Rums Sweet Spot

consignment3For many years Rum has struggled with something of an image problem.  Still seen by many as a cheap drink to be taken mixed and in excess by teenagers in search of a good time.  Attempts to “Premiumise” rum have done little to convince those outside rum circles that Killdevil is a legitimate alternative to classic spirits such as Whisk(e)y and Gin.  In many ways the “Premiumisation” of Rum has actually done it’s image  more harm than good.

The issue with a lot of the “Premiumisation”, over the past 20 to 30 years in particular, has not been as much about how rum has been marketed and packaged but actually what has went into the bottle.  Until very recently little information was available and anyone with suspicions that they were drinking anything other than Premium Aged Rum were swept under the carpet, dismissed as nonsense or ridiculed.

Global Brands and Rum Ambassadors held court over the legitimacy of their rums and any objections were swiftly and robustly dealt with.  Whilst a few remained vocal about their suspicions, they were largely seen as troublemakers, conspiracy theorists and quacks (to be fair some were/are). The Rum industry was still brazen and arrogant enough to send its representatives out with cock and bull stories that many were only to glad to swallow.  In many ways it was easier than swallowing their own pride and just admitting that all was not as it seemed.

Over the past 5 or so years, in particular, more and more information has become available.  This information has not come from the Global Brands or the various Brand/Rum Ambassadors  Simple Hydrometer Tests as drawn up by Johnny Drejer have allowed curious amateurs to test their own rum collections.  Many rum producers have fell deathly silent with regard the issue.  No longer are quite so many stories being trotted out about the wonders of barrel ageing, adding sugared sweetness to the distillate.  Slowly but surely producers are beginning to admit to “flavour enhancers” and “secret family recipes”.

A few such as Plantation have even admitted they add what they call “dosage” to theirimage rums.  Plantation have even offered rhyme and reason to their use of added sugar (in line with Cognac production) and went head to head with none other than Richard Seale of Foursquare Distillery in a couple of  particularly interesting articles over at The Floating Rum Shack in June last year.

For many this has led to Plantation being held up as the Poster Boys of adultered rum.  Along with Diplomatico (in particular their Reserva Exclusiva), Ron Zacapa, Zaya and to the disappointment of many El Dorado.

It’s always disappointing when your heroes let you down.  In the case of El Dorado, the reality that a respected and much championed rum producer was adding sugar to their rum was too much to take.  Since those revelations many have discarded the brand.  Admittedly, many more have continued to buy the brand – its hardly struggling.  A 6 strong Limited Edition release of its 15 Year Old rum is testament to the brands ongoing popularity.  The wine cask finishes are further evidence that the preference towards sweet rum remains for the El Dorado fanbase.

So where does that leave your disenchanted El Dorado lover? Where could the consumer turn to in search of pure and unadultered “Premium” Demerara rum?  The answer for many has been with Independent bottlers.  In Europe you are far better served than the US or indeed the rest of the world.  For many the pinnacle of unadultered Premium Demerara rum comes in the form of Single Cask/Barrel offerings from the likes of Velier, Silver Seal and Samaroli.  It is fair to say that these rums offer a very different proposition, especially when compared to El Dorado 12 for example.  Many will not fully appreciate such rums, nor will they appreciate the price tags!

imageThe Independent bottling scene is not a cheap area to to start a rum journey in.  Prices frequently hit £100 and above.  The re-sale value of now unavailable or scarce bottlings by the likes of Velier, can hit up to 10 times their original retail price once they have sold out from official channels.  The Italian version of Ebay is perhaps the best place to see these auctions taking place.

Whilst the latest “Premium” offering from the likes of Olivier & Olivier, Diageo or our good friends over at Bacardi (the group offers a lot more than just rum) continue to be trotted out at break neck speed, the Independents are also growing.  Albeit it at a much slower rate.  Brands such as Mezan, The Rum Swedes and Compagnie Des Indes have emerged on the scene.  Often these newer less established bottlers, offer rum at prices lower than the more established ones.

However, it is not to say that Independent bottlings are always 100% pure and unadulterated.  It is not completely unheard of for some £100 plus rums from Independent bottlers to also have the “devil” of added sugar.

Despite the amount of coverage given to added sugar in rum, it can be easy to forget that many of the Caribbean’s more longstanding producers such as Foursquare, Appleton and particularly those from the French Speaking Islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique still produce a pure product and can be relied on (most of the time).  These can still offer some truly outstanding unadulterated rums, often at much cheaper prices than the Independent bottlers.

So where are we at the present time?  In this piece I touched upon the contents of the bottle being more of an issue with rum than the actual marketing.  Multi million pound marketing from the likes of Diageo and Bacardi mean they continue to dominate the entry level, Spiced and Flavoured market in particular.  New brands of rum from the likes of Oliver & Oliver seem to pop up almost every other week and I can think of many press releases from the likes of Papar’s Pilar, Tiburon Rum and Deadhead Rum promising new and exciting well aged “Premium” rums.  Attractive bottles and schmaltzy marketing all thrown in with the price!  Don Pancho Fernandez seems to have new blend of rum with a different marketing story for sale just about every other week!  Marketing does still work to a degree but there are more and more rum enthusiasts who are turning their backs on such shenanigans.

To be honest for anyone willing to take a little time out and truly explore the rum market it is possible to ensure you are getting an unadultered product.  You can carry out Hydrometer tests yourself and lo and behold……you can drink rum minus any additives.

Except that isn’t the case.  Whether the ease to which sugar can be tested has led Rum Producers to seek alternatives methods of enhancing their product is unclear.  In many cases they have probably been adding all kinds of things for many, many years.  It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that more sophisticated laboratory tests are not only uncovering added sugar in rum but also other forms of sweetener.  Artificial sweeteners can impart much more flavour in very concentrated doses and this can deceived the hydrometer.  Likewise Glycerin can be added in such small amounts that it can sweeten and smooth out the rough edges and still leave the amateur Hydrometer Tester to believe that the 2/3 g/L of added sugar may be due to extracts from the barrel etc.

Adding wine and other spirits to rum also adds sweetness.  Casks and barrels can even be supplied still “wet” ie with wine or spirit still in them.  If they aren’t then emptied that can impart extra flavour and sweetness to the rum.  Macerated fruit and other additives have also been noted as part of “Secret or Family Recipes”.

The view of many is that I am some kind of anti added sugar warrior.  The very fact I conduct Hydrometer Tests means I am out to “get” the rum companies.  For anyone who has took the time to read my introduction on the Hydrometer Test page, this is not the case at all.  Personally, I like to have the information on whether a rum has added sugar for my own curiosity and also to inform readers with my reviews etc.  I wouldn’t directly say I would score down a rum for adding sugar but it does often disappoint me to find that older rums have been sugared. Again personally I would have liked to have tried them as they were minus the sugar.  If the rum is old (I’m talking double digit) should it need to be sugared?  I’m less critical of younger rums as they are less expensive and as a result I don’t feel like I’m being cheated so much.

I also have to take into account my relatively rudimentary understanding of distilling and blending rum, I’ve never done it myself so I cannot really appreciate the skill or complexity which goes into producing a great rum and a variety of rum.

The main reason I haven’t went down the anti added sugar path is partly due to information which I have acquired over the past couple of years.  This information means that to call out those rum companies such as Plantation as being the biggest “villains” in rum is extremely unfair.  There are worse culprits who have yet to be charged……

There are still some companies who are advising their marketing people that the product is unaltered when in fact they are employing tactics which deceive Hydrometers (which only tests the density of the distillate) and can also make rum seem smoother than it actually is.  One of the big problems with “Premium” Rum is the belief that ageing can create super smooth and super sweet rum.  You have to remember you are drinking hard liquor distilled to a minimum of 37.5% – you’re going to get some burn its not Cherry Coke!

So where does this leave rum? Well as far as I’m concerned the Laboratory Tests which reveal additives in rum cannot be published soon enough.  We already have tests being carried out by the Finnish (ALKO) and Swedish (Systembolaget) Government’s “alcohol control boards”.  I have been assured that many other tests have been commissioned from within the industry this time.  Hopefully they will be released soon.  I’m not one for Conspiracy Theories so I won’t buy into trying to name and shame companies until I have seen the actual results published.  However, I’m sure like me many of you probably have a few bottles of rum which are “unadultered” but you have your own suspicions.

I hope these results (and more) are released soon.





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8 comments on “Rums Sweet Spot

  1. You perfectly stated my feelings of being betrayed by the El Dorado producers. ED 12 was my first taste of premium rum, and I’ve given many bottles of it as gifts to folks whose only experience with rum is Bacardi and cola. Everyone loves ED 12 and rightfully so. It’s a tasty sipping rum. But now I learn that it’s been doctored with enough sugar to make cotton candy eaters blush. So, I’ve moved on to the Bajan and Jamaican rums, and my risk of getting Diabetes has lowered considerably. Also, they’re really delicious. I still enjoy some of the Plantation and ED offerings because they have many other tasty characteristics besides “sweet and smooth” (read:sugared), but I’m staying away from the “Z” rums and other “super premiums” because I don’t trust their claims for aging and ingredients. Until we get regulations in place, unscrupulous rum producers will continue to add whatever they want to their rums and charge comically high prices for them. When I savor fine Scotch, I never worry that I’m drinking added coloring, flavoring, sugar or the like. But super expensive, “super premium” rum? Who knows?

  2. Full disclosure and labeling laws can only help grow the category. Consumers have a right to know what they are buying.

  3. nice article!

  4. A very interesting article. I am a novice when it comes to rum but over the past 6 months or so have been bitten by the bug. From a novice point of view, the explanation by Alexandre Gabriel makes a lot of sense. Rum has a history and if that includes the use of ‘dosage’ and the use of ageing in various barrels to impart a flavour to a rum then fine. My only request would be more openness on the labeling to allow those who are concerned with methodology to make an informed choice when buying a bottle of rum.

    • Yes I think openness should be encouraged. The industry could do a lot more to help itself!

  5. One of your best articles! Thanks!

  6. Good article. The consumer needs to be informed of all the facts it’s only then can they make an informed judgement. Let the punter decide wether an £$€80 bottle of rum is worth it by giving them the facts, if they are ok with buying adulterated rum then fine if not that’s ok as well but lets, let the consumer decide if he wants to buy a bottle of sugared spirit or pay for the genuine article. If we leave in the hands of the marketing departments they’ll rip us off every time.

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