Rum Has No Rules is Lazy Journalism

Nearly a decade into this modern rum renaissance, articles explaining rum for the introductory reader appear almost daily. On the whole, it’s a good thing; the more people aware that rum can be something much more than a vodka substitute is great. But in their desire to encompass the vast diversity of cane spirits, from rhum agricole to hogolicious Jamaicans to stately Cubans, too many writers and brand ambassadors rely on the easy sound bite: Rum has no rules.

To be fair, there are no international rules for how rum should be made. Other than originating from sugar cane, rum is made in many different countries, in many different ways – molasses, cane juice, or cane syrup, fermented from 24 hours to four weeks, then pot or column distilled. It’s bottled in raw, unaged form or aged for up to thirty years or more. Cuban rum is a very different beast than Martinique rhum agricole, and no common regulations control their production.

Yet that’s not the same thing as “rum has no rules.” Writers and educators seeking to explain how rum has so many different flavors too often reach for the easy to understand. It may give a momentary bit of clarity to the reader, but ultimately it holds the sugarcane spirit category back from getting the respect it deserves.

While no international regulation control rum production, the same is true of spirits made from grains – Whiskey (or whisky depending on who’s spelling it) has the same story. Most people don’t identify as whiskey drinkers. They say “I’m a bourbon drinker”, or “Single malt Scotch whisky is my thing”. Yet fundamentally, both are whiskies – made of some combination or corn, barley, wheat, rye or some other grain, and pot or column distilled. Whisky is made in many countries, not just Scotland and America, but most assuredly, some don’t have rules the way bourbon or Scotch do.

Ditto for the Cognac aficionado or the Pisco geek. Brandy doesn’t always have the best connotations, but fundamentally, every distilled spirited made from fermented fruit juice is a brandy. Cognac, Calvados, Armagnac, Pisco, Applejack, Slivovitz, and so on – all are brandies. Cognac’s regulations say it must be aged; Peruvian pisco’s regulations say it can’t.

What’s the Canefusion about?

Our distilled spirits terminology causes huge amounts of confusion to the average consumer. Not every joyful imbiber needs to be a full on spirits geek. And yes, keeping all the spirit names straight is a tall order. But fundamentally, it’s not that hard to wrap your head around the hierarchy of spirit categories. Here’s how I distill (pun intended!) the major spirits categories down to something easy to remember.

Nearly all pure distilled spirits are made from four basic materials:

  • Grains – Whiskey
  • Fruit – Brandy
  • Cane sugar – Rum
  • Agave

I’m staying away from the topic of vodka here. It’s a very different discussion.  Likewise, the above doesn’t cover liqueurs, or other spirits that are infused with flavor after distillation. 

All four of the above categories are what I call uber-categories. None are defined by any overarching international regulations. Why is that? Simply put, regulations are only as good as their enforcing body. And in the absence of the United Nations or NATO regulating spirits, nearly all spirit regulations occur at a national level.

It’s only on the national level that we get well known categories like bourbon, cognac, and tequila. All are household names, and the consumer has some basic idea of what they are. This is due primarily to groups of producers in a country getting together, agreeing on a definition for their spirit, and lobbying the national government for recognition. That’s how we got to the universally recognized definitions of bourbon, cognac and Scotch whiskey. And it’s why “bourbon” is a category in consumer’s minds, not “whiskey”.

So what about rum?  Rum producers have done the exact same thing! Martinique rum producers have agreed on a definition and created regulations, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The same with Cuba, which has its Denominación de Origen Protegida. Jamaica has its own geographical indication (aka definition). As does Brazil, for cachaça. And there many more, including Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Each of these regulations defines a distinct, sugarcane spirit. Martinique AOC rhum is just as unique, well defined and regulated as cognac. Cuban rum is just a valid a spirit definition as bourbon.


The average consumer is almost assuredly not aware of these different styles of rum, and that they’re very different. The same with retailers. Walk through a large liquor store, and you certainly won’t find bourbon and single malt Scotch intermingled on the shelves. Ditto for cognac and calvados. But the rum aisle? You’re lucky if you get them separated by white, gold and dark, and those are lousy ways to categorize.

To help drill that home, I’ve created a graphic that makes the difference between uber-categories, and country-specific categories crystal clear. It shows the uber-categories completely distinct from the country subcategories, and how they relate. Obviously I can’t fit every single example on this chart, so I chose a few well known-examples from each uber-category.

The hierarchy of spirits categories
The hierarchy of spirits categories

To repeat: This graphic is not a comprehensive overview of all spirits. Feel free to share with impunity when somebody tells you “rum has no rules”. (Just give a nod my direction, please.)

How Do We Fix This?

Ultimately, the various rum-producing countries need to expend the time and money to promote their country-specific style as unique and unusual if they want any chance of the average consumer specifically looking for a Barbados-style rum, or a Martinique style rhum, or a cachaça.

Until that happens, people on the leading of rum advocacy have their work cut out for them, to explain the diversity of rum, while also being accurate and truthful about it. As writers, we have a responsibility to be accurate in what we say. I aim for that here.

It’s only been five or six decades since bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky started their ascent as distinct categories. There’s no reason that the rum producing counties can’t do the same thing. Real education is the answer, rather than simplistic slogans like “rum has no rules”.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out this post.

Author: mpietrek

7 thoughts on “Rum Has No Rules is Lazy Journalism

  1. Hiya Matt,

    I recently had a few inquiries and put together this piece which I published on my site. I have copied it here for your info…..

    RUM has Rules – and the Act says so !
    Over the last 3 days I have had 4 people tell me that there are no rules for Rum in South Africa, that we have a free for all in the manufacture of Rum.
    These statements cannot be further from the truth ! Just over a year ago I posted an article stating the wording from the LIQUOR PRODUCTS ACT 60 OF 1989 as amended until 2015.
    Part 1 deals with the PRODUCTION and COMPOSITIONAL REQUIREMENTS and quoted hereunder;
    19. Requirements for rum [7 (1) (b); 27 (1) (a)]
    (1) Rum shall –
    (a) be produced by the distillation of –
    (i) fermented sugar cane juice;
    (ii) fermented, undiluted sugar cane molasses, or fermented sugar cane molasses, which has been diluted with water; or
    (iii) fermented, undiluted sugar cane syrup, which has been produced in the manufacturing of cane sugar, or fermented, with water diluted, sugar cane syrup, which has been produced in the manufacturing of cane sugar,
    at less than 96 per cent alcohol per volume, irrespective of whether sugar cane leaves or fruit have been added thereto;

    [Para. (a) substituted by GN R555/2009] (b) have the distinctive taste and aroma which is characteristic of rum and which is clearly distinguishable from that of cane spirit or another class of spirit; and

    [Para. (b) substituted by GN R77/2006]
    (c) have an alcohol content of at least 43 percent.

    (2) The volatile constituents in rum shall be at least 30 gram per hectolitre absolute alcohol.
    [Subreg. (2) substituted by GN R77/2006]

    (3) The volatile constituents other than water, of rum shall be derived solely from sugar cane.
    [Reg. 19 substituted by GN R1695/95]

    Concerning the use of sugar, the following will apply;
    56. Control over the receipt, keeping and use of certain substances [27 (1) (b)]
    (1) No person shall receive, keep or use any sugar, excluding a product of the vine, or a preparation or compound of such sugar, at premises where a liquor product is produced, except under the following circumstances and subject to the following conditions:
    (a) A separate room or store shall be available at that premises for the keeping of such sugar, preparation or compound.
    (b) Such sugar, preparation or compound shall immediately after the receipt thereof at that premises be placed in the room or store referred to in paragraph (a).

    (c) Such room or store shall be locked or secured at all times in order that access thereto can only be obtained by or through –
    (i) the person in charge of the production of liquor products at the premises concerned; or
    (ii) a person placed in charge of that room or store by the person referred to in subparagraph (i).

    (d) Such sugar, preparation or compound shall only be removed, from that room or store for the purposes of the addition thereof to a liquor product in accordance with the provisions of these regulations.
    Table 6 of the Act stipulates what substances may be added to the Rum (Spirits) produced and I quote only on the sugar and wood additives as Herbs and flavourings are only allowed in “spirit based liquor” i.e Spirit Aperitif
    TABLE 6

    Sugar of vegetable origin Sparkling wines which undergo a second fermentation; alcoholic fruit beverage (excluding fortified apple and pear beverage); spirits; grape-based liquor (excluding grape liquor and flavoured grape liquor); spirit-based liquor This substance shall –
    (a) in the case of sparkling wines, only be added for the initiation of the second alcoholic fermentation and to sweeten the final product;
    (b) in the case of an alcoholic fruit beverage-
    (i) be added before alcoholic fermentation only to such an extent that not more than 20 per cent of the fermentable sugars are derived therefrom;
    (ii) otherwise, only be added after completion or termination of alcoholic fermentation to sweeten the final product and to a maximum of 100 g/l, calculated as reducing sugar;
    (c) in the case of husk spirit, premium husk spirit, pot still brandy, brandy and vintage brandy, only be added to such an extent that the sugar content of the final product, calculated as reducing sugar, does not exceed 15 g/l;
    (d) in the case of other spirits (excluding gin), only be added to such an extent that the sugar content of the final product, calculated as reducing sugar, does not exceed 1 g/l; and
    (e) in the case of a grape-based liquor or a spirit-based liquor, only be added to sweeten the final product.

    Wood Wine; spirits (excluding grape spirit, cane spirit, gin, vodka, unspecified spirit and mixed spirit);spirit-based liquor; alcoholic apple and pear beverage

    In short the definition for Rum is a spirit distilled at less than 96 percent and bottled at a minimum of 43%.
    The only material that may be used is fermented sugar cane juice; fermented, undiluted sugar cane molasses, or fermented sugar cane molasses which has been diluted with water; or fermented, undiluted sugar cane syrup, which has been produced in the manufacturing of cane sugar, or fermented, with water diluted sugar cane syrup, which has been produced in the manufacturing of cane sugar. That’s it !
    The only additives that may be used is sugar to sweeten the final product to a maximum of 1g/L and wood.
    There is no aging requirement in the Act at all.
    So the bottom line is that there are definite rules in South Africa for the manufacture of Rum. We may not all obey those rules but we do so at our own peril. The DAFF inspectorate is quite good at checking out the products manufactured – as are our Excise Inspectors.
    Let the manufacturer beware……

  2. Say that brandy is a uber category for distilled fruits is not correct.Brandy is from distilled wine

    1. Hi Luca! My understanding is that most brandies are from grapes. But what of Calvados and Slivovitz? Is there uber category not “brandy”? Or is it something else?

Leave a Reply