Moving Beyond Rum Categories – A Modest Proposal

I’ve been thinking a lot about rum categories lately, even dropping a rant or two along the way.

As I’ve mentioned in my various musings, the problem with most categories is that they’re not applicable in all situations, and for all needs. A masterful categorization based on technical production parameters is likely not useful to a bartender looking or a “funky” rum for a recipe.

Yes, we rum enthusiasts struggle with categorizations. Part of the problem with rum categories is that seek to wrap up several important aspects under a single category. And like trying to place an octopus in a string bag, there’s always a loose arm; or in rum, the “But what about…” question.

Another challenge with rum categories is that if they’re simple enough for a consumer to understand (e.g. “gold rum”), they’re not particularly useful for us enthusiasts. And vice versa.

It seems to me that there could be an alternative path.

I’m putting what follows out into the world as a modest proposal for discussion. I make no claim it’s bulletproof, without flaws, or couldn’t be morphed into something even better. It’s just a starting point for discussion.

The reality is that the casual consumer probably doesn’t care much about categorizations. They’ll keep buying ye’olde gold or dark rum regardless of anything we enthusiasts/professionals dream up. So, let’s not try to change that.

What we can do is create a consistent set of unambiguous production details, not subject to interpretation, that enthusiasts readily understand. In other words, put all the key details on the table, and not lump things together.

The next step is to get a set of enthusiast-favorite brands to share this information in a consistent manner. Ideally this would be on the back label, but at a minimum, on the brand’s web site. A brand that truly seeks transparency and has nothing to hide shouldn’t shy away from any of the details.

I propose a simple matrix, with agreed upon terms, and which every brand seeking this level of transparency could put on their label and/or web site.

Technical Descriptor Allowed Terminology
Country of fermentation & distillation ‘X’ or ‘Multiple’
Single Distillery Yes/No
Single Batch Yes/No
Fermentation Source Cane juice/Cane syrup/Molasses/multiple/other
Primary Yeast Source Cultured yeast/airborne yeasts/both
Distillation Type Batch/Continuous/multiple
Maximum Distilled ABV ‘X’ Percent ABV
Minimum Age in Wood ‘X’ Years
Carbon Filtration for Color Yes/No
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar. Yes/No

Of course, there might be other items that could be added, but best to start out small and get buy-in from multiple brands.

Most of these are self-explanatory. Others require a wee bit of explanation.

Single Batch: If yes, this means that all the rum in the bottle is of the same marque, and is of the same approximate age, e.g. no less than 6 months difference. Bourbon’s bottled-in-bond concept is the inspiration for this.

Fermentation Source: The “other” element encapsulates things like panela, brown sugar and other sources beyond the big three: molasses, cane juice, cane syrup.

Primary Yeast Source: The intent is to differentiate fermentations using a cultured, propagated yeast, rather than entirely airborne fermentation, as seen in Jamaica and Haiti, for instance.

Maximum Distilled ABV: The intent is to differentiate rum from a one or two column stills at 75% ABV from a multi-column distilled rum at 95% ABV. If a single drop of rum in the bottle was distilled to 95% ABV, that’s what goes in this field. This is similar to a minimum age statement, but for ABV.

Carbon Filtration for Color: This would be “Yes” if the Carbon filtration is used to noticeably lighten the color of the rum, e.g. make it a “white rum”.

I believe that from the above ten parameters, the vast majority of available rums can be readily differentiated from each other. Of course, this proposal does not attempt to describe flavors. That’s an entirely different ball of wax. But for us enthusiasts craving transparency so as to know what we’re buying, the details provided could go a long way towards meeting those desires.

Here’s a few real-world examples:

For an unaged Martinique AOC Rhum Agricole:

Country of fermentation & distillation France (Martinique)
Single Distillery Yes
Single Batch Yes
Fermentation Source Cane juice
Primary Yeast Source Cultured yeast
Distillation Type Continuous
Maximum Distilled ABV 70% ABV
Minimum Age in Wood 0
Carbon Filtration for Color No
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar. No

For an all pot stilled, aged Jamaican rum:

Country of fermentation & distillation Jamaica
Single Distillery Yes
Single Batch No
Fermentation Source Molasses
Primary Yeast Source Airborne yeast
Distillation Type Batch
Maximum Distilled ABV 75% ABV
Minimum Age in Wood 8
Carbon Filtration for Color No
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar. No

For a lightly aged, Cuban “White” rum:

Country of fermentation & distillation Cuba
Single Distillery Yes
Single Batch No
Fermentation Source Molasses
Primary Yeast Source Cultured yeast
Distillation Type Continuous
Maximum Distilled ABV 95% ABV
Minimum Age in Wood 2 years
Carbon Filtration for Color Yes
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar. No

For a multi-country blended rum made from aged and unaged rums:

Country of fermentation & distillation Multiple
Single Distillery No
Single Batch No
Fermentation Source Multiple
Primary Yeast Source Multiple
Distillation Type Multiple
Maximum Distilled ABV 95% ABV
Minimum Age in Wood 2
Carbon Filtration for Color Yes
Blending materials other than E150 caramel, or similar. Yes

Again, the above is just a proposal. Nothing is sacrosanct. If fewer or more fields are agreed upon, that’s fine. If the wording needs to change, that’s dandy too.

We already see some producers putting parts of the above information on their labels, which is great! But no two producers share anything that’s remotely similar to each other, making apples-to-apples comparisons a challenge, even to the informed consumer.

An agreed upon set of elements and descriptors would help make apples-to-apples comparisons much simpler, thus benefiting both brands and consumers. If you agree, perhaps ask your favorite brands what they think of doing something like this.

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