With the help of many passionate rum enthusiasts doing a lot of ongoing education, we’re finally starting to make progress in disabusing people of the idea that categorizing rum by color (White, Gold, Dark, Black) makes any sense at all. (Hopefully, brands also get the message.) There’s simply no correlation between a rum’s color and what it tastes like. A point I’ve made again, and again, and again.
I propose we put similar effort into banishing the term “overproof” from rum labels and cocktail menus. Like categorizing by color, overproof is an antiquated term with little practical use, and hopelessly confuses the non-expert rum drinker.
How many times have we seen someone ask in a Facebook group: I don’t have Lemon Hart 151 Overproof like the recipe says. Can I substitute Bacardi 151 I found in my parent’s liquor cabinet?
My issue with using “overproof” as a rum’s primary classification are twofold:
- The term overproof is hopelessly vague for most people’s understanding and has little value in describing a rum.
- A rum’s alcoholic strength has very little to do with how it tastes.
Mind you, I have no problem with high proof rums. I have hundreds of them. My issue is with the term overproof, just as I take issue with dubbing rums gold, white or dark.
When you browse Spotify for new albums, is the album’s duration your primary decision criteria? When you browse for books in your local bookstore (OK, fine… Amazon), is your search criteria books over 400 pages?
The duration of an album or page count of a book is just one dimension in describing them. Often, duration and page counts are among the least interesting aspects. Ditto for a spirit’s alcoholic strength.
Any high proof “overproof” rum can be named and described with something more useful than “overproof rum”. What about “High strength column distilled Demerara rum?”
Consider a restaurant wine list. It might categorize the wines as red or white. A fancier restaurant probably categorizes its wines by country, or maybe even wine regions within a country. Odds are, you won’t find many wine lists with a “Wines over 15 % ABV” category.
Yet many bars think nothing of listing “overproof rum” as a cocktail component.
Likewise, many liquor stores lump all overproof rums together. Wray & Nephew Overproof rum is clear in color, so could be categorized as a white rum. It’s also Jamaican, so could go in their Jamaican rum category, should they be so progressive in their thinking. But odds are it appears in the store’s Overproof category, alongside Lemon Hart 151 and Don Q 151. Those three rums couldn’t be any more different. Everybody loses.
Before continuing, let’s set the record straight about what overproof means. It’s hopelessly confusing to just about everybody. It doesn’t help that for many years, there were conflicting definitions of proof – The British and the American.
The American meaning of proof is far easier to understand. A proof value, e.g. 80 proof, is simply twice the percentage of Alcohol by Volume (ABV). A distilled spirit at 40 % ABV is 80 proof. In the US proof system, overproof has no inherent meaning. Hold on to that fact for a moment.
The now obsolete British proof system is harder to wrap your head around, but in general, the key thing to remember is that 57 % ABV is the definition of proof. Stated differently, a spirit at 57 % ABV is “at proof”.
Why the word “proof” got chosen has to do with a very crude measure of alcoholic strength involving gunpowder, spirits, and fire. It’s been told countless times, and almost always in an overly simplified manner. The British navy often gets called into service in telling the story. Perhaps erroneously, based on my own deep research. But that’s a tale for another time.
But back to the British definition of a spirit at proof. Prior to 1980 in the UK, the strength of a distilled spirit was specified as relative to proof, i.e. 57 % ABV.
A spirit below proof (i.e. 57 % ABV) was underproof. A spirit above 57 % ABV was overproof. Underproof and overproof were actual terms used by the British.
If you need to, read that again and internalize what it means. An overproof spirit is any spirit that’s over 57 % ABV. That’s all.
How were different alcoholic strengths specified in the British proof system? It was done as percentages, or degrees as they called it, relative to proof (57 % ABV). For example, a rum “10 degrees over proof” in ABV terms would be 62.7 % ABV, i.e. 57 x 110%.
Thankfully, the Brits got rid of their antiquated notion of proof in the 1980. By then, the rest of the world had moved on to the far easier to understand concept of Alcohol by Volume. If you wish to learn more about this topic, and how Navy strength enters the equation, check out this recent story of mine.
The Fallacy of Overproof Rum
Let’s consider some high strength rums for a moment:
- Appleton Rare Blend (43% ABV): Underproof
- Smith & Cross (57% ABV): Proof
- Wray & Nephew “Overproof” rum (63 % ABV): Overproof
- Plantation O.F.T.D. (69 % ABV): Overproof
- Lemon Hart 151 (75.5 % ABV): Overproof
- Don Q 151 (75.5 % ABV): Overproof
- Goslings 151 (75.5 % ABV): Overproof
- Diamond 151 (75.5 % ABV): Overproof
- Denros Strong rum (80 % ABV): Overproof
- Sunset Very Strong Rum (84.5 % ABV): Overproof
Even a first-year rum enthusiasts knows that all the overproof rums in the list are wildly different. Yet all could legitimately appear on a cocktail menu as “overproof rum”. All could be categorized on a liquor store site as overproof.
It’s stupid, and it’s confusing to consumers.
We might as well lump Appleton Rare Blend (43% ABV) and Bacardi Ocho (40% ABV) into the same category: Underproof. Nobody does that, thankfully. But why do we do it with overproof?
When we buy a rum to sip, or select a rum to use in a cocktail, what is the primary consideration?
I assert that it’s taste. We might choose a funky Jamaican rum over a rhum agricole in a cocktail because of how it tastes; how it works with the other ingredients to create something pleasing. Rarely do we pick a particular rum simply because it’s the highest strength.
Yet how many cocktail recipes call for an ounce or two of “overproof rum”? Make that recipe with the Rum Fire Jamaican Overproof and it will taste completely different than if made with Don Q 151. What was the recipe creator’s intent? Who knows!
Imagine if a liquor store stopped categorizing Scotch whiskies by region, and instead had just two categories:
- Cask strength
- Non-cask strength
There’d be riots in the streets. (Perhaps a slight exaggeration. Maybe.) But we put up with overproof as rum category.
This must stop.
Brands: If you must put “overproof” somewhere on the label because of some perceived long tradition, or because it sounds cool, fine. But don’t make it the primary identifying characteristic. Name your rum something more meaningful than “BIG STRONG RUM!”
Why do I care so much? I keep coming back to the steady stream of questions about substituting one overproof rum for another. It’s hard enough to get people to realize that “Jamaican rum versus rhum agricole” is a more meaningful question than “white versus dark rum”.
Adding yet another meaningless non-category into the mix just muddles the situation further. It will be a long fight against a long tradition, but as with other fronts in the global movement to elevate rum, we must start this effort now.