Mar 132013

(First posted on Liquorature, September 2010)

Rum connoisseurs and aficionados must occasionally weep with envy when they see the myriad regulations and hoops that whisky makers have to jump through when labelling their product. That sounds utterly counterintuitive, unless you’re trying to get a handle on what rum actually is – perhaps, like obscenity or time, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it (or is that the Matrix…?).

I think that the advantage whiskies have over rums in this regard, is the geographic nature of production: whisky is so markedly identified with just a few countries (Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada and a few others) that it seems almost homogeneous. Scotland in particular is fierce about what defines and denotes a “Scotch” whisky. I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy of such harsh and narrow rulings, but the interesting thing about the concept of such rigorous definition and labelling is that as Scotland lobbies for and tightens international regulations regarding terms like “Scotch” or “single malt”, the world follows suit.  And in this way uniformity of production methodology, terminology and understanding is disseminated across the globe, irrespective of whether we are discussing a Yamazaki 12 year old, an Amrut Fusion, or Glenora Distillery’s Glen Breton Rare Label (or any of the Last Hippie’s objects of unseemly adoration from the Highlands or Islay).

Consider this: to be considered a Scotch whisky and be labelled as such, a whisky must not only conform to certain production methods (much to the distress of Loch Lomond), but make clear statements of age; where it has been matured within the five whisky-producing regions of Scotland; where it has been distilled; whether it is a single malt scotch whisky, single grain scotch whisky, blended malt scotch whisky, blended grain scotch whisky or blended scotch whisky; it is not allowed to call itself or label itself in this fashion unless it toes the line on the behind-the-scenes rules governing what each item means; and so on. They don’t mess around, those Scots, do they?

But look: tequila is quite as demanding in its own way – you can’t label the drink a tequila unless it is made from the blue agave plant grown in in Mexico.  Doesn’t matter whether you import the stuff to Pago-pago and harvest, distill it and bottle it there.  If the plant don’t come from one of those four states, it ain’t a real tequila.  Try labelling it as such and you could be slapped with a lawsuit in labba time (Mexico has claimed the international right to the word “tequila”). There are other examples in the tippling world: the use of the word Sherry is limited to a small geographic location in Spain; Champagne is identified with France (and a relatively tiny part of it, at that).  Unlike Panama hats which are not made in Panama, or catgut which is not from a cat, or how the Canary Islands are not named after birds, most liquors now have international trade regulations backing up their claims to be this or that, with the notable exception of vodka, though in recent years movements in eastern Europe are trending to standardization of this also.

Contrast that with the harum-scarum, make-stuff-up-as-you-go-along, practically unregulated mish-mash of how one can label a bottle of rum. Bar certain (inconsistent) national standards, there is no global requirement worldwide for any rum maker, be he from Austria, the Caribbean, South America, Thailand, Australia or otherwise, to make an age statement, to note the source materials or to discuss the additives.  Neither is there the inference that if something is said to be a rum, that consistent manufacturing methods are automatically in force.  Local (national) regulations dominate the manufacture and labelling of all rums around the world, and there is no overarching structure knitting together all the variations. About the only nomenclature regarding rums that is nominally accepted by all – makers and consumers alike – is that rum originates from sugar cane.  That’s it. Even that is not adhered to, since Czechoslovakia has spirits labelled rum but made from sugar beet; and rum-verschnitt of Germany tastes like rum but is only rectified spirit blended with water and imported rum…and the percentage of true rum in the blend can be as low as 5%.

It’s this kind of lack which makes rums so widespread and so tricky to pin down.  One can argue that it leads to ten times more innovation and variety than the rather staid whiskies of the world, but not surprisingly, it more often has led to all kinds of confusion and arguments.  A good example of this is the matter of additives.  The Zaya 12 year old reviewed on this site (and on the rumhowlerblog) has been attacked for misrepresenting itself as a “straight” rum, when in fact many believe it is a spiced variant – which the maker is under no obligation to disclose (whether a rum states on the label it is spiced or not is a marketing thing, not a regulatory requirement).  Then there’s the matter of its origin: when Diageo took over in 2008 and moved production to Trinidad, it still produced the 12 year old and labelled it “Trinidad Production” on the bottle – yet what did that mean, since Trinidad obviously had not been producing it for twelve years yet?  Did it refer to raw stock from Guatemala bottled in T&T, or stock matured in T&T, or both…what?  Another rum with a similar issue is Stroh which is made in Austria.  Nowhere on the bottle – any bottle that I have seen, at any rate – is there anything that says what the source stock is, what’s been added, or how old it is. Its harsh taste has led me to remark only half-jokingly that it may not be a rum at all (it might be another example of the German variety).  Clearer labelling would eliminate such frustrating inconsistencies. But that would require a standard and somebody to own the word “rum”, or at the very least, some of its variants like “Demerara rum” or “navy rum”. I can’t see that happening.

Part of the problem is the sheer spread of rum manufacturing.  Whisky is primarily made the UK, Ireland, Japan, Canada and the USA and these countries have moved together (to some extent) in their definitions of the product, with Scotland as ever taking the lead; but a brief catalogue of rums encompasses almost the entire tropical belt and then some.  Every Caribbean island has its own; it’s made in South America, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Europe, Africa, Europe and the United States.  Hell, even Canada makes it from stock imported from the West Indies. And while many countries have their own legislation defining the product, by no means is this consistent, as the following paragraphs make clear.

1. There is no standard for materials of origin: yes, rum is mostly derived from sugar cane, but there is sugar cane juice (from the first pressing) which composes the French agricoles and Brazilian cachaça; the molasses by-product of dark sugar production; sugar cane syrup; rectified alcohol as in Europe; and as noted above, sugar beets.  Hardly a model of standardization.  The Scots must be laughing into their sporrans at this craziness.

2. There is no standard production method. My reference to Loch Lomond above referred to its problems meeting the new definitions of Scotch whisky production: Scotch can, since 2009, only be made from pot stills, while LL uses a variation which is more properly termed a columnar still. Rum suffers from no such restrictions.  You can make it from an alembic if you so desire, and it’s all the same to the label if it is made from a pot or columnar still, or even just mixed from pre-existing ingredients.

3. There is no agreed-on definition of minimum strength (below which, for instance, it would be classified as a liquor, not a rum): local regulations define rum as a minimum of 38-54% ABV in Brazil, 40% in Chile, the US and Canada, and 50% in Columbia. The ageing the primary spirit must undergo prior to being recognized as rum also varies: it’s a minimum of eight months in Mexico, one year in the Dominican Republic and two years in Venezuela and Peru. The definition of anejo, aged, matured, XO or reserve is also the subject of hot debate around the world, with exactly zero consistency.  Now granted, the West Indies has been unable to come up with a single voice on political affairs for over half a century, but surely if they can put together a cricket team they can sort out the difference between an aged and an extra old rum?  Just within de Islands? (I’m not holding my breath here).

4. As if all this is not bad enough, there are the variations on types of rum recognized by the various countries within their borders:  white, light; gold, amber, medium;  dark, black, heavy; overproof; matured, aged, anejo, reserve; flavoured, spiced…and this is just variations among the US, Canada, Barbados, Brazil, Mexico and Peru.  None of these gradations are exactly equivalent, so what’s a guy to do aside from read reams of reviews and turgid essays like this one?

5. Lastly, there is very little consistency on what the additives are, or even can be: it’s hardly ever mentioned. Pusser’s makes a big deal that nothing is added to its Navy Rum recipe, and so does Doorly’s; the Kraken makes no mention of any additive at all, yet it’s clear that caramel has been added to give it that characteristic opaque tint and spiced taste; and I’ve already mentioned the acerbic discourse on the Zaya 12 year old. We simply do not know whether a given rum has had caramel (or anything else for that matter) added for colouring or taste or not: whether the vanilla note we have comes from the oaken ageing, or a drop or two of ersatz extract provided by a smart distillery chemist.  And in such uncertainties, anyone can blend anything and add anything and call it rum.

This has implications beyond mere naming and consistency and my personal snottiness regarding what the hell a bottle of rum contains; definitions are the heart of free trade agreements, where common and agreed-to definitions are key to tariffs and duties (or exclusions therefrom).  Too, a common and shared agreement on what a rum is makes everything else not meeting the definition *not* a rum, and subject to differing regulatory regimes, differing import or export duties. It would stop such imposter spirits from marketing themselves as such. And lastly, it would preserve the right of sovereign countries to impose different legal requirements on local production.  It would, in short, assert quality control.

Now in recent years matters have started to change somewhat.  For example, the emergence of premium sipping rums has placed a new emphasis on accurate labelling (unregulated thus far, but still….): things like age statements, a personal bugbear of mine; or blends versus single barrels versus single years’ productions; and the statement “Product of” carries some real meaning now. But it is still a matter carried this far by major distillers and makers of the top end rums.  They have a vested interest in branding and differentiating their product to give it that cachet of exclusivity (conferred by the Scotch Whiskey Association via their rigorous standards, and copied, not initiated, by rum makers, much to my displeasure).

For example, Bruichladdich, ever ahead of the curve, were quite clear in their Renegade Rum line: this rum is made from stock from this country, and is that old, and was bottled in that year.  El Dorado out of Guyana did the same thing with their ground-breaking 15-year-old, so does Appleton in Jamaica and several others…but too many rums still lack this basic device of conformity.  Now certainly this sounds like I’m making a case for strangling the very variety that makes rum such a fascinating drink, but surely some basic standards can be agreed to? Without some kind of standardization, rum will always be disparagingly viewed as a tropical drink, suitable for the odd rum punch, black cake or cocktail, in spite of the sterling efforts of master blenders in the top distilleries to change the perception.

My personal feeling is that if rum ever wants to be taken seriously (and I can just see Maltmonster snickering into his rum-barrel-aged scotch as he reads this), it has to get its act together vis-a-vis its definitions, production and labelling.  Not everyone has time to do research online (even today with wi-fi, i-phones or blackberries) to see what it is they are getting. Not everyone has the same definitions and there will always be smaller operations seeking to push the very outside of the envelope of what a given spirit is or how it’s made (like Compass Box did in the whisky world).  And for trade between countries, it’s almost a requirement internationally.

But the fact is that amid all this confusion, rum can never aspire to the very top tier of the liquor world if that aura of respectability is missing, if quality control is not there, and nobody can agree on even what the hell a rum actually is. That would require that methods of production, ageing, and statements of additives and quality on the labelling are more rigorously defined. And enforced.


I am indebted to an older article written by Professor Norman Girvan on the Association of Caribbean States website, which I drew on in the notes on national regulations and confusion of standards.

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