When non-knowledgeable list-makers who pepper the pages of equally clueless online magazines with their silly compendia ask for advice and help, I can tolerate it, but not from this guy, who I read quite a lot of and respect a whole lot more. He should not be asking, in such vague terms, to get for free what he’s paid to write.
On December 8th 2020, spirits writer Tony Sachs posed this question on the Ministry of Rum Forum on FB: “Hey all, picking your collective brain for an article I’m writing about the 21 best rums of the 21st century (so far). Quite a daunting task! I’m trying to go for a balance of delicious and historically significant. Any suggestions are welcome — they don’t have to be currently available, they just have to be great…..As you can tell, I’m just beginning the research! Of course rhums agricole and clairins are acceptable, so… don’t be shy.” In five hours this thing picked up some 77 responses, few of which were surprising (there were 94 less than two weeks later).
At the risk of sounding like a whining puke who enjoys raining on others’ parades and taking down seemingly innocuous and innocent inquiries just because I can, I think for a famed, widely published and widely read spirits writer to ask this question suggests a problematic lack of knowledge about the very spirit he seeks to be discussing and the language used to request ideas. There’s just so much wrong with with the question, and the whole mindset behind it.
Consider the following points and walk with me here:
One: the question is poorly phrased and defined in such vague terms as to lead to any amount of answers. For example: distilled in 21st century, or released for sale in the 21st century? (this has now been addressed). What does “great” mean? Who defines that? Does the statement “Agricoles and clairins are acceptable” mean that they are not to be taken seriously but can get a sympathy entry? Do spiced rums count? What about sweetened ones? And that word “delicious” – I mean, seriously? … that opens the door up to such a level of subjectivity as to make the exercise completely pointless, because the amount of candidates will simply overwhelm the number asked for. I expect more from a professional spirits writer with years of experience under his belt.
Two: The 21st century is ⅕ of the way through so it’s unclear what good such a list actually serves when we’re only 20% in (thanks, please hold your messages, I saw the escape clause of “so far”) – perhaps it’s a conflation of “coming of age” at 21 with next year and chosing that number of rums, I don’t know. But further to that, let me point out that the real increase in both rum knowledge and rum choice has happened in the last ten years, not the last twenty. This was enabled by the internet and social media (especially Facebook) coupled with the rise and proliferation of bloggers after around 2010 — and what it really means is that very few people have any idea of or about any “historically significant” rum released before that point (let alone a delicious one), unless it’s Velier.
Three: Leaving aside the inherent uselessness of “delicious” given its subjectivity, I doubt very many will know what a truly historically significant rum is, or, for that matter, why it is considered to be so (or should be). In other words, without the context and the statement of why, does any response to this aspect of the question have any meaning, really? Is a rum significant because it is a long time “workhorse” of the bar industry, as Jesse Torres commented? Because it is popular? Has loads of people saying it is? Made by a favoured distiller? Again, criteria are lacking.
Four: the current social media atmosphere favours some brands above others and they get the lion’s share of the press. I hardly need mention that these are Velier, Foursquare, Worthy Park, Hampden for the chatterati, and Appleton, St Lucia Distillers and an occasional agricole or rum from east of Greenwich for the balance. (The 77 comments mentioned above make the point: three quarters of all suggestions are from those outfits). This blinkered mindset relegates far too many rums of actual importance and great taste to the margins, unacknowledged, unknown, uncounted — and again points to the weakness of the “ask the crowd for suggestions” mentality. You either know your own subject or you don’t – if you do you shouldn’t be asking, and if you don’t you shouldn’t be writing.
You might think this is a mean-spirited hit piece against a spirits writer against whom I have a personal beef. But that’s reading too closely and far from the truth: this opinion is about far more than just one man’s modus operandi. I’m railing against the entire culture of indolence that seems to have permeated the online world, where, rather than do any kind of work to research a matter for themselves, so very many people – from professionals to amateurs to simple fans – prefer to simply toss out questions for others to answer, and accept those answers from people whose knowledge in the field they have no way of assessing. I have nothing but contempt for ivory tower pontificators who condescendingly offer up dismissals of many bloggers’ selfless, self-funded and enormously dedicated work with remarks like “A great deal of what passes for “Rum History” is the product of, at best, amateurs using google…”1 while producing nothing of value on the subject themselves, but it’s equally poor form to not even check the resources that are available before posing a query of this kind.
At end, from a narrow rum perspective, what this question really is, is a variation of that endearingly innocent “What should I start with?” which abounds in the reddit rum feed. From a beginner, I can accept it. From a pro? …well, not so much. Speaking as a writer myself, I don’t know what good crowdsourcing such a question serves, especially for an article one is likely being paid to write in a field where one holds oneself out as knowledgeable. Is it to get free help? Ideas? Thoughts I couldn’t come up with myself to add to those I can? Save some snooping-around time for work I should be doing, sourcing rum candidates which I, as a spirit writer, couldn’t find the time to research on my own? Sorry, snark or no snark, but I disapprove of this. It smacks of laziness.
And without even looking too hard, I can tell you pretty much what’s going to come out at the other end: Velier, Foursquare, clairins (which is Velier again), the New Jamaicans (Velier repped yet again, with Hampden), Smith & Cross, Rum Fire, maybe Appleton and Savanna, Privateer based on current comments, and a grudging few nods to one or two others. I’d be surprised if anything out of Asia, Australia, Africa or even South America makes the cut. So in the end, it’s pointless. Too much will be excluded no matter what you do and attention will be focused on trends of the day, with not enough light being shone on real long term stars that have stood the test of time over the last twenty years.
Summing up, here’s what I think: you want to write an article like that, create a catchy listicle like that, it’s at best an opinion, so you base it on serious and rigorously defined criteria; on your knowledge and your observation of the field, and your own tastings. You don’t casually farm it out to the crowd. Because posting that question to the MoR is like wandering into a stadium of Rolling Stones fans and asking “Uhhh…who else should I be listening to?” Completely useless. Mr. Sachs would do better to do the fieldwork himself, solo. Then at least the result would be his own honest take, not a crowdsourced smorgasbord based on either the opinions of trend-followers, or the generous input of others who really care about the subject. A subject he should, in any event, know enough about already.
Update February 2021
Some days after I published this editorial, Mr. Sachs contacted me. He took no offense at what I had written, was a complete gent about the whole thing, and we discussed his article and the potential candidates and pitfalls for several days.
The list he finally made is, I think, one of the best of its kind to have come out in recent years – not because of the rums he chose, exactly (though those are pretty good given the work he had to do to narrow down the field) but because of the narrative accompanying each one, a combination of trivia, facts and background detail, plus some thoughtful commentary. I had no input into what he finally chose, but he was kind enough to give me a hat tip when he shared the post on FB.
Was my post an exercise in snark? Maybe. Would I take it down? No. Not just because I stand by what I write and take the hit for when I’m wrong, but because the points that were made are relevant and retain a greater applicability than merely to Mr. Sachs. It’s to his credit that he did such a bang up job in spite of my initial fears.
Well said. At the end of the day such articles are little more than click bait. I’m not on Facebook so I can’t see what the cognoscenti came back with, don’t particularly care, but I have no doubt it’s all the usual suspects you mentioned. I dare say Caroni will get a run too, probably some bottle that costs more than a small car and is only available to the hipsterati anyway who will fall over each other to demonstrate to the rest of us plebs how keyed in they are to this whole rum thing.
That is in fact exactly what has happened. People were happy to provide Mr. Sachs with examples but few (if any) made a case for their selection, and it seemed more like a roll call of cool rums and personal favourites. I hope to see his article when it comes out, mind you, just to see whether he adhered to his own loose criteria, and what made the cut.
You would never see an esteemed whisky writer do the same thing on a whisky Facebook page. IMO, it shows the lack of respect for the category.
More like a lck of respect for his own knowledge. Not the first time either.