When is Rum not a Rum?

10 Essential Bottles of RumRecently there was a debate at Tales of the Cocktail.  The debate centered around “When is rum not a rum?”.

Basically it was a discussion between those who add sugar (and/or other additives) and those who are very much against the practice.  This got me thinking about a subject which is very close to my heart.

The overall standard and practices used by professional and non-professional spirits writers.

Reasons for “Blogging”

When I set up this blog back in 2014 I did it for a few reasons.

My first reason was a way of documenting and remembering my experiences with rum.  It would be for my own enjoyment and reflection in years to come.  It was a way of keeping those bottles of rums safe somewhere.  Without actually physically having to keep them all.  Much to my wife’s relief.

My second reason was the lack of regularly updated or dedicated Rum Review websites.  Compared to Whisky – Rum really does have very little presence on the net.  I felt that if I produced a website, it would actually get looked at.  Rather than become one of many thousands that are largely ignored in the Whisky world.

My third and final reason was linked to my second reason.  I felt as a consumer first and foremost, some of the advice and guidance being handed out on some of these websites was questionable.  That is being kind.  I also noticed a lot of positive reviews and very few negative ones.

One of the first things I noticed about the Rum Community when I “joined up” and published the site back in 2014, was the friendliness.  A number of other bloggers were keen to welcome me.  The mantra “rum is fun” was very much in place.

This may not seem a bad thing and in many ways it’s not.  Unfortunately it is this very mantra which continues to drag the category down.  It is partly why rum continues to be a bit of a joke in the spirits world.  It’s a party mixer to get drunk with.  With everyone being friendly and welcoming it seemed no questions were being asked.  On any level.  No one seemed to want to rock the boat.

The Rum world suffers, as most spirits do from global multi nationals marketing and pricing strategies.  These multi nationals can pay to enter all manner of competitions (even set some up theselves).  Then market their rums quite freely as Gold Medal winning rum etc.  Some brands have become so intrinsically linked to certain Rumfests that it is difficult to take the awards seriously.  They can also demand premium shelf space in stores and even prevent competitors rums from being sold or displayed in stores or bars.

Angostura 5 Year Old Rum Review by the fat rum pirateIndustry Samples

These companies are also free to give out samples to the industry.  Now bloggers receiving samples and their impartiality is a private matter.  I personally don’t think it is possible to be 100% impartial.  Others have suggested they can.  What is clear though once you start scratching beneath the surface of all these reviews, is how bad some of the sample led ones are.

Take for example Papa’s Pilar Dark 24.  I slammed this as it has little resemblance to rum. Run a quick google search and it will draw up a whole host of positive reviews.  Read and compare the notes.  Ask yourself – how many of these “experts” are really knowledgeable about rum?

Which may sound rather big-headed of me.  Who the hell am I to be calling out bad reviews? Well, I don’t even believe I am calling out bad reviews.  I’m calling out marketing.  A lot of these so called reviews are not reviews.  The reviewer hasn’t spent much time with their promotional bottle.  They’ve been given some marketing blurb to re-gurgitate and they have set about their task.  Most of the time they don’t even score the rum. They just give a whole host of nice sounding tasting notes.  Which to be fair you could easily do with most rum – good or bad.

The practice stinks and the average consumer deserves a lot better than to be duped by such nonsense.

Hydrometer Tests

Despite the very real situation back in 2014 that rum was being altered and adulterated very few website owners acknowledged the fact.  Even fewer had adopted the Hydrometer Test Method, as advocated by Johnny Drejer of Drecon.dk.

imagePersonally, once I realised how simple and inexpensive these tests were it struck me as a no brainer to test all the rums I reviewed.  Why? Because you can never know enough about rum and you will rarely be told by the industry.

It makes sense to me to understand as much about the spirit of rum as possible.  Granted the Hydrometer Tests do not tell everything but they do offer an invaluable insight.

Now some had spoke out about his adulteration.  Perhaps the most (in)famous of these is Capn Jimbo of the Rum Project.  Unfortunately the Capn was overzealous and rather repetitive in his criticisms of the practice.  Rather than influence or engage he basically just pissed a lot of people off.  He did and continues to make a lot of very good points.  Unfortunately he has influenced too few people.  In many respects he has probably caused more people to dig their heels in against his opinions.

As I write, now in 2016 more Rum Reviewers are commenting on added sugar and conducting Hydrometer Tests on their collections.  However, a lot remain very quiet on the subject.

So you might well still be wondering “When is rum not a rum?”.  Well it’s certainly a very difficult and contentious question.

From my viewpoint. I am someone who wants to help people make good choices when buying rum. So perhaps to answer the question of “When is rum not a rum?” we need to approach it from a slightly different angle.

What is Good Rum?

The Real McCoy 12 year old rum review by the fat rum pirateRum is a distillate derived from sugar cane or sugar cane juice.  It is distilled in either pot or column stills.  To remain a rum it should not be distilled to the point whereby it becomes ethyl alcohol or neutral spirit.  Typically this is at around 95% but many have suggested it should be lower to maintain the character of the spirit – around 85% maximum.

Once the rum comes off the still it should be aged in good quality, empty (not unwashed) oak barrels.  It can be matured in a variety of barrels and a “finish” can be applied – again in barrels which do not contain other spirits or alcohols.

Once aged for the necessary period deemed by the distiller the rum should be bottled and/or blended with other rum.

If you have distilled and aged the rum in this manner you will have a good quality spirit called Rum.

It really should be that simple.  Any flavour beyond the original distillate will be provided by the maturation period in the oak. Simple.

If you are reviewing rum then you should be able to identify rum which has been produced in this way.  You should be familiar with the “true spirit” you are writing about.  You should over time be able to identify tastes, flavours and smells that have perhaps been added.  This is the very tricky part.

Benchmarks

I always use benchmarks of good rums for the majority of  rum styles.  These might not necessarily be the best rum in the style but they are all of a certain standard.  They represent a spirit which is at the very least “good”.

For Jamaican and Bajan rum this has proved a very uncomplicated choice.  Pretty much anything from Appleton Estate and Foursquare are good starters.  For more “funky” Jamaican rums then J Wray and Nephews White Overproof offers a good example of that “niche”.  At the same time Hampden Gold or Smith & Cross offer  an introduction to high ester Jamaican rum.

For Bajan rum I can also call upon Mount Gay Extra Old and Cockspur Fine Rum as solid examples of the style.  One a sipper one an inexpensive mixer.

For Navy Rum it’s fairly straightforward and all must be judged against the standards set by Pusser’s Gunpowder proof (54.5% ABV).

As examples of white rum I use Don Q Cristal, Charman’s Reserve White Label and Appleton White.

Unfortunately due to the amount of adulteration and unspoken of practices in rum it gets rather tricky after this.

El Dorado 15 Year Old Special Reserve Rum by the fat rum pirate reviewDemerara Rum – It’s quite difficult to get unsweetened Demerara especially at the lower mixing end of things.  As a result my standards for Demerara include both sweetened and unsweetened.  El Dorado 8 and 15 for sweetened rums.  Woods Navy Rum (it is purely Demerara despite being sold as Navy rum) and Cadenheads Classic Rum for the unsweetened rums.  If I am reviewing an expensive Demerara around the £100 mark for example then Velier’s rums will set the benchmark.

Cuban/Spanish Style Rum – I tend to use Havana Club 7 and Seleccion de Maestro as benchmarks for this style.

Premium Rum – I use Premium rum as an example of a style but in reality it is more adultered rum than anything else.  I’m not keen on this “style” of rum.  Ron Zacapa and Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva are examples of this style.  It’s difficult really to see these kinds of spirit as rum.

As you can see it does get difficult and confusing.  I can’t even go into every style of rum as I would be on all day!  It’s bit of minefield really.

Will I downscore a rum solely based on added sugar (or other suspected additives?

My answer is that I won’t mark the rum down solely because it has added sugar.  However if the added sugar detracts from what would have been the original spirit in a negative way.  The best example I can think of is Plantation Jamaica 2001.  In that the original taste, flavour and texture of the distillate has been lost – then yes, I will down score it.

Likewise if a rum is obscured so much by added sugar and additives that it displays no or little resemblance to rum – it won’t score well as a rum.  I’m reviewing rum not liqueurs.

Ron ZacapaWhich brings me round to my final point.  I mentioned already that when reviewing rum you can never know enough about the spirit.  Knowledge of the spirit of rum and how it should taste is key.  It’s vital to understand and at least try to determine when a rum has been adulterated.

It Tastes Nice…..

In my opinion it is simply not acceptable to review rum based solely on something tasting nice.  To many this may sound a little strange.  Surely reviewers should review based on how they enjoy the rum?

I would say yes undoubtedly reviewers should base their opinions on how much they enjoy the rum.  If however they cannot taste or determine any rum in the bottle then they should make this abundantly clear.  As mentioned already rum is a very diverse spirit.  Some of this diversity is due to production methods, climate, ageing, blending etc and some of this diversity is due to additives to the base spirit.  If these additives detract from the original base spirit – it should be noted.

This is a very tricky area for a rum reviewer.  I will state now that I cannot 100% vouch that I could identify every rum which has been altered.  I doubt I could even vouch 90%.  However, what I am trying to do is learn and understand the true spirit of rum.  I can’t test for additives such as glycerine but I am learning how it feels in the mouth.

What I can do however is recognise what should be present in certain rums.  If a rum has been aged for any prolonged period then it should exhibit some oak, particularly on the nose.  It then comes down to understanding the various styles a Jamaican rum should be more punchy and funky – big notes of bruised banana and other overripe fruits.

A Bajan rum when done well should be nicely balanced with vanilla and gentle oaked notes.  Rums of a Spanish origin (Cuban rums for example) should be lighter more delicate with often a tobacco’ed note.  Unfortunately many Spanish style rums do have wine/vermouth etc added to them.  Cuban rum by law is permitted to have 20 g/L of sugar added.  Which again makes things more difficult.  No one ever said it was easy.

If rum continues to be heralded because it is sweet and tastes nice – step forward Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, Ron Zacapa, Pyrat XO and Ron Millonario XO then the category will not move forward.

Holsten Pils Dennis LearyThe whole “smooth and sweet” basis of reviewing rum needs to stop.  Rum is not sweet because it is distilled from sugar cane.  It is exactly the same as any other spirit.  The sugar turns to alcohol.  Didn’t anyone pay attention to Dennis Leary’s 1990’s Holsten Pils adverts?

If a rum is smooth and sweet – then I want to know why.  Rum can be sweet.  When finishes are applied to rum – in the case of Foursquare’s Port Cask Finish.  It can also be relatively smooth.  However you are drinking (at least) 37.5% ABV liquor – if it doesn’t give you at least a little kick – there’s something up.

Ron Millonario XO for example is not a smooth and sweet rum.  It is a sweetened and highly doctored “rum”.  The rum in this product is non-existent.  It’s been masked beyond all recognition.

Any reviewer worth their salt should recognise this.  Unfortunately many either cannot or more worryingly choose not to.  I do not have anywhere near as much knowledge as I would like but I will continue to seek out information and improve, wherever possible.

30 comments on “When is Rum not a Rum?

  1. excellent article, i agree with everything said.

  2. this is in reply to several comments that have used the phrase “bourbon barrels” and “charred bourbon barrels.” Or similar wordings. U S regulations require that for the product to be labeled straight bourbon whiskey it must be aged in new not previously used charred oak barrels. the charring is considered necessary to produce the woody and vanilla notes characteristic of bourbon style whiskey. So a description of simply “bourbon barrels” would mean a barrel that was charred before its first use. A famous old whiskey called Early Times has not been labeled “bourbon” for many years because it is aged in a combination of used barrels and new charred barrels. So, I would feel misled if the barrels called simply “bourbon barrels” did not start the journey through the aging warehouses of the Caribbean as second (or third, fourth, etc.) used Charred Oak Barrels. Nothing in the regulation nor rum industry practice prevents a producer from using barrels for several production cycles, and it is well know in both the American and Scottish whisky industries that barrels ware out from repeated use. Some of the comments about the perceived texture of various rums probably result from the economic necessity to stretch the distilleries’ inventory of barrels.

    • In terms of bourbon; there is no regualtion on the level of char and many producers vary from toast level to aligator char (very high). Also, any used casks can be re-charred prior to next fill. So the specific use of the term charred casks could mean selection of ex-bourbon casks based on hih char level, or maybe a re-char of a lesser char level cask. As we dont have that information we have to make assumptions, but the term has been used deliberately.

  3. In the sense of learning, lets talk about don Q. First, read their awards, and ask yourself if you’ve A) heard of these competitions, and B) do these people judging know anything about rum.
    Anyone who uses the Sip Awards to promote their product has some pretty deep pockets. One of the “dedicated sponsors” is food and beverage magazine, which also publishes the Massachusetts beverage journal- basically a giant sales listing for bars and retailers. The first 30 pages are full glossy ads and “expert insight”- all paid for by large multinationals. From there, the Don Q also sponsors the New England rum fest- this year, the highest scores in their tiki competition didn’t win, because they didn’t use Don Q products exclusively. So not only is that a sense of pay to play, but it goes against the blending back ground of tiki.
    Next, lets talk about additives.
    First is their like of flavored rums.
    Second, the Don Q Gran Anejo. You don’t get that much texture out of a blend of 9 to 12 year old rums and some solera parts mixed in. That only happens if there’s sugar added back in.
    Lastly, Pusser’s sued Painkiller, a bar in New York, and tied them up in litigation and legal fees that forced them to close. All because Pusser’s trademarked the name of “their” cocktail. I don’t care what the quality of the rum is.
    Lastly, Richard Seale’s Four square distillery also makes Real McCoy rums- try their 12 year vs the Four Square 11 year. That extra texture doesn’t come from an extra year.

    • Don Q may well win awards and pay for them. Their choice I guess. However they are staunchly against additives and welcome testing on any of their rums. They have no added sugar as per the Hydrometer Test.
      Not really sure what the Pusser’s lawsuit has to do with this article? I can’t see a link.

      As for the Foursquare comment the extra texture doesn’t come from an extra year. You are quite correct. The Real McCoy rums are aged in Charred Bourbon Barrels. The 2004 Foursquare is not.

      • Foursquare also use a blend of pot and column still rums across their products and the blend varies from product to product. The ratio of pot to column, as well as cask type, and various other variables such as location of a warehouse for maturation, points that the cuts are taken, bottling strength etc will also effect the mouth feel/texture.

      • The four square 2004 is bourbon barrel. It says that right on label. The tie in with Pusser’s is the business practices these companies use. A company that you are using as a standard hurt their own brand with that lawsuit. As for Don Q, their practice of buying awards doesn’t make me trust their statement of not adding sugar. I also don’t think a company that has flavored rums isn’t adultering their products either. There is nothing natural about the Colgate smell of their Mojito rum or the ambiguity of their Limon flavor.

        • Doesn’t say charred bourbon barrel though. Also tie in what Rumtastic has said. You can’t expect two rums of similar age to have the same profile. Are you suggesting Foursquare use additives beyond Caramel for colouring? That simply isn’t the case.

          I think Pusser’s is a pretty good standard to use for Navy Rum. Lawsuit or not.

          If you don’t trust Don Q and Foursquare that’s your choice to make.

          • I’m saying using bourbon barrels (which are always used) doesn’t have as much effect on the rum texture as much as the use of sugar for texture. I’ve never mentioned coloring. I’m saying that the real McCoy line is adulterated.
            And you’re right- it doesn’t say charred. Neither do any of the real McCoy bottlings.

            And taking into account everything, you’re still behind a company that is engaged in pay to play tactics, and that’s pretty deceptive. I do like some of their products, but i don’t trust a company that claims to be transparent, unless I see exactly what is going on in their process. I’m guessing you haven’t been to their respective distilleries and extensively toured either. That’s great that the press release for Don Q states they are strongly against additives. But they still add ‘natural flavors’.
            And when it comes to sugar, a simple at home test will tell you- mix equal amounts of simple syrup and lime, a quarter of the total volume of water and chill. See if you can pick up the texture of sugar on your lips. That will tell you rather reliably that one product has more sugar than the other

          • The Real McCoy line up is not adulterated. They use heavily charred bourbon barrels for the Real McCoy rums.

            I’m not behind any company. You clearly have an issue with Don Q.

            I’ve ran Hydrometer tests on the Don Q rums and the Real McCoy 12. They are here.

            Hope this helps

            http://thefatrumpirate.com/hydrometer-tests-2

  4. I’ve been reading a number of reviewers out there, but I totally agree with your approach. I used to like El Dorado 12, but I was confused as to why it was so sweet….lo and behold, its loaded up with sugar. My perfect rum would summon the flavors of 18th century Caribbean distillers (not moonshiners), before massive flavor engineering took hold.

  5. Thank you for that great read. I too am bewildered. I began enjoying rum about 6 years ago as a sipper not a mixer. I have my favorites ElDorado, I must admit I do enjoy the Zapaca 23. My question to you is after all your research what should I as an enjoyer of the spirit drink. Is it one for the definition or one for my enjoyment? I have become a fan of the aged dark rums, but are they really rums or a boutique substitute for profits? I look to you for direction

    • If you are wanting to drink authentic rum – with no fear of additives (aside from some Caramel for colouring) then you are left with a few choices

      Jamaican or Bajan rum and some Agricole Rhum

      Rum from other countries is also often unadulterated St Lucia, for instance (though some of their 1931 series have sugar added) and some producers such as Don Q from Puerto Rico do not permit any additives.

      Other producers are less vocal on the subject – most Central American Premium Rums such as Zacapa, Diplomatico and Abuelo are adulterated in some way.

      Even Cuban rum is permitted to have upto 20 g/L of sugar added to it. This is why I like to Hydrometer test. It doesn’t tell me everything but it still gives me some information. I’m at a stage now where I can identify other tastes such as Glycerin and artificial sweeteners that aren’t picked up by a Hydro.

      I am however no expert in picking out every additive.

  6. I have collected rum for 40 years. Like you, I believe, I nurse a new rum for a month or so, and if I empty the bottle I will generally have formed a favorable opinion and i’ll buy another bottle. The idea that a single nosing of rum can tell an amateur much that is useful is a fiction that does not apply to me. I simply marvel at the scents and flavors some successful writers claim to have detected at a single tasting of 50 or more rums. I have been invited to sit on blind tasting panels over the years, but I’ve lost interest in that because I know that I can’t contribute anything useful. The organizers can’t delay the results for the month it would take for me to phone in my marks.

    I have become alarmed at the evidence of sugar adulteration. I know the amounts per serving of such rums is minimal, but I attempt strictly to limit my intake of sugar. I have in my ignorance I have rebutted friends who have said they can “taste” sugar in Ron Zacapa and Bacardi 8 yr, which I once drank regularly, with the argument that all the sugar in the wash was converted to alcohol in the still. I now understand that the sugar is added back in prior to bottling without any notice of the practice on the label. I was a well-respected attorney, once read the U S regulations covering the production of rum, and can state that nothing can be poured into the bottle that is not the direct product of THE DISTILLATION OF SUGAR CANE. ITS JUICES AND MOLASSES.

    There is also a company that claims to have an alchemist on staff who can duplicate the exact combination of non-alcoholic esters, oils and other compounds which result in rum aged for specific periods of time. In other words, they claim to produce “12 year old Cuban Rum” , or something similar at you order. I’ve not tasted the advertised product, and I don’t intend to. The label actually lists ingredients, the primary one of which was grain spirits. In other words they admit that the product is simply flavored vodka

    I attended the seminar at Tales of the
    Cocktail in July and bogus age statements are also a disgrace in the rum industry today. The only solution I see to the problem that I can see is more comprehensive labeling of bottle contents and aging and an industry council that will file complaints with the regulator, who will take no action without a competitor’s complaint.

    I do not blog. This the first comment I have ever posted on any subject. I fully agree with your article, and take heart that you are in the fight for Real Rum!

    • Thank you very much Steve. Greatly appreciated

    • US regulations permit “customarily employed” additives “such as caramel, straight malt or straight rye malt whiskies, fruit juices, sugar, infusion of oak chips when approved by the [TTB] Administrator, or wine” up to 2.5% by volume. 27 CFR § 5.23 (a) (2)

      • The article isn’t about whether additives are legal or not.

        • It’s difficult to see, but my comment was posted in reply to Steve’s.

          • That makes more sense. I will look into how the comment threads work.

  7. I’ve been asked many a times “is it wrong if I like sweetened, essenced rums (like Pyrat or Z-rums)?”
    – No, of course it is NOT wrong. You enjoy the taste, if you do. But what I want you to understand is WHY the spirit tastes as it does: Because of artificial additives, not because of fine artesanal distillation, or use of special casks, or any of the other things the makers say makes their product “so special”. NO. It is because of inexpensive, ordinary additives – sugar, essences, glycerol. Is it then a rum? Well – this is questionable even in legal terms, at least in EU. It might as well be called a sugarcane spirit-based liqueur – because that’s what it is: A spiced, flavoured spirit. Not Rum. Simple as that, if you ask me. And yes I also enjoy a few such liqueurs, in cocktails or as is 🙂

  8. Great Article!!!I’m very agree with you!!!
    That’s the reason why I stopped temporarily the rum reviews on my blog, because I did it as an “aficionado” and I think I have to improve more aspects on my tasting and rum knowledge to improve it and give a better information about the readers.
    On another way, all the rum writers received rum samples one day or another, each one uses it on his way…personally, I tasted all the products and only published about rums in which I trusted…products that I would want to buy as a consumer, no bullshit.
    We have to talk a bit one day…I’m very interested on hydrometer tests and I don’t know how to start with.

  9. A very good article I enjoyed reading it.

  10. A very reasonable post. Cheers!

  11. Nice read and agree with your approach. 🙂

    • Very nice, indeed, and I can relate to your “reasons” – it’s almost the same things that triggered my blogging activities. I’m always looking forward to your reviews and opinions!

    • Excellent!

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