Serious rum lovers spend a fair amount of time bashing the decisions of both major and minor rum producers. It’s a natural thing to do when you care deeply about something you perceive to be in jeopardy.
And while it’s important to call these folks out for moves that negatively impact the category, that negativity can snowball to a point where the positives are lost. I am as guilty of this as anyone in the rum community, so I thought I’d take some time to highlight some of the positive movements in the rum market right now.
1. More Independent Bottlings
Velier, Silver Seal, Berry Brothers & Rudd, Cadenhead, and the like have been putting out high quality, high proof, unadulterated rum releases for some time now. This is where most rum nuts end up when they discover their first love was a lie.
Now there are even more choices thanks to the Mezan line of rums. Not high proof, but otherwise unaltered, and available at a very reasonable price point.
2. More Special Releases Direct from the Producers
Rum makers have seen the success of independent bottlers and the enthusiasm with which the rum community snaps up their products, providing a ready model for taking their products to super-premium levels. Why let the independents have all the fun? As a result we have releases like the 2004 vintage rum from Foursquare, and a 2005 vintage from Don Q.
3. More Great Domestic Rum
Early in the craft spirits boom, a lot of distilleries were putting out rums that were pretty terrible. Those days are (hopefully) coming to an end now, and we are seeing a host of really respectable offerings from domestic rum makers. Examples include Siesta Key, Maggie’s Farm, Treaty Oak, KoHana, Lost Spirits, Privateer, and Malahat.
4. More Cane Juice Rum
Cane juice rums are super interesting, and now we are luckily seeing more of these rums on U.S. shores. From agricole’s traditional home in the French West Indies we have Damoiseau, KoHana from Hawaii, and here in California (when the cane is available) we have St. George. Others like Richland and St. Nicholas Abbey are making cane syrup rums, which have some similar characteristics.
5. More Rum Fans
The popularity of American whiskey has shown a vast number of people the beauty of brown spirits. And while there is a considerable amount of variety in Bourbon and rye, the really good stuff has gotten super expensive and scarce. Rum’s variety makes it even more fun to explore, and the prices are ridiculously cheap as compared to the secondary Bourbon market. These folks (like the extant rum nerdery) are seeking pure, unadulterated spirits, and are helping to move the needle in that direction.
Well, there you have it. Five positive things happening in the rum world right now. Now let’s all sing Kumbaya!
The Trouble with Rum Nerds
With rum’s increasing popularity, the numbers of experts, aficionados, and other passionate members of the cane cognoscenti are growing at an unprecedented rate. The rise in rum’s popularity is of course welcome, but it’s also proving to be a double-edged sword for some members of the rum establishment.
The passion that rum inspires in people can manifest itself in various forms, and for many it imparts a deep thirst for knowledge. These knowledge-seekers scour the earth for pearls of rum wisdom lying in a diverse set of shells ranging from antique trade journals and out-of-print books to blogs, forums, and social media posts. And as these passionate researchers discover more facts and hearsay about their favorite spirit, they inevitably begin to expose cracks in rum’s fun-loving façade.
Rum is of course a business, and each of the 60+ million cases sold worldwide annually support someone’s livelihood, representing everything from food on the table to a yacht payment. So when outsiders try and peek behind the curtain, those who truly depend on rum become understandably concerned.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle on a variety of issues from additives to the health of cane cutters, what is the rum establishment to do?
Up until now, the answer for some has been to try and put the genie back into its bottle. This tactic as typically employed invokes rum’s fun and free-wheeling “no rules” nature, and instructs the rum nerd to take their passion less seriously. While this tactic may quiet one person, it just as easily might enrage another, and it’s no way to win an argument.
Another common ploy is to tell the rum nerd that this is the way it’s always been, and therefore they should lighten up and have some rum. This is another fallacious argument that does nothing to assuage an impassioned rum fan in search of the truth, and is in fact more likely to piss them off than anything else.
The third leg in this stool of defensive ideas is to accuse the rum nerd of sabotage, saying things such as “If you love rum so much, then why do you spend all of your time knocking it down?” Here again, we have an argument that on its face appears to make some sense, but in actual fact does nothing to address the nerds’ underlying concerns.
If we accept that the three defensive strategies described above do nothing to win over the rum nerds and in many cases cause them to deepen their resolve to air rum’s dirty laundry, then what strategy would be more constructive?
Here’s a radical idea: tell the truth.
In order to illustrate the power of this tactic, consider the case of two rum makers with different views on blending: Foursquare and Plantation rums.
Richard Seale of Foursquare is well-known in the rum world for being staunchly anti-additive. His rums are nothing more than a blend of pot and column fermented molasses distillates aged in barrels for no shorter than the time stated on the label. Richard’s rums are highly regarded for their flavor, but also for their authenticity. Because Richard’s rum-making philosophy is one of purity, many of those who enjoy his products do so with an extra sense of amazement because they can be sure there are no mysterious ingredients added to barrel or bottle.
Plantation is a bit different. Coming from a tradition of Cognac making, Alexandre Gabriel freely admits that like with many French grape distillates, a bit of sugar is often added to his rums. He’s also out front about his sourcing, the barrels he uses for finishing, and so on. As a result, everyone in the rum world knows Plantation rum usually has sugar added. And you know what? They still buy Plantation rum.
Why? The products are quite tasty of course, but beyond the flavor is the authenticity. In the rum nerds’ minds, Plantation is saying “Hey man, I know you’re smart so I’m not gonna try and bullshit you. There’s a little sugar in this rum, and I added it because I thought it rounded it out nicely, OK? If that makes you not want to buy it, that’s cool.” And you know what? It is cool, and everyone can move forward without feeling duped or taken advantage of.
In contrast to these two companies, there are others who would rather say nothing or double down on obfuscation or outright lies when confronted with the truth. Of these approaches, most would recommend saying nothing. It’s likely the least offensive, anyway. Insulting your customers’ intelligence is rarely a good move.
Look, the fact is that U.S. law allows for up to 2.5% by volume of additives in every bottle of rum, and producers are not required to state what the additives are if they are considered to be “customarily used in the particular class and/or type of distilled spirits”. For rum, that could mean sugar, caramel, sherry, molasses and any number of other things. If rum nerds want to change that, they’ll have to take it up with their elected representatives.
In the meantime, those who make their living from rum need to read the writing on the wall and stop arguing with their customers. As rum sheds volume at the lower tier and moves upmarket, the marketing message necessarily changes. Consumers are seeking rationalization for expensive rum purchases. This is especially true of Millennials (now the largest segment of the population) who enjoy experiential luxury purchases, but are simultaneously looking for authenticity and sustainability in the products they purchase. The more truth your story contains, the more you’ll sell to them (assuming the product tastes good, of course).
Buddha said that “three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” It’s time to accept that rum’s most passionate supporters represent a force for positive change (even if they are a pain in the ass).
After writing the Rum 101 article, I got to thinking: “What else would I want to have known when I was just starting out as a rum nerd?” The result is my latest article: Plugging Into the Rum World. This article covers the “everything else” category, including books to read, groups to join, other Web sites to read, where to buy rum, and where to attend rum festivals. It’s a real soup-to-nuts of all things rum beyond this blog. There’s a big rummy world out there, so once you’ve exhausted the resources here, get out there and be a part of it!
I started writing this article years ago, but it always seemed to stay on the back burner. There are a lot of primers on rum out there, but some are too short, others are too long. This one hits on most of the points I wish I knew when I got into rum, so perhaps some of you will find it useful (especially those among you just starting out).
At just under 7,000 words, you couldn’t call it short, but I’ve provided on-page links for the various sections to allow you to skip around as needed. Check it out and add your own thoughts in the comments section. I’m sure I missed stuff despite having some editing help from my fellow rum nerds. Read the article here or click the image below.
Today we take a bit of a detour from our distillery recaps and move upstream to see where molasses comes from. After visiting DDL’s Diamond Distillery, we had the unique opportunity to visit the Enmore Sugar Factory and ride through the nearby cane fields which supply it. The scale of the plant appears massive to the layperson, so imagine our surprise when we learned Enmore was actually one of the smaller sugar factories in Guyana. Read the story here, and see what it takes to produce the molasses that makes some of our favorite rums around the world.