reality, mean that all grain whiskies are made using a mashbill with a high percentage of either wheat or corn, and distilled in columns to somewhere in the vicinity of 90% abv. There is quite literally nothing stopping the industry from re-imagining grain whisky in a radically new way, they just don’t. Producers are wedded to their labelling terms and how they have always been interpreted and that, sadly, is that.

This of course does not mean that all spirits subject to rules are made in exactly the same way. Single Malt Scotch Whiskies must be made from 100% malted barley, distilled in pot still in one distillery and aged for a minimum of thee years in oak barrels of 700L or less, and this does give all of these spirits and underlying set of characteristics. However, Scotch malt whisky is varied ranging from light to sulphurous/meaty to peaty and more. Here, there is a double irony. Not only is a producer of Single Malt Whisky limited in their operational choices, the labelling term itself actually communicates very little to the consumer about the style of the liquid inside.

Laphroaig and Glenmorangie are both Single Malt Whiskies but stylistically they are extremely different! If a customer asked for a recommendation of a product similar to Laphroaig and you recommended Glenmoranige because it is a Single Malt it is unlikely that you will be getting a lot pf repeat customers. The same can be said for VS Cognac. VS only guarantees a minimum age. Yes there are shared characteristic but beyond the basics style vary markedly. If they are available in your market try the regular VS from each of the big four (Martell, Courvoisier, Hennessy and Rémy Martin) next to each other. It makes for an interesting tasting.


It is obvious that many in the rum industry, producers and enthusiasts, who are frustrated with the position in which rum finds itself look to other categories with envy and the rules and defined labelling terms they have. Luca Gargano/Richard Seale and Martin Cate have both come up with systems that largely centre on the method of distillation that is used. Neither of these systems are ever likely to become law because the Caribbean is covered by so many jurisdictions many of whom do not see eye to eye.

However, even as optional systems they could gain traction and the success or otherwise of these systems will be decided in the cold hard reality of commerce so here I will ask a few questions which I think anyone should ask themselves before deciding that appellations, legally encoded or otherwise are the way to go.

  • Will it tell the consumer anything meaningful about the style of rum in the bottle?
  • Will normal consumer and not just geeks, care?
  • Will it drive or improve quality?
  • Will it support innovation?

If you are certain that the answer to all of these are ‘yes’ then it sounds like you have a plan. I for one have yet to see such a plan and I very seriously doubt that such a system can be created.

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