As Caribbean rum gains in popularity and rum enthusiasts push back on the “rum has no rules” trope, an oft-heard refrain is, “The United States doesn’t recognize rum’s rules.” It’s been said by well-meaning advocates online and from the stage at public events such as Tales of the Cocktail. In fact, I’ve said something along those lines myself.
If you’re a proponent of artisanal rum, striving to improve its reputation among anybody who will listen, it’s easy to shake your virtual fist at the faceless bureaucrats in the U.S. government who seemingly don’t care about recognizing the regulations held by Jamaica and other rum-producing countries.
That frustration is misplaced.
You see, the U.S. government has a mechanism in place to respect the spirit regulations of countries and their products, including French cognac, Peruvian pisco, and Scotch whisky. But nothing like that for rum, beyond a requirement that it’s made from sugar cane.
Not content to accept the collective wisdom that the U.S. simply doesn’t care about rum regulations, I set out to uncover the real reason. This meant asking the right questions within the bureaucracy of the U.S. government, and digging through dry regulations. It wasn’t easy, but I got an answer. (Spoiler alert: Only one country making cane spirits is known to have undertaken the process for that spirit to be recognized by the U.S.–but more on this later.)
The reason the United States does not recognize international rum regulations likely isn’t what you think. And it seems I wasn’t asking the right questions in the beginning.
Spirit Regulations Primer
When talking about “the rules” for a spirit like cognac or Scotch whiskey, what’s usually meant is the spirit’s geographical indication. A geographical indication, also known as a GI, encapsulates all manner of requirements about how a given spirit is made and labeled. A well-known example of a rum GI is the Martinique AOC.
The “geographical” portion of the term means that the rules apply to spirits made within a particular region. Sometimes the region is an entire country, but the term might only apply to a sub-region within a country, e.g. the Cognac region of France.
One benefit a GI provides is helping to protect an authentic spirit from unfair competition via impostor products looking to leverage the authentic spirit’s good reputation. Thus, a brandy made in Mexico cannot be labeled and sold in France as cognac. As well, a brandy made in France but not following the Cognac GI could not be labeled and sold as cognac.
(GIs themselves are a complicated topic; should you wish to know more about them, see this story.)
Where GIs and associated legalities get fuzzier is when a bottle travels outside its country of origin: A spirit GI established by one country doesn’t automatically have recognition or enforcement in another country. Thus, a not-really-cognac could be sold in Peru as cognac if Peru did not recognize the Cognac GI. The French GI for Cognac has no intrinsic meaning or enforcement in Panama, Peru, or Paraguay without establishing recognition within those countries.
In practice, it’s beneficial for countries or trading blocs such as the European Union to recognize the GIs of other countries. There are often reciprocal agreements between countries or trading blocs to recognize each other GIs. Thus, the U.S recognizes the Scotch whisky and Cognac GIs, while those countries recognize American’s regulations regarding bourbon.
These agreements don’t happen in a vacuum–they’re negotiated. And when it comes to smaller countries with little economic power, they can face significant challenges in getting other countries or trading blocks to recognize their small country’s GI.
This is the unfortunate position that rum finds itself in at present. Rum-making countries such as Jamaica, Guyana, Cuba, and others don’t carry the economic might of the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, and so on. This is one reason why these Caribbean nations work together via organizations like CARICOM and WIRSPA.
Thus, the question: How does a country work toward recognition of their regional spirit GIs by the U.S.?
It turns out that this isn’t the right question. The U.S. doesn’t have GIs for its own spirits, and it doesn’t intrinsically recognize foreign GIs. However, the U.S. recognizes something else that’s equally important, and which can provide a pathway for recognition.
Into the TTB Abyss
In the U.S., the regulation of distilled spirits generally falls within the domain of the Tax and Trade Bureau, colloquially known as the TTB. The TTB is not known for being especially open, transparent, or communicative. Many producers who deal with the TTB for bottle label approvals call the agency inscrutable, or far worse. I’ve written many times about how the TTB fails to even enforce its own regulations. Just one example is allowing a spirit made from beet sugar to be labeled as rum, despite an accepted regulation stating that rum must originate from sugar cane.
Nonetheless, if I was going to get an official answer, it needed to be from the TTB.
Donning my virtual reporter’s hat, I submitted a lengthy, two-part question via the TTB press inquiry web form:
As you know, the TTB (or at least I believe it’s the TTB) acknowledges the geographical indications of some products from certain countries. For example, Scotch whisky from Scotland, cognac and armagnac from France, and cachaça from Brazil. (The U.S. recently recognized cachaça as a distinct product of Brazil, in exchange for them recognizing bourbon as an American whiskey.)
So, to start out, two questions for you:
1) Is there a definitive list of the Geographical Indications (GIs) or similar spirit regulations (like AOCs) that the U.S. TTB officially recognizes?
2) How would a country go about getting its Geographical Indication recognized and enforced by the TTB? For example, Jamaica has had a Geographical Indication for its rum for several years now. However, I can’t find any U.S. recognition of this GI. What would they have to do to get their GI accepted by the TTB?
Having previously submitted questions to the TTB and not received answers, I held out little hope. To my surprise, I received a reply from Thom Hogue, the Director of Congressional and Public Affairs. His answer caught me off guard:
The basic answer is that we enforce the standards of identity with regard to spirits rather than GIs.
TTB’s labeling regulations are promulgated under the FAA Act, which is geared towards ensuring consumers have adequate/nonmisleading information about a product. It’s not an intellectual property statute. (GIs are intellectual property.)
[The] TTB is not an intellectual property agency, and does not enforce intellectual property rights. The FAA Act regulations have standards of identity for certain distilled spirits. You can find them at 27 CFR 5.22. (You can follow the links under Part 5 on this page to see the relevant regulations).
If someone wants there to be a new standard of identity for a distilled spirit, then they would need to petition us to amend the regulations at 27 CFR 55.22 and we would need to go through the rulemaking process (meaning public notice and comment).
Note: FAA is Federal Alcohol Administration.
So, what does this all mean?
The first key point is the introduction of the term standard of identity, and a process to obtain one. It’s an important term that’s specific to the U.S., as well as central to the discussion that follows.
The second key point is within the first three paragraphs, which lay out something important: When it comes to the TTB and spirit regulations, what matters are “standards of identity,” not geographical indications.
It seems that to continue our quest to understand how country-specific rum regulations might be recognized by the U.S., we must dwell on what defines a standard of identity. Luckily, the reply cites a regulatory identifier–27 CFR 5.22–that provides some clues. So, into the TTB regulations we go!
U.S. Standards of Identity
The U.S. standards of identity are essentially legal descriptions for various spirits as they apply to the U.S. market. You might think of a U.S. standard of identity for a distilled spirit as roughly equivalent to a GI, in terms of defining how a spirit is labeled. However, U.S. standards of identity are far less detailed than the GIs for spirits such as Scotch whisky. Nonetheless, they represent the U.S. perspective on what is or is not vodka, brandy, bourbon, rum, and so forth.
(From here on out, I will abbreviate standard of identity as SOI for reading clarity.)
The complete list of U.S. recognized SOIs is embedded within the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27 – Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms, Part 5 – Labelling and Advertising of Distilled Spirits.
It’s quite a lengthy document, covering all manner of federal regulations about distilled spirits. What we’re after is found within section 22 of Part 5 (so, 5.22), which begins:
The standards of identity.
Standards of identity for the several classes and types of distilled spirits set forth in this section shall be as follows (see also § 5.35, class and type):
(a) Class 1; neutral spirits or alcohol. “Neutral spirits” or “alcohol” are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190° proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80° proof.
(1) “Vodka” is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.
(2) “Grain spirits” are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.
The list of SOIs in section 5.22 goes on for quite a while. In the interest of brevity, I’ll highlight just a few key SOIs that are relevant to our quest.
Bourbon and rye, the canonical American spirits, along with the lesser known types of American whiskey, have this SOI:
“Bourbon whisky,” “rye whisky,” “wheat whisky,” “malt whisky,” or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
Scotch whisky’s SOI reads:
“Scotch whisky” is whisky which is a distinctive product of Scotland, manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom regulating the manufacture of Scotch whisky for consumption in the United Kingdom: Provided, That if such product is a mixture of whiskies, such mixture is “blended Scotch whisky” (Scotch whisky—a blend).
There are nearly identical standards of identity for Irish whisky and Canadian whisky, albeit from Ireland and Canada, respectively.
Cognac’s SOI reads:
“Cognac,” or “cognac (grape) brandy,” is grape brandy distilled in the Cognac region of France, which is entitled to be so designated by the laws and regulations of the French Government.
Pisco has this SOI:
“Pisco” is grape brandy manufactured in Peru or Chile in accordance with the laws and regulations of the country of manufacture governing the manufacture of Pisco for consumption in the country of manufacture.
“Pisco Perú” (or “Pisco Peru”) is Pisco manufactured in Peru in accordance with the laws and regulations of Peru governing the manufacture of Pisco for consumption in that country.
“Pisco Chileno” (or “Chilean Pisco”) is Pisco manufactured in Chile in accordance with the laws and regulations of Chile governing the manufacture of Pisco for consumption in that country.
Tequila’s SOI reads:
“Tequila” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash derived principally from the Agave Tequilana Weber (“blue” variety), with or without additional fermentable substances, distilled in such a manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to Tequila and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates. Tequila is a distinctive product of Mexico, manufactured in Mexico in compliance with the laws of Mexico regulating the manufacture of Tequila for consumption in that country.
A sharp eye will notice a common pattern in the SOI wording for non-U.S. spirits:
- A declaration of what the spirit is made from and where it’s made.
- That it complies with the laws and regulations of the country where it is made.
That is, cognac is made in France from grapes and conforms to the French regulations for Cognac. Tequila is made in Mexico from agave, in compliance with the Mexican regulations for tequila.
It is the second point–Made in compliance with the laws of the country where it was made–that’s easy to gloss over, but it is extremely important for what follows.
Why? The “laws and regulations” part of the SOI is where U.S. regulations connect to the GIs of other countries. The GIs of Scotland, France, Mexico, and other countries aren’t directly recognized as GIs by the TTB. Rather, these GIs are wrapped up and form part of a broader definition, i.e., the U.S. standard of identity.
If you think about it, the wording of the TTB’s SOIs are quite smart. Rather than reciting all the GI contents of each country, they simply point to those regulations, in effect “whatever that country’s GI says.”
Thus, if Scotland changes their GI for Scotch whisky, the U.S. SOI for Scotch whisky doesn’t change. Each country can change their GIs as they see fit, and the U.S. regulations follow along.
Just to be sure that my understanding was correct, I followed up with Hogue, asking for clarification. He replied:
Distilled spirits may be recognized in the country of production and other countries as GIs, but TTB does not regulate GIs and they do not appear in our regulations. If the standard of identity for a particular distilled spirit requires it to be produced in a particular country, then, yes, the wording “in compliance with the laws of…” is relevant.
If the producing country’s laws and regulations governing the manufacture of that particular distilled spirit change, then, no, the wording in TTB’s FAA Act regulations doesn’t have to change. Rather, 27 CFR 5.22 automatically reflects the current production requirements promulgated by a country’s current regulations governing that spirit category.
What About Rum?
Having established that non-U.S. spirits have their GIs encapsulated as U.S. standards of identity, you might expect to see SOIs in place with the TTB for Jamaican rum, Martinique rhum, Dominican Republic rum, Guyanese rum, and so forth — all have GIs in place in their country of origin.
However, disappointment awaits if you search for them in the TTB regulations. All that section 5.22 says regarding rum is this:
“Rum” is an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum, and bottled at not less than 80° proof; and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.
Hmm… this isn’t a good look for rum. While the U.S. has at least eight distinct SOIs for various whiskies, all rum is lumped into a single SOI. There’s no chance for Demerara rum from Guyana to be differentiated from Jamaican rum or Martinique AOC rhum agricole.
How Do Rum GIs Obtain Recognition?
Simply put, the way for the rum making countries to have their GIs recognized by the U.S. is to get a standard of identity added to the section 5.22 list of SOIs.
How does this happen? This brings us back to the second part of Hogue’s initial response to me: A country desiring an SOI would need to petition the TTB to add a new SOI. If the petition is accepted, it would trigger a public notice and a request for comment on the proposed new SOI.
Now, you might think that all rum producing countries with GIs would also have applied to the U.S. to obtain a corresponding SOI. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.
In my conversations with high-level people connected with GI-owning countries, no one could confirm their country had petitioned the TTB for a SOI. While it’s possible they weren’t aware of such request, the official records of the TTB tell a similar story.
As noted earlier, an accepted request for amending the standards of identity triggers a public notice and a period of commentary. Had any country successfully petitioned for considering a new SOI, it would be listed in the TTB Notices of Proposed Rulemaking.
Having scanned all the proposed rule changes going back to 1998, I can tell you that proposals for Jamaican, Martinique, and Guyanese rum SOIs do not appear. In fact, there is no proposal for any cane spirit standards of identity, save one: Brazilian cachaça.
Brazil Leads the Way
In 2012, the TTB recognized Brazil’s petition for a SOI for cachaça. The announcement reads, in part:
In Notice No. 127, a proposed rule published in the Federal Register on Monday, April 30, 2012, TTB proposes to amend the regulations setting forth the standards of identity for distilled spirits to include “Cachaça” as a type of rum and as a distinctive product of Brazil. TTB is making this proposal in response to requests from the Government of Brazil and subsequent discussions with the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Under a recently signed U.S.-Brazil agreement, if the United States adopts a final rule recognizing Cachaça as a type of rum that is a distinctive product of Brazil, then, in turn, Brazil will recognize Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey as distinctive products of the United States.
This announcement is interesting in that it explicitly ties the U.S. recognition of cachaça to Brazil’s recognition of Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey as distinct U.S. products. Also, it notes that cachaça can be referred to as either rum or as cachaça, a distinctive product of Brazil.
Having gone through the public announcement and public comment phase, cachaça was eventually granted its own SOI in 2013. However, cachaça’s road to a SOI was a lengthy, twelve-year process, as the Federal Register describes:
2001 Brazilian Petition
By letter dated April 30, 2001, the Embassy of the Government of Brazil submitted a petition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in which it requested that ATF amend its regulations to recognize the Brazilian distilled spirits product known as ‘‘Cachaça’’ as a distinctive product of Brazil.
The Brazilian Embassy stated that Cachaça is known worldwide as a Brazilian product and that Brazil has been a supplier of Cachaça to the United States for many decades. After preliminary discussions with the Brazilian Embassy, no further action was taken with regard to the request.
2006 Brazilian Petition
In a petition dated March 6, 2006, the Brazilian Embassy requested that TTB amend its regulations to provide recognition of Cachaça as a distinctive product of Brazil.
Among other things, the Embassy noted Brazilian Decree No. 4851, of October 2, 2003, which defines ‘‘Cachaça’’ as ‘‘the typical and exclusive designation of the sugar cane aguardente produced in Brazil, with an alcohol content of 38 to 48 percent by volume at 20 degrees Celsius, obtained from the distillation of the fermented must of sugar cane with specific sensory characteristics, to which up to six grams of sugar per liter may be added, expressed in terms of sucrose.’’
Brazil requested that TTB initiate regulatory action to recognize Cachaça as a typically and exclusively Brazilian beverage.
In addition, following discussions between officials of Brazil and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), and after consultations between USTR, and TTB, the United States Trade Representative and Brazil’s Minister of Development, Industry, and Foreign Trade signed an agreement on April 9, 2012, setting out a procedure that could lead each party to recognize certain distinctive distilled spirits produced in the other party’s territory, including Cachaça.
Now, the above isn’t to say that it would necessarily take another country twelve years to get a SOI. Rather, it does show that the U.S. process can work, albeit slowly.
In short, if a country desires a U.S. standard of identity for their rum, it would behoove them to start the process now.
As an interesting side note, there is currently a proposal underway to modernize the TTB’s alcoholic beverage regulations: Notice No. 176: Modernization of the Labeling and Advertising Regulations for Wine, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages. Public commentary on this proposal closed in June 2019. One proposal made via public comment was the establishment of “Straight Rum” as an SOI. While undoubtedly a step forward for rum, it does not address the issue of per-country rum SOIs.
Getting the Process Under Way
I’m no expert on the ins and out of the TTB or how a country might initiate a SOI petition. However, Hogue included this useful bit in his reply to me:
Petitions to amend the regulations should be sent to the Regulations and Rulings Division (RRD). Petitions are evaluated on a case-by-case basis as we are able to dedicate resources to the review. Accepted petitions to change the regulations could potentially be bundled. Petitioners are informed of the decision and reasoning behind the decision. Keep in mind, decisions are made based on input from other, impacted USG stakeholders.
In short, the adage “must be present to win” applies here: A country with a GI won’t automatically receive recognition by the U.S. unless they ask.
We can hope that countries such as Jamaica have already begun the petition process to obtain a standard of identity, and we simply aren’t aware yet (the TTB is notoriously opaque). However, the petitioning countries could certainly indicate to rum enthusiasts that their petition has been filed and the process underway. And if a country isn’t aware of the U.S. standards of identity process, they now have a starting point from which to begin.
Obtaining a Standard of Identity for Jamaican rum, Barbadian rum, or Demerara rum assuredly wouldn’t be a quick and easy process. However, countries that are willing to undertake the effort will finally have a chance for their native spirits to be legally recognized in the same way that Scotch Whisky, bourbon, tequila and cognac are.