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So far Gianni has created 5 blog entries.
4 05, 2018

Misconception #5: Rum has no rules!

Rum has no rules!

This is the fifth and final article in this series on rum misconceptions. In previous articles, we learned that not all white rums are the same, rum isn’t sweet, darker rum isn’t necessarily older, and age is a poor indicator of quality. Here, we’ll dispel the notion that rum has no rules.

It’s popular and trite in rum circles to say that rum has no rules or regulations. Yet it’s equally true that whisk(e)y has no regulations. Think that’s wrong? Read on.

In his seminal book, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, author Wayne Curtis writes: “Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of ‘America’s spirit,’ drink one of the most regulated spirits known.” He goes on to say that “Rum embodies America’s laissez-faire attitude: it is whatever it wants to be. There’s no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites.”

It’s a compelling narrative—rum is free from those pesky regulations, so it can evolve to soar with the eagles. However, the passage has two critical words that constrain its scope: “bourbon” and “international.”

Bourbon is a subcategory of whisk(e)y, made only in America. However, other types of whisk(e)y are made all over the world—from northern Scotland to the south of Argentina. Bourbon’s production regulations are defined and enforced by the United States. Likewise, the single malt Scotch whisky regulations were conceived of by Scottish producers and enforced by Scottish authorities. Whisk(e)y made in India also has a distinct set of regulations. It’s no surprise that the American bourbon, single malt Scotch whisky, and Indian whisk(e)y regulations are quite different from one another.

The term “regulations” really is a disservice to their intended purpose. Country-specific regulations aren’t in place to make things harder or to prevent producers from making what they want. A better term for them is “protections.” They protect producers in a given region from outsiders creating a potentially inferior product and passing it off as something it’s not.

A great example of the protection gained from regulations is the American bourbon industry. In 1964 American whiskey producers banded together to define bourbon’s requirements, including that it “…is a distinctive product of the United States and is unlike other types of alcoholic beverages, whether foreign or domestic.” The net effect was to protect American bourbon from Mexican and Canadian products coming into the U.S. and being sold as cut-rate “bourbon.”

Many rum producing countries have production regulations (ahem… protections). For example, the French island of Martinique enforces very precise rules for how rhums bearing the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label are made. Countries such as Barbados and Jamaica adhere to the 2008 Caricom rum regulations. In 2013, Cachaça was recognized by the United States as a unique product and not just rum made in Brazil. Even Cuba has a detailed Geographical Indication that outlines how Cuban rum must be produced.

Country-specific rules for these rums are just as meaningful as the bourbon or Scotch whisky regulations. There is no international organization declaring that rums from all countries must adhere to the same regulations. The same is true of whiskey. There’d be open revolt if an international agency tried to standardize worldwide whiskey making regulations.

Part of rum’s perception problem is that the high value, regional designations haven’t entered the general consumer’s consciousness. Drinkers fully expect that bourbon and single malt scotch belong in distinct sections on the liquor store shelf. But when it comes to rums, retailers generally make no attempt to differentiate the Martinique AOC rhums, the Puerto Rican Bacardi rums, the Tanduay Philippine rum, or the Appleton Jamaican rums.

In the wine world, it’s common to organize by varietals—Merlot, Chardonnay, and so on. Likewise, within the spirits realm, retailers have no problems listing bourbon, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, and scotch whisky as distinct products. But when it comes to rum, odds are that they have one overarching category: rum.

Another indignity that rum suffers is the lack of enforcement of even the most minimum requirements. The U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (commonly known as the TTB) defines rum as “Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume.” The key word in this definition is “cane.” Yet in 2016 the TTB allowed the sale of a “rum” made from sugar beets. Despite a large uproar from rum enthusiasts and producers, this beet rum is still sold today as “Colorado rum.”

Another example of lackadaisical enforcement: the U.S. TTB recognizes the authority of the single malt scotch and Cognac regulations, meaning that to be sold in the U.S., those spirits must meet the same requirements as if they were being sold in Scotland or France, respectively. Not so with rum. The Caricom regulations for rums from countries such as Barbados and Jamaica are effectively irrelevant in the U.S. As long as a product meets the U.S. TTB definition for rum (see above), it can be labeled and sold as such.

By now, it should be clear that the rum category has an image problem. There are exceptional producers like Foursquare, Mount Gay, Rhum Clément, and Appleton making rums that stand toe-to-toe with the finest whiskeys and brandies. And these producers work mightily to demonstrate rum’s inherent value. Yet far more of the category’s overall marketing dollars goes toward promoting a pervasive pirate and beach party theme rather than promoting quality.

Mezcal, including the tequila subcategory, was once in a similar position as rum—inexpensive hooch for mixed drinks or party shots, and not a spirit worth enjoying neat. However, in time the public perception has turned around—the $1 billion purchase of Casamigos by Diageo is only the latest evidence that tequila is now firmly entrenched in people’s minds as a premium product, in spite of the ubiquitous presence of lowest common denominator players like José Cuervo Gold.

The rum category is at a crossroads. Can it get past all the misperceptions that we’ve addressed so far? That it’s too sweet, all the same swill, and has no regulations? Only time will tell. But know that there’s a dedicated group of devotees working every day to share their enthusiasm for great rums and to elevate the category. Join us quickly!

4 04, 2018

Misconception #4: Older Rum Is Better!

Older Rum Is Better!

Here, we’ll discuss why a prominently featured number (perceived as the “age”) is often a misleading indicator of quality.

It’s all so confusing. You’re standing before a wall of rum at the liquor store, trying to pick a good bottle that’s not too expensive. You’re barraged by numbers—Ron Zacapa 23, Zaya 12, Flor de Caña 18, Doorly’s 8—and all less than $50. Surely the older ones, those with the larger numbers on the label, must be better, right? By this point in the series, you can probably surmise that the answer is a resounding “no.”

In fact, given their pick of the above bottles, many hardcore rum drinkers wouldn’t blink an eye before choosing the “youngest” rum in the lot, the Doorly’s 8-year. You see, they know that age is just one part of a rum’s quality. Equally important, they know that the “age statement” isn’t consistently used, and may not even reflect the rum’s actual age.

The Real Age of Rums!

Let’s start with the sunniest possible interpretation of the number on a bottle before we lower ourselves into the shenanigans. In an ideal world, a rum bottle that says “8 years” on the label holds not a drop of rum aged for fewer than eight years. That is, the age statement is a guaranteed minimum age for the entire content of the bottle. In many countries, including the United States, this interpretation is the law.

This sounds great, except that eight years isn’t always eight years when it comes to the aging process. All barrels are different, and new barrels impart a lot of flavor from the wood itself. We see this in bourbon, where using new barrels is a requirement, with the resulting bourbon acquiring a very vanilla-forward profile from the wood. At the other end of the spectrum, many producers seek out previously used casks because they’re more “neutral.” For example, Cuban producers want the oldest barrels they can get their hands on—they want as little flavor extraction from the wood as possible, preferring all the flavor to come from oxidation.

In addition to the barrel’s past history, the location where the aging occurs has a huge impact on how quickly the aging process happens. In warmer climates like the Caribbean, the chemical process referred to as “aging” occurs faster than in cooler climates like Scotland. Many independent bottlers ship casks of rum from the Caribbean to northern Europe (and Scotland in particular) for extended aging. In the cool, damp climate, the flavor of the barrel’s contents transforms more slowly, bringing out different flavor characteristics.

In short, even with consistently enforced regulations around age statements, the value of the declared age is much less than you might think. There are just too many other variables to realistically represent aging as a single number.

Truth in Rum Labeling!

The story gets even more confusing when you encounter solera aging, originally invented in Spain as a fractional blending technique to create a consistent flavor profile in wines made over a number of years. By the time a solera-aged spirit is bottled, it has spent time in a number of different barrels and has been blended with spirits of different ages from other barrels. Take Ron Zacapa Centenario, perhaps the most well-known solera-aged rum. The company states that it’s a blend of rums between six years and 23 years. By the “minimum age” requirement referenced above, the label could truthfully say “6 years” on the label. Yet the label says “Zacapa 23,” referencing the oldest rum in the blend. As confusing as that is, with Zacapa 23 there’s at least some correlation between the label number and an age, if only a partial one.

Descending even deeper, we come to rums creatively named to imply an age statement. Take the “El Dorado Grand Special Reserve,” which says “50 years” prominently on the label. It’s only on closer inspection that you see it’s celebrating 50 years of Guyanese independence. The rum within is a blend of rums from 33 to 50 years. Surely nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not a 50-year minimum. A more egregious example is Zaya, once the darling of the rum enthusiast crowd, with a truthful age statement of 12 years. More recently, Zaya was massively reformulated and is now a blend of “12 different rare rums.” Yet the bottle’s labeling has barely changed from before and still prominently features a “12” at the bottle’s neck. Only the very fine print mentions “12 different rare rums,” which is not an age statement in the slightest.

Flor de Caña tells a similar story. What was once a seven year age statement was oh-so-subtly changed to just “7” without including the key word “years.” By any reasonable measure, these labels can only be interpreted as intending to influence the consumer into thinking it represents an age statement. Sadly, there’s demonstrable proof that it’s working. Retailers themselves are confused and pass along this false information to consumers.

Go to any online spirits retailer and search for Zaya. A shockingly high number of listings call it a twelve-year-old rum. It’s the same story with Flor de Caña, Zacapa, and many others. And so far, there’s been very little visible effort to crack down on this consumer fraud, regardless of whether it’s intentional.

As high-end rum struggles to gain the same respect as bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky, the lack of consistency around age statements, or what consumers believe are age statements, holds the category back. How can the labels be trusted? Bourbon and scotch have a much stronger story when it comes to age statements, as their industries have strict, enforced regulations to prevent most chicanery.

Does rum’s lack of regulation hold it back? Trick question! Rum has plenty of regulations. In the next installment of this series, we’ll learn about rum regulations, and why many persist in thinking rum has no rules.

20 11, 2017

Misconception #1: Rum is sweet!

Rum is sweet!

It’s a common refrain: “Rum is sweet because it’s made from sugar cane!” Yes, rum is made from sugar. But so is every other type of spirit like bourbon, scotch, gin, vodka, cognac, and tequila. All are derived from sugar, the key element in fermentation, yet you never hear about them being sweet. Confused? (more…)

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