Rum Label Transparency: Quantifying Enthusiast’s Desires

Rum label transparency is of substantial interest to many enthusiasts. No, not whether you can see through the label or not. Rather, transparency in exactly how the rum was made.

While the rum world has made great strides towards greater transparency recently, there’s still a great distance for brands to travel. Information disclosure is still a “wild west” situation, with most brands approaching it ad hoc … if at all. This isn’t to dismiss the efforts of those forward-thinking brands who do it well and consistently, but in the industry as a whole, there’s much which can be improved.

Unlike bourbon, Scotch whisky, and tequila, rum is made in many countries so we can’t look to some kind of overarching regulatory fiat to enforce full rum label information disclosure. As such, any meaningful progress will come either from producers (e.g. a consortium of like-minded brands), or in response to clear high-end consumer demand.

The transparency which enthusiasts seek won’t be a simple or quick process, but such aficionados can drive conversations to move the ball in that direction. Towards that end, I created a survey to take the temperature of what the denizens of the rum world are looking for. The results are further below, I’ll reveal the survey results in a bit, but first some backstory for essential context.

A Modest Proposal

I recently wrote a think piece, Moving Beyond Rum Categories – A Modest Proposal. To briefly summarize its key points:

  • Technical categorizations such as Gargano roll up several production details under one term. For instance, Pure Single Rum means batch distilled rum, made from molasses or cane syrup at one distillery, with the distillery listed on the label. Then there’s Traditional Rum category, which switches the batch distillation requirement for column distillation. Now, what differentiates it from Blended Rum?

    It’s easy enough to consult a reference. Nonetheless, it would be great if “traditional single or double column distillation” explicitly appeared on the label.
     
    To be clear, this isn’t a dismissal of categorization systems. Rather, a small and well-defined set of production detail could be agreed upon and appear alongside a category descriptor like pure single rum.
  • Producers should define which “standard” production details they want to include. A group of like-minded, transparency-focused producers can collectively lead by example.

    Towards that end, “standard” means details any honest producer will happily disclose, e.g. what’s fermented, distillation technology, and what type of casks aged in

    Similarly, producers won’t suddenly be transparent about “trade secrets” like which additives they use. For the moment, we can put that aside and focus on achievable gains, rather than an “all or nothing” approach which can derail good intentioned efforts.
  • A set of standard transparency items needn’t focus on the entire rum consumer population. Initial efforts should focus on enthusiasts, as they drive significant mindshare among new connoisseurs. If enough influencers and consumers continue to advocate publicly for such disclosures, and a group of producers lead the way, then adoption will happen though osmosis.
  • Last but not least, standardized terminology is critical.  If one brand’s distillation field says, “Vendome six plate” and another’s says, “Artisanal distillation in a copper alembic”, what have we gained? They should agree on something like batch/continuous/hybrid, and leave the flowery prose for elsewhere on the label.

    Likewise, if one brand’s label says “ester level” number, and another’s says “volatiles”, are they equivalent? Likely not. How does the consumer know this?

    There’s a natural urge to infuse transparency information with a marketing spin. But if informed consumer can’t meaningfully compare two different producer’s labels, was it worth the effort?

Extreme Transparency – An Aside

The rum label below has made the rounds lately, garnering much attention from transparency focused enthusiasts. It takes information sharing to an extreme:

I adore what this label is about. However, I have no illusions that it will become the norm. It’s not real-world rum labels should be. Essential glossy verbiage must be front and center! (I’m kidding, but also being realistic.)

That said, this label shows how a moderately-sized panel of information, common across producers, could find a place on rum labels. Perhaps just on prestige brands at first, but Incremental progress is better than none at all.

Surveying Enthusiast Opinions

In my aforementioned modest proposal, I set forth a few items producers could consider standardizing on:

Technical DescriptorAllowed Terminology
Country of fermentation & distillation‘X’ or ‘Multiple’
Single DistilleryYes/No
Single BatchYes/No
Fermentation SourceCane juice/Cane syrup/Molasses/multiple/other
Primary Yeast SourceCultured yeast/airborne yeasts/both
Distillation TypeBatch/Continuous/multiple
Maximum Distilled ABV‘X’ Percent ABV
Minimum Age in Wood‘X’ Years
Carbon Filtration for ColorYes/No
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar.Yes/No

The above list is just a starting point. And what do others think?

As a software engineer for thirty years, I’m a data geek. With Google forms I composed a simple survey and released it to the winds. I received some great feedback, and a small amount of (expected) criticism.

The simplest survey would just list the items above and request respondents to rank them from 1 to 10 in order of importance.  The results would likely not be terribly surprising.

Instead, I used more questions to tease out additional nuances; details that would ordinarily be lost in the noise. Thus, my five questions each targeted a specific aspect of rum making:

  • General, e.g. Who and Where?
  • Fermentation
  • Distillation
  • Aging
  • Blending

I deliberately left off items that must appear on a label, such as alcoholic strength. To streamline the survey, respondents only picked their top one or two choices for each question, rather than ranking everything. Each question had an obvious “most important” contender, but by requiring a second choice, gave a sense of relative importance of the others.

To be clear, my choice phrasing was often not what I’d put on a label. My goal was to determine what information people wanted, rather than how a label reports it.

In total, I collected 344 response, enough to provide a ballpark level idea of the typical respondent’s desires.

Disclaimers

I am not a professional data scientist. I created this survey in an hour’s time. It has not been peer reviewed. I did not ensure people only filled it out once. I did not collect any personally identifying data. I did not verify the demographics of who took it. A professional accounting firm did not validate my statistical analysis. I undertook this effort entirely of my own accord, and without communication, guidance, or compensation from any rum brand.

Even more esoteric choices could have been made available, e.g. “fermentation vat wood type”, “number of rectifier plates”, or “chill filtration temperature.” I chose to keep the set of available answers reasonable and understandable. You may disagree with what I included, and what I didn’t.

In short, it’s just a quick poll. It is not intended as anything other than a starting point for further conversation.

No medical decisions should be made from this data or my conclusions. Your mileage may vary.

Data and Commentary

What follows is my brief analysis of the individual question responses. If you just want my big picture conclusions, skip down to the Conclusions section.

General (Who & Where?)

Question: Please rank the two most important details you’d like a rum label to include for transparency.

Available choices:

  • Country of Fermentation / distillation
  • Single distillery (Yes/No)
  • Single batch (Yes/No)
  • Bottled by producing distillery (Yes/No)

Results

Summary: “Country of Fermentation/Distillation” distinguishes the primary rum production stages from aging. This eliminates ambiguity about whether a Jamaican distilled rum aged in Italy should be called Jamaican or French. This is not a commentary on GIs, which are outside this discussion.

“Single distillery” means the rum came from one producer, without specifying the producer’s name. Many rums are blends from multiple producers. Some people may have misinterpreted the question, so subsequent analysis has caveats.

 “Single batch” indicates all the rum in the bottle is from the same “batch”, rather than a blend of different ages or marques.  Velier Long Pond TECA 2005 is a single batch. Appleton 12 is not.

“Bottled by producing distillery” distinguishes if the rum came from the distillery itself or was sold to another company who bottled it. The Gargano categorization makes a similar distinction.

Examples:

  • Appleton 12 would qualify. Smith & Cross would not.
  • El Dorado 12 would qualify. Hamilton Guyana would not.

Had “Producing distillery” been an option, it almost certainly would take the top spot, but it intentionally wasn’t an option.

Forced to choose between knowing country of origin, or if from a single distillery, knowing the country clearly won.

For second place, “single distillery” won. However, “bottled by producing distillery” got as many votes as the last two choices combined. This suggest some desire to know if the rum was made by the brand on the label.

Fermentation

Question: Please rank the fermentation detail you’d most like a rum label to include for transparency.

Available choices:

  • Fermentation source (cane juice, syrup, molasses, other)
  • Yeast type (Cultured yeast, airborne yeasts, both)
  • Shortest fermentation of any component rum

Results:

Summary: To no great surprise, the most desired information was whether the rum was made from cane juice, cane syrup, or molasses. This detail heavily influences a rum’s flavor.

The second-choice results are surprising. Wild yeast fermentations are associated with particularly flavorful, funky rums, whereas cultured yeast ferments are more… refined, for lack of a better word. Yeast variety seriously influences a rum’s flavor profile.

However, the length of fermentation also matters. Shorter fermentations of a day or two are associated with more “everyday” rums, whereas long fermentations of several weeks tend to yield wild and highly flavorful rums.  Between yeast variety and fermentation length, respondents had a slight preference for knowing the duration, which somewhat surprised me.

Distillation

Question: Please rank the two most important distillation related details you’d like a rum label to include for transparency.

Available choices:

  • Distillation type (Pot, column, hybrid, multiple)
  • Number of columns (if continuous distillation)
  • Highest distilled ABV of any component rum
  • Volatile compounds (in gr/hlAA)

Results:

Summary: “Distillation type” should be quite obvious if you’ve made it this far.

“Number of columns” might seem like an odd option, but it’s addressed by the Gargano categorization as well. It differentiates traditional one or two column stills used for centuries from modern-multicolumn stills. Rum distilled on a five-column still is often assumed to be relatively flavorless, whereas rum from a single-column Creole or twin-column Coffey will have more character.

 “Highest distilled ABV” is another slice at a rum’s flavor intensity. A column distilled Martinique rum at 70 percent ABV presumably has more flavor than a multi-column rum distilled to 94.9 percent ABV. This particular detail didn’t curry much favor with survey takers.

“Volatile compounds” represent a numeric measurement of flavor congeners in a rum. Which congeners though? Is the measurement just ethyl acetate, as with Jamaican rum “ester levels”? Or is it a group of congeners? Which ones? Who decided which congeners? Great questions. Labels often don’t provide these answers. Nonetheless, it looks “cool” on a label.

“Distillation technology (pot/column/hybrid)” is the clear winner. However, “volatile compounds” was a strong second choice amongst respondents. The above questions remain, though.

Should producers include numeric congener levels, it’s imperative to declare what is being measured. Many current labels are lacking in that regard, a topic I’m pondering for a future story.

Aging

Question: Please rank the two most important aging details you’d like a rum label to include for transparency.

Available choices:

  • Country of aging
  • Minimum cask age of any component rum
  • Maximum cask entry strength of any component rum
  • Type of primary aging cask (virgin oak, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, etc…)

Results:

Summary: “Country of aging” primarily differentiates tropical vs. continental aging. Witness the heated debates about whether Jamaican-distilled rum aged in Scotland is really Jamaican.

“Minimum cask age of any rum” is similar to an age statement, but not identical. Many countries only allow the youngest rum’s age to appear on the label. Other countries don’t care. This option puts aside per-country labeling legalities, reducing it to an unambiguous number.

Some might cry “Heresy!” but one could also imagine a “weighted average age” as another transparency field, distinct from the label’s “age statement”. For instance, Appleton 12 could include “Weighted average age: 16 years,” should a country’s labeling laws allow it.

“Minimum cask entry strength” is admittedly obscure, but this detail has an important flavor impact. An 85 percent ABV rum will extract more wood notes and tannins than a 65 percent ABV rum. Most high-end producers dilute their distillate down to around 70 percent ABV prior to casking. This detail didn’t garner much enthusiasm from respondents.

“Type of primary aging cask” is self-explanatory and the wording weeds out cask finishes. Now that I think about it, “cask finish type” would been a good option for this question.

Unsurprisingly, survey taker had a moderate primary preference for knowing a rum’s minimum age. However, a fair number of people chose “country of aging” over minimum age, although you’ll notice that in neither the first nor second choice did that option make it as the top concern.

Taking the second choice slot, and further bolstered by a few people picking it as their first choice, is “type of primary aging cask.” Enthusiasts would appear to value this detail. Unfortunately, it isn’t disclosed as clearly or as often as it could be.

Blending

Question: Please rank the two most important blending details you’d like a rum label to include for transparency.

Available choices:

  • Carbon filtered for color (yes/no)
  • Color adjusted with caramel (yes/no)
  • Additives other than caramel (yes/no)
  • Chill filtered (yes/no)
  • Single marque / Blend of marques

Results:

Summary: “Carbon filtered for color” helps tease apart unaged rums from lightly aged rums that are filtered to make “white” rum. The vast majority of Caribbean “white” rum is carbon filtered. Surprised? Both Cuba and Puerto Rico have regulations requiring rum to be aged, and between them, they make a prodigious amount of “white” rum.

“Color adjusted with caramel” is self-explanatory. Some rum drinkers feel strongly that it should be disclosed, others say it’s of little consequence.

“Additives other than caramel” likely means “sugar” to many respondents, but also includes glycerol, vanillin, and more. Basically, anything added after aging that’s not caramel coloring.

“Chill filtered” (green on the graph – blame Google), means that prior to blending, the rum was chilled and passed through a filter to extract some of the heavier congeners that can make a rum turn cloudy in certain conditions. However, it can reduce the flavor and body of a spirit. Many high-end spirits afficionados are very anti-chill filtering. That sentiment doesn’t seem to have reached critical mass in rum circles yet.

“Single marque / Blend of marques” (purple on the graph – blame Google) may be confusing. Somewhat similar to “single batch,” it differentiates a single marque rum a blend of multiple marques.  For instance, rums labeled DOK (Hampden Estate), TECC (Long Pond), and Port Mourant (DDL) are single marque rums. Single marque rums are usually limited runs of just a few casks.

To absolutely no surprise, “Additives other than caramel” was the clear first choice winner. I’m rather shocked that 51 people selected “caramel coloring” over “other additives”.

In the second choice slot, “caramel coloring” came out on top by just a tad. That, combined with its (relatively) strong first-choice vote totals, shows enthusiasts want caramel coloring disclosed. 

Conclusion

Despite just five question, there’s a fair amount of data to ponder. We can slice it in many ways, but as this post is already getting long, I’ll keep it to just a few observations. The raw data is below, should you wish to do what you will with it.

Taking the first-choice winner from each question creates a transparency detail set that includes the following:

  • Country of fermentation / distillation
  • Source material (cane juice, syrup, molasses, other)
  • Distillation technology (Pot, column, hybrid, multiple)
  • Minimum cask age of any component rum
  • Additives other than caramel (yes/no)

Many independently bottled, limited edition rums include all these details. However, when we look at widely available rums, even very expensive examples. some of the above details are lacking. Or must be inferred from close reading of florid label descriptions. Usually only “Country of fermentation / distillation” and “minimum cask age” are consistently provided. The others are very hit-and-miss.

Other than “additives”, I can’t imagine any reputable producer having a problem providing these five items in a clear, consistent manner. Yes, additives will be a sticking point.

However, if we take “additives” off the table for now, and swap in its runner up option, “caramel coloring”, most reputable producers shouldn’t have a problem disclosing that.

Let’s take this a step further. Is there other low hanging fruit we can add, based its popularity in the survey results? I propose these three items:

  • “Single distillery” seems well-defined and non-controversial.
  • Volatile compounds would be a great thing to add to labels, should producers agree on exactly what’s being measured and reporting only that value.
  • Country of aging is also well-defined and should be non-controversial.

If enough producers agreed on the above eight items and included them on labels with using agreed upon verbiage, we’d make a meaningful stride forward in transparency. Even if such details were only available on a company’s web site, it would still be an improvement.

To wrap this up, what I’ve outlined above isn’t intended as any sort of final destination for rum transparency. Rather, it’s a well-defined, easy implemented, non-controversial starting point. But as they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

My sincere thanks to Lance Surujbally, aka The Lone Caner for reading a draft of this story and providing his informed opinions.

Raw Summary Data

Anticipating somebody will ask for the actual numeric summary results, here is the summary totals reported by Google Forms:

General

 Country of Fermentation & distillationSingle distilleryBottled by Producing distillerySingle batch
1st choice252462917
2nd choice5014910144

Fermentation

 Fermentation source (cane juice, syrup, molasses, other)Shortest fermentation of any component rumYeast type (Cultured, airborne, both)
1st choice312275
2nd choice30165149

Distillation

 Distillation type (Pot, column, hybrid, multiple)Volatile compounds (in gr/hlaa)Highest distilled ABV of any component rumNumber of columns (if continuous distillation)
1st choice3191582
2nd choice1915612544

Aging

 Minimum cask age of any component rumCountry of agingType of primary aging cask (virgin oak, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, etc…)Maximum cask Entry strength of any component rum
1st choice190105472
2nd choice8310114317

Blending

 Additives other than caramelColor adjusted with caramelSingle marque / Blend of marquesChill filteredCarbon filtered for color
1st choice247513196
2nd choice74118726119

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