Rum Has No Rules is Lazy Journalism

Nearly a decade into this modern rum renaissance, articles explaining rum for the introductory reader appear almost daily. On the whole, it’s a good thing; the more people aware that rum can be something much more than a vodka substitute is great. But in their desire to encompass the vast diversity of cane spirits, from rhum agricole to hogolicious Jamaicans to stately Cubans, too many writers and brand ambassadors rely on the easy sound bite: Rum has no rules.

To be fair, there are no international rules for how rum should be made. Other than originating from sugar cane, rum is made in many different countries, in many different ways – molasses, cane juice, or cane syrup, fermented from 24 hours to four weeks, then pot or column distilled. It’s bottled in raw, unaged form or aged for up to thirty years or more. Cuban rum is a very different beast than Martinique rhum agricole, and no common regulations control their production.

Yet that’s not the same thing as “rum has no rules.” Writers and educators seeking to explain how rum has so many different flavors too often reach for the easy to understand. It may give a momentary bit of clarity to the reader, but ultimately it holds the sugarcane spirit category back from getting the respect it deserves.

While no international regulation control rum production, the same is true of spirits made from grains – Whiskey (or whisky depending on who’s spelling it) has the same story. Most people don’t identify as whiskey drinkers. They say “I’m a bourbon drinker”, or “Single malt Scotch whisky is my thing”. Yet fundamentally, both are whiskies – made of some combination or corn, barley, wheat, rye or some other grain, and pot or column distilled. Whisky is made in many countries, not just Scotland and America, but most assuredly, some don’t have rules the way bourbon or Scotch do.

Ditto for the Cognac aficionado or the Pisco geek. Brandy doesn’t always have the best connotations, but fundamentally, every distilled spirited made from fermented fruit juice is a brandy. Cognac, Calvados, Armagnac, Pisco, Applejack, Slivovitz, and so on – all are brandies. Cognac’s regulations say it must be aged; Peruvian pisco’s regulations say it can’t.

Our distilled spirits terminology causes huge amounts of confusion to the average consumer. Not every joyful imbiber needs to be a full on spirits geek. And yes, keeping all the spirit names straight is a tall order. But fundamentally, it’s not that hard to wrap your head around the hierarchy of spirit categories. Here’s how I distill (pun intended!) the major spirits categories down to something easy to remember.

Nearly all pure distilled spirits are made from four basic materials:

  • Grains – Whiskey
  • Fruit – Brandy
  • Cane sugar – Rum
  • Agave

I’m staying away from the topic of vodka here. It’s a very different discussion.  Likewise, the above doesn’t cover liqueurs, or other spirits that are infused with flavor after distillation. 

All four of the above categories are what I call uber-categories. None are defined by any overarching international regulations. Why is that? Simply put, regulations are only as good as their enforcing body. And in the absence of the United Nations or NATO regulating spirits, nearly all spirit regulations occur at a national level.

It’s only on the national level that we get well known categories like bourbon, cognac, and tequila. All are household names, and the consumer has some basic idea of what they are. This is due primarily to groups of producers in a country getting together, agreeing on a definition for their spirit, and lobbying the national government for recognition. That’s how we got to the universally recognized definitions of bourbon, cognac and Scotch whiskey. And it’s why “bourbon” is a category in consumer’s minds, not “whiskey”.

So what about rum?  Rum producers have done the exact same thing! Martinique rum producers have agreed on a definition and created regulations, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The same with Cuba, which has its Denominación de Origen Protegida. Jamaica has its own geographical indication (aka definition). As does Brazil, for cachaça. And there many more, including Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Each of these regulations defines a distinct, sugarcane spirit. Martinique AOC rhum is just as unique, well defined and regulated as cognac. Cuban rum is just a valid a spirit definition as bourbon.

But…

The average consumer is almost assuredly not aware of these different styles of rum, and that they’re very different. The same with retailers. Walk through a large liquor store, and you certainly won’t find bourbon and single malt Scotch intermingled on the shelves. Ditto for cognac and calvados. But the rum aisle? You’re lucky if you get them separated by white, gold and dark, and those are lousy ways to categorize.

To help drill that home, I’ve created a graphic that makes the difference between uber-categories, and country-specific categories crystal clear. It shows the uber-categories completely distinct from the country subcategories, and how they relate. Obviously I can’t fit every single example on this chart, so I chose a few well known-examples from each uber-category.

The hierarchy of spirits categories
The hierarchy of spirits categories

To repeat: This graphic is not a comprehensive overview of all spirits. Feel free to share with impunity when somebody tells you “rum has no rules”. (Just give a nod my direction, please.)

Ultimately, the various rum-producing countries need to expend the time and money to promote their country-specific style as unique and unusual if they want any chance of the average consumer specifically looking for a Barbados-style rum, or a Martinique style rhum, or a cachaça.

Until that happens, people on the leading of rum advocacy have their work cut out for them, to explain the diversity of rum, while also being accurate and truthful about it. As writers, we have a responsibility to be accurate in what we say. I aim for that here.

It’s only been five or six decades since bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky started their ascent as distinct categories. There’s no reason that the rum producing counties can’t do the same thing. Real education is the answer, rather than simplistic slogans like “rum has no rules”.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out this post.

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