Begone “Overproof” Rum!

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?

Likely not.

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.

The rum categories at Binny’s. They know better.

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.

Defining Proof

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 the following 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.

Author: mpietrek

8 thoughts on “Begone “Overproof” Rum!

  1. About the only reason I can see for non canonical categorization of rums is to distinguish a rum as suitable or not suitable for making poured flaming rum drinks(those cocktails whose recipe requires the art of pouring a stream of lit rum into a cocktail or lighting the rim or base and serving while lit) as obviously overproofed rums are higher in ABV therefore easier and safer to light. This is a highly specialized category though so most restaurants and bars will be fine without the appellation

  2. Your point about overproof makes perfect sense.

    I just bought your Minimalist book online, looking forward to reading it!

    Related but different question about overproof rum — if I have Hamilton Overproof 151, why do I also need Hamilton 86 proof Demerara in my minimalist collection? In a recipe that calls for regular Demerara rum, why can’t I just use the 151 proof product after diluting it down appropriately? In other words, if you dilute Demerara 151 proof down to 80 proof, does it not taste similar to a Demerar 80 proof?

    1. Great question! I’ve wondered the same myself.

      At a technical level, it would depend on whether the 151’s congener levels per volume of liquid were roughly doubled.

      Thought experiment: if you took the 86 proof, added pure alcohol to increase the proof to 151, and then diluted back down, to 86, you’d have fewer congeners in the final 86 version than the original. Hope that makes sense.

      Thanks for the book order. We appreciate the support!

      1. The answer actually does not make much sense, and I would go as far as to consider it incorrect. because it does not reflect the way rum is made. Nobody ever adds “pure” (neutral grain) alcohol to rum (that would be adulteration and would led to an inferior product that can be no longer called “rum” by law). The rum wash is always distilled to a strength higher or equal to the cask strength, but usually much higher. The distillation produces various fractions (just like distillation of crude oil) – headache inducing heads that are usually discarded, ethanol-rich “hearths” that are collected and cogener-heavy “tails” that are added in various amounts to provide the special organoleptic characteristics – each distiller has his own “recipe”. The distillate is then diluted with water, aged in oak casks, diluted to bottling strength and bottled.

        The important thing is that majority of the valuable aromatic compounds that carry the characteristic smell and taste of rum are soluble in ethanol, and not in water. Therefore, with each dilution, they are forced out of the solution as gases and gone. If you dilute an overproof rum right before consumption, these aromatics can be smelled throughout the room and will enhance the experience. If you receive lower proof product, nothing of that kind will happen, you are getting lesser bang for your buck. Therefore, overproof version of a given drink is always superior, providing more aroma and taste per unit of volume. In that sense, strength of the alcohol does matter, and is often another measure of quality (provided that the aromatics diluted are desirable, and not disgusting). That’s why limited and signature whiskies, rums and bourbons are often bottled at higher strengths. If you dilute herbal drinks like absinthe (bottled at 70% ABV) to the drinking strength of about 20%ABV, the anethol from anise is forced from solution into suspension and the clear drink turns opalescent, accompanied by intense herbal scent (an affect called “louche”). Quite a dramatic boon thanks to high proof of the drink.

        To answer the original question – it’s okay to have just the high proof version of the drink, you can dilute it anytime and smell the extra aromas it packs. The only reason lower proof drinks exist is convenience (some people don’t want to bother with adding water or ice), economics (drinks are often taxed according to ABV content) and to an extent safety, because overproof alcohol is a fire hazard to an even greater extent than the regular one.

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