Is Continental European Aged Rum better than Tropically Aged Rum?

In February this year Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Maison Ferrand, the producers of Plantation rum gave an interview to David Driscoll of K&L Wine Merchants. A popular Wine and Spirits retailer based in the US.

Over the past few years, Alexandre and more specifically Plantation rum have been held up by many as the “poster boys” for adulterated rum. This is partly due to the fact that until very recently ALL their rums had what Alexandre refers to as “dosage”. The reality is, that whilst Plantation do add sugar (an aged sugar syrup) they don’t usually add the huge amounts favoured by some other “Premium” rum producers. Nor as far as I am aware, do they add things such as Glycerin or essences.

Some claim Plantation are “transparent” over the issue. This isn’t true. They still don’t disclose on their bottles. They do let people know though. Particularly in industry focused presentations. I have attended such events and seen, for example Paul McFadyen at work explaining the “dosage” process.  I have also seen them explaining their “dosage” process without being prompted at Rum Festivals. I have also just be advised that they are disclosing dosage on their website. Here is such an example. It will be interesting to see how these results compare to those conducted by amateurs such as Johnny Drejer and myself.

For the purposes of this article I am not interested in the “added sugar” issue. I have written about this at great length in the past. I have little to add to what I have already said. Instead I wish to focus on a topic, which a number of people have asked me to write about in more detail – ageing. More specifically ageing in two very different climates.

In the interview I referred to earlier, Alexandre makes a few statements which have led to him receiving a certain amount of ridicule on Social Media. From speaking with numerous people, within the Rum Industry it is felt that Alexandre has been “poked and prodded” for quite some time. Particularly over the “dosage” issue. Some of the interview may have been Alexandre having a “pop” back at certain critics. In all honesty I do have some sympathy for him. I certainly do not blame him for doing so.  If you wish to read the interview it is here. Please form your own opinions on the interview. I have my own but do not let that influence your perception of what is said.

I feel that Alexandre may regret saying that producers in the Caribbean think “aging means putting a spirit in a barrel and then coming back five years later, hoping it’s all well and good” for example. One can understand why he has caused so much upset, especially amongst the Caribbean producers.

In the interview Alexandre suggested that he has improved Caribbean rum, by bringing it over to Europe. He talks a lot about “dosage” but also about “elevage”. Elevage focuses on making a spirit the best it can be – by carefully managing how it is matured. How it is aged and what it is aged in.

I wish to focus on WHERE rum is aged. And no, I don’t mean in a barrel. I mean Geographically. So lets focus on the debate surrounding Tropical and Continental ageing. Is Continental European Ageing better than Tropical Ageing? Can Alexandre Gabriel and Plantation really produce better rums than his Caribbean counterparts?

In an earlier article regarding Independent bottlers I did touch upon Continental European and Tropical ageing. In order to expand upon this I have asked a number of people in the industry for their views and opinions. As a result some of the information you may read in this article you may query. It may not tally with exactly what you have been told in the past. Especially by producers or brands. Some of those I spoke with have asked not to be named. First up, we will look at one of the myths regarding Continental European Aged rums.

To make things clear, by Continental European Ageing we are focusing on those rums bought by brokers and then aged in Europe. It is mostly Europe where bulk rum ends up when it is exported from the Caribbean. Tropical Ageing is when the rum is aged, usually at source in the Caribbean in a Tropical Climate.

I say usually because rum is moved from the distillery to another location. Some of Velier’s Caroni stock was moved from Trinidad to Guyana to be aged at Demerara Distillers Ltimited. The likes of Gosling’s Black Seal rum is aged tropically but the rums in the Black Seal blend are not distilled on Bermuda. They are imported from other Caribbean islands. Same is now the case at Westerhall Estate on Grenada. They import, age and blend Angostura rum from Trinidad.

Continental Ageing versus Tropical Ageing Article by the fat rum pirateIndependent Bottlers

Many Independent Bottlers make claims that they actively source rums from Caribbean Islands. Painting great stories which envoke visions of them searching through Caribbean distilleries dusty rum cellars uncovering previously untouched stocks of rare unqiue rums. Tasting and sampling until they find the exact barrel that their highly evolved palate was seeking all along.

In 99% of cases this is utter poppy-cock. Whilst no-one is doubting that a lot of these bottlers will visit the Caribbean, the idea that barrels are just waiting to be discovered and sold to the highest bidder are nonsensical. Caribbean rum producers are sitting with stocks of rum that they simply do not know what to do with? That is the kind of arrogance that really annoys the likes of Richard Seale of Foursquare.

The truth is the vast majority of Independently bottled rum is sourced through third party brokers such as E.A Scheer. The Independents buy from Scheer based on samples they are either sent or from visiting in person. They do not spend their time in dusty Caribbean warehouses looking for that perfect barrel. It is patronising to suggest the Caribbean rum producers wouldn’t be able to identify their own quality aged stock.

Think about it from an economical point of view how feasible is it to have individual barrels transported to destinations all over Europe from the Caribbean? What is feasible is that most Caribbean Distilleries rely on sales of what they call “bulk rum”.

That isn’t just “feasible” it is actually what happens!

Bulk Rum

Each distillery has a maximum production level or rather an optimal production level per year. Much like most factories – think shift working in order to maximise efiicency. They can produce X amount of gallons/litres of rum in order to run efficiently. Even famed producers such as Foursquare and Worthy Park, do not currently have sufficient demand to enable them to run their distillery to optimum efficiency and blend and bottle ALL their rum for the retail market.

As a result most distilleries rely on selling “bulk rum”. In the case of places like Clarendon/Monymusk Distillery in Jamaica this can involve selling rum to be used in anything from perfume to Captain Morgan. Some would suggest those two aren’t that far apart……

It is this sale of “bulk rum” which has enabled Independent bottlers to amass large quantities of rum. They can then purchase and age the rum in Europe – often in Scotland or Liverpool,England.

Richard Seale of Foursquare whilst reliant to some extent on “bulk rum” sales, really doesn’t like the fact that old time “colonies” are still in the situation of needing to supplement their income by effectively giving away some of their precious rum stocks.

Distilleries such as Hampden in Jamaica, have until recently never aged any rum on site. They have not had their own brand of rums either. Most of their product was sold in bulk to Europe. In recent years this has changed. They now have their own brands – Rum Fire and Hampden Gold and are ageing more product on site before either releasing it in conjunction with Velier or selling it as aged bulk rum. They have released their first ever “aged” rum under their own Hampden brand in just the last couple of weeks.

It is interesting that distilleries such as Worthy Park, Foursquare and Hampden Estate are releasing rums under the distillery name rather than a “brand”. This has caused some conflict with Independent bottlers as they also use the distillery name on their bottlings. At the moment efforts are ongoing to make sure the Independent bottlers name is more prominent on such releases, than the distillery. To prevent any possible confusion.

Richard Seale and Zan Kong of Worthy Park are particularly concerned about confusion between “official” distillery releases and Independent bottlings.

Is Continental European Aged Rum better than Tropically Aged Rum? article by the fat rum pirateContinental/Tropical Aged Rum

As more Caribbean producers age their own rum on site it gives them further opportunities. They can still sell “bulk rum” which has been aged. Such rum can then be further aged in a Continental climate. This creates a mix of Continental and Tropically aged rum. You may notice going forward brands such as Transcontinental Rum Line denoting a percentage of Tropical and Continental ageing to releases.

Though this is not common so often the consumer will not know the full story of where their rum has been aged.

Climate/Terroir

In terms of the climate it is reasonable to say that the Tropical climate is warmer than the European “Continental” Climate. I’m pretty sure its sunnier a lot more often in Kingston than it is in Liverpool.

However, some parts of Europe are much warmer than others. Rums aged in the likes of Madeira (an Portuguese island) may age a lot differently to those in Scotland. They may age in a more similar manner to those in the Tropics. Some Spanish Islands such as the Canary Islands are not to far from Africa so the climate is pretty pleasant.

It should also be taken into account the huge differences in temperature that can be found in the Tropics. Such changes will cause a lot of activity in the barrel. Not to mention the evaporation of spirit that is accelerated in the Tropics….

We should also consider the role of “Terroir”. Terroir is basically the exact geographical location where the rum is produced. When people talk of terroir they talk about everything that might effect the Sugar Cane or Molasses. When people discuss Terroir they reference the soil the sugar cane is grown in, the distilleries/can fields  proximity to things such as volcanoes, altitude, strain of sugar cane etc. Usually Terroir goes into the minutia of information which may influence the final distilled product.

I am a little skeptical of this to be honest – I do accept that these things will influence the final product but I am not sure how much of an impact it might have. Tropical rum producers have been using imported molasses for a number of years after all.

Is Continental European Aged Rum better than Tropically Aged Rum? article by the fat rum pirateAngels Share

I think there is a belief that rums aged in the Tropics have a richer more concentrated flavour to them, perhaps due to the excessive evaporation of the spirit in such a climate. Whilst again it is not a strict science, evaporation due to what is termed “The Angels Share” in the Tropics can be around 6% per year on average compared to around 2% in a Continental climate. Having said that these figures shouldn’t be regarded as gospel.

As a result it is felt that a Tropical Climate will produce a more concentrated, richer spirit. Often the perception is that a rum aged in the Tropics will be darker in colour. Continentally European aged spirits being lighter – more akin to many Whiskies.

Again like The Angel’s Share this is not an exact science but my observations are that if a rum has not been coloured and is aged in Continental Europe, it will be lighter than the same spirit aged in the tropics.

Pricing

Another discussion around Continental European and Tropical Aged rum is the price differences. As touched upon already, The Angels Share does impact Tropically Aged rum more than Continentally Aged rum. Once you have a barrel of rum you will expect to get more bottles out of a Continentally aged rum in 5 years time than you would Tropically Aged rum.

There is a lot of information around which supports this. So price is something that tropical producers often get criticised for. People query why they can get 25 Year Old Demerara Rum from Cadenhead’s for £100 yet Velier what the same money for a 6 year old.

The Habitation Velier line up came across such objections due to the relatively young age of some of the rums on offer. Criticism of such pricing has subsided now people have actually tasted the rums on offer.

On the other side of the coin some of the Caribbean Rum producers feel that their European counterparts charge too much for some of their bottlings – especially when they dilute them down to 43-36% ABV.

Age

Most Independent bottlers do not denote how much time their rums have spent in the tropics. In some instances this can be as much to 10 years. So a 11-year-old rum sold by a UK Independent bottler may be almost entirely aged in the tropics aside from the final year. Likewise a 25-year-old bottling may have spent no time aged in the Tropics it may have been bought “unaged” from the broker and aged solely in Europe.

With most bottlings it is very difficult to determine this as the information simply isn’t provided.

Bristol Classic Rum Enmore Still 1988 rum review by the fat rum pirateThe mention of 25-year-old rums is also another point for the discussion. You could try to bottle a 25-year-old Tropically aged product but you are in serious danger of finding yourself with very little rum left in each cask. It is no coincidence that rums produced on a commercial basis from the likes of Appleton Estate, Foursquare and St Lucia Distillers rarely go beyond the 12-year-old mark.

Whilst Appleton Estate’s 21-year-old and Appleton Joy releases are composed from very old tropical stocks they are much more limited in numbers. Limited when compared to the likes of their own Signature Blend or even their 12 Year Old.

I have not seen a release from Foursquare Rum Distillery which has exceeded 12 years. Even amongst their Exceptional Cask Series and Velier collaborations.

St Lucia Distillers aged 1931 series also focused around the low teens in terms of overall age.

However, Independent Continental bottlers regularly releases rums from the likes of Hampden, Foursquare and in particular Demerara Distillers Limited with 20 year plus age statements.

Casks/Barrels

Once bulk rum is sold it is very much up to the buyer to find the appropriate casks in which to age the spirit. Often the bulk rum is supplied in Stainless Steel Vat’s. It is then down to the bottler to re-cask and age the rum.

I have had a few Independent bottlings where unless the distillate originally supplied was a shockingly out-of-place example of that distilleries usual output – it has clearly been aged in what I have termed as a “knackered” barrel. By that I mean one which has been used and re-used. To the point where it is either so badly charred or has had so much spirit in it in the past, it is now just giving a nasty, bitter edge to the distillate. Leaving it completely ruined..

Likewise I have had a few experimental finishes, which have either made next to no difference to the distillate. This is noticeable when compared to a standard release. More worryingly some have completely ruined the rum.

Conclusion

It would take a very brave man with a lot more experience than me to proclaim one form of ageing over another. There are so many grey areas. It is almost impossible to effectively evaluate any rum based solely on where it has been aged. Even if we were given full details of a rums full “movements”. I think we would still make “mistakes” when buying Independent bottlings. Again, I have touched on this in the past with my article on Independent bottlings.

Cadenheads MPM DIamond Distillery 14 Years Old Rum Review by the fat rum pirateI do not think either side of the discussion should proclaim to be better than the other. I think rather than try to do another producer down, with regard where rum is aged producers would be better placed to explain to the consumer exactly why their rum is top quality. More information on the labels would be great – I am not just talking about labelling “dosage”. Information as provided by Transcontinental Rum Line stating the % where a rum has been aged is a step forward. Complete transparency of a rum’s history would be great. I believe any Independent bottler that attempted this would immediately attract customers to their brand.

Personally I do look to see if a rum is Tropically Aged and it does often influence my final purchase. That said I make a lot of very questionable purchases that even I can’t quite explain.

 

 

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