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Time Flies When You’re Having Rum

November 8, 2013

Reflections on my first two years of booze writing

josh-behind-stick-400x401Two years ago this month, I started this site as a way of chronicling my journey into the world of fine spirits and cocktails (over time, my focus has shifted almost exclusively to rum) and it has been a very fun ride to say the least. Here are some of my thoughts as I look back on this formative period.

Embracing Diversity

Having tasted so many rums from around the world, I have developed a profound appreciation for cane spirits—owing in large part to the diverse nature of the category. Why does rum represent such a panoply of flavors, you ask? There are several reasons, but the big two are (1) geography and (2) lack of rules.

Because cane spirits are produced worldwide,  you can taste your way around the globe without leaving the bar. Obviously, people on the opposite ends of the earth are going to have different ideas about what rum should taste like, to which I say “cheers!”. Think of the differences among rhum agricole, cachaca, Jamaican, Spanish and Indian rums–quite a stark contrast to the tightly controlled worlds of Scotch or Bourbon.

Much of the diversity is due to a lack of rules; rum must be made from a fermented sugar cane product of some sort and be 40% to 95% alcohol to be called rum in the United States. That vague definition leaves the door open for a wide variety of products on the market, and although there are some rogues that really push the boundaries of propriety when it comes to truth in labeling, I embrace the notion of rum as a rogue spirit; a spirit with one foot in the history books, and the other squarely within the confines of a business more highly regulated than the pharmaceutical industry. Quite a paradox indeed.

Gravitating to the Complex

When I first started on this path, I was wowed by the highly accessible rums from Guatemala such as Zacapa and Botran, and the sweeter rums from elsewhere in Central America, but as time has passed I find myself moving toward the funkier rums of Jamaica and the like. Once you’ve tasted a couple dozen smoothly sweet sippers, life in the sublime lane can become a bit tiresome. Yes, they are wonderful, but variety is the spice of life, and now I yearn for the heavier, drier rums that are often found near an old decrepit pot still.

The Business of Booze

Having a voice that some folks pay attention to within the booze business is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it’s nice to receive free booze in the mail, but on the other hand, I don’t have a legal defense fund. I’ve also learned that like any business, there are politics involved. Some people and brands don’t like to be mentioned together, for example. There are agendas and alliances that are only revealed after a transgression or a secret handshake. At the end of the day, I just try to be a respectful cheerleader for rum, knowing that my primary goal is to help elevate its stature in the marketplace. That being said, I still refuse to pull punches in my reviews, because my secondary goal is to keep my readers from wasting their money on substandard products.

The Global Rum Community

Surprise, surprise, people who are really passionate about rum are almost universally fun and friendly. Whether in person or online, I have forged many friendships with other rum aficionados, and I consider myself lucky to be part of such a supportive community. I look forward to joining more rum events here and around the world in the coming years and meeting more of these fine folks.

Writing Regularly

Sometimes articles just flow, and other times it’s a slog. I’ve really enjoyed writing the few long-form articles here such as the Light Rum Challenge, Amaro 101/102, Aging Rum At Home, and perhaps most of all, my article on okolehao. At the same time, it can be a bear to write a short review for a product I’m not really in love with, but such challenges can also be rewarding.

I took a pretty long break after I was threatened with a lawsuit over an article I posted. It really took the wind out of my sails, and I wasn’t feeling inspired to write at all. Then I received an email from another rum reviewer; he wanted to know if I was OK. That blew me away. Not only was this guy reading my articles, but he noticed that I hadn’t posted anything in a while and was concerned. Him reaching out like that really lit a fire under me, and I’ve been on a pretty good roll ever since. Rum people—I’m telling you; they’re good folks.

What’s Coming Next

As I look ahead, I’m really excited—not only about my site, but for rum in general. Super premium rum sales grew 91% in the U.S. from 2011-2012, and there is a steady stream of domestic producers coming online here in the states.  Rum is finally getting a sliver of the respect it deserves, but we still have much work to do. Here are some trends we are seeing today:

  • Various cask finishes are all the rage, and will continue to be for quite a while. Sherry, Port, Cognac, Extra-smokey Bourbon—what else will we see in the coming months? Non-fortified wines? Beer? Short of Balsamic vinegar, anything goes, it seems.
  • More rums with no age statements. Age can mean a lot or nothing at all when it comes to rum, because the number on the bottle often reflects the oldest rum in the blend, not the youngest. More rum blends are now reaching shelves with no age statement (Mt. Gay Black Barrel, for example) in favor of characteristics beyond age. This is closely related to the cask finishing, but it can go beyond that format and into a more nebulous notion such as a feeling or a particular place or adjective, as was done in the Scotch world beginning with Bruichladdich.
  • Drier rums positioned against whisk(e)y. Brugal began beating this drum with the introduction of 1888, and their PR folks did a bang-up job of getting erstwhile journalists to essentially reprint their marketing message. Have to tip my cap to them for that one. Watch for more dry rums to compete for brown spirits drinkers who aren’t currently buying rum.
  • More small batch bottlings from small producers are coming. In Europe, small batch bottling of really fine rum from folks like the Berry Bros. and Samaroli are mainstays of the high-end rum market. In the U.S., we’re starting to see a bit of that modality in the form of Ed Hamilton’s new rums. I hope to see more.
  • ABVs above 40%. With more high-end bottlings, we are beginning to see rums bottled at slightly higher alcohol levels. Far too often are alcohol levels determined by the tax man and the MBAs (disclosure: I have one of those). I say give the distillers and blenders free reign to bottle at the ABV that tastes best and good things will happen. All one need do is look a the whisk(e)y world for proof of that (pun intended).
  • On the negative side (at least from where I sit) we will continue to see a proliferation of cheap flavored rums flood the market. Spiced and flavored rums accounted for more than 52% of all rum sold in the US from 2011 to 2012, and the global powerhouses such as Bacardi and Diageo will try and capture even more of the flavored booze market with unholy rum concoctions similar to Malibu Spiced. More rum cream cordials are also sure to follow now that RumChata has moved a million cases.
  • As for me, I’ll be launching one or two more rum-centric sites in the next year. The one I’m most excited about is called rumnotes.com. Rum Notes will have reviews similar to the ones featured here, but will be rum-only and is incorporating some technical innovations that will make the site incredibly useful for n00bs and experts alike. I’ll keep this site too, of course, as it enables me to post long-winded self-serving pieces like this one 😉

So thanks for making it a fun two years, folks—your comments and likes are my only payment, so please keep them coming!

Cheers,
Josh

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott T permalink
    November 8, 2013 11:47 am

    Hi Josh,

    Hopefully Rumchata will at least start a trend of making more distinctive cream liqueurs. Up until now, with just a few exceptions, most everything I have tried tastes almost exactly like Bailey’s. The exceptions have been Rumchata, Castries Peanut Creme (which also has become much more widespread) and Voyant Chai Liqueur.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 8, 2013 1:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Scott. Yes, I think we will see a lot of innovation in this sector. A spiced version of rum cream is probably the lowest hanging fruit. Cheers!

  2. November 8, 2013 3:42 pm

    Congrats! And cheers to many more years to come!

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 8, 2013 4:00 pm

      Many thanks! I’ve got a lot of work to do in order to catch up to you. Cheers

  3. Jason Alexander permalink
    November 8, 2013 4:40 pm

    Thanks for the great stories, knowledge and inspiration. I certainly would not be anywhere near where I am today if it wasn’t for reading your website and talking to you.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 8, 2013 10:26 pm

      Thanks, brother! Happy to call you a friend. Cheers

  4. November 8, 2013 6:22 pm

    While we all would agree that diversity is the spice of life, it is also fair to say that such spice ought to come from the quality of the raw material (cane juice or molasses), and from the skill of fermentation, distillation, blending and aging – not from a artificially spicy additive in the form of glycerol, sugar, wine, or artificial flavors and spices. Does it please our sense of “diversity” to know that the same cheap young rum can be altered endlessly into any number of different profiles or expressions thanks to our friends at Dupont? That is the result of a lack of rules where an inexpensive rum can be tweaked to appear complex and aged, when it is not. Is this the kind of diversity we want?

    I think not. While a case could have made for geography and style some hundreds of years ago, in modern times geography has very little to with it. It can reliably be argued that the real diversity in rum is not geography or in the loophole ridden regulations, but rather in the different styles first proposed by Dave Broom, and now amended: Bajan, Jamaican, Demeraran, Cuban and Cane Juice Styles – all styles that are rather unrelated to geography. The taster does not exist who can identify the geographical source of a blind tasted rum.

    Josh, you make the excellent example of what you call the “dry” rums of Jamaica – where rum is made the old fashioned way and without all the unlabeled additives and flavorings. What you perceive is dry simply means they didn’t add sugar or glycerol. Indeed pure and well made and aged rums can be favorably compared to fine whiskies. Unfortunately, most of what passes for rum is not pure, and would better be described as a rum based drink. It a sad case indeed that many rum drinkers don’t know what real and pure rum tastes like.

    A few comments on what’s upcoming:

    Barrel finishes and higher proofs: this applies to the new super-duper premiums, rum which most of us cannot afford, and that most liquor stores won’t really carry. The 99% will be left with ever fewer and affordable aged rums, or be presented with your second prediction: NAS (no age statement) rums. It also does not help that 2013 is the first year that the 30 year, multi-billion dollar subsidies to the Big Three – Bacardi, Fortune and Diageo in the USVA and PR – are really beginning to squeeze the Caribbean rums we hold dear. These include Mt. Gay, Appleton, Barbancourt, El Dorado and the rums of the Dominican Republic, among many others. These smaller producers simply cannot compete and their continued ability to exist is threatened. They are being driven to release cheaper NAS blends simply because they cannot afford honest and real aging.

    As a result of these subsidies, and also due our horrible world economy the market is becoming divided into just two tiers – super expensive and cheap. You can expect growth of the cheap flavored/spices, gold and white categories being sold to the low end market of the 99%, balanced by extremely expensive releases aimed at the super-duper premium market, the 1% to whom cost simply doesn’t matter. Who loses? The middle class market and the dwindling number and availability of mid-priced, honestly aged quality rums.

    If you see experimentation in barrel aging, it will be for the 1%. If you see more and more NAS (no age statment) offering, these will be cheapened rums and blends with less and less good aged rum, with the goals of saving the really good stuff for the 1% crowd. This does not bode well for most of us. I must respectfully disagree that rum is “getting more respect”. From my vantage its quite the opposite. Mid-priced quality rum are dwindling as evidenced by the takeover of the rum shelves by the Big Three, a real horror story. It’s terrible.

    It is notable that the Petition to Save Caribbean Rum was signed by no less than authors Dave Broom, Beachbum Berry and Davin Kergommeaux, not to mention Carl Kanto of El Dorado and several other distillers, many rum webmasters and nearly 400 rum lovers from around the world. This is a serious issue. However, we do share one area of great agreement and that is the emergence of very small and micro distillers who are now at the fledgling stage much like craft beer once was, and with a similar goal – to counter the takeover of mass rum sales by three large corporations. Still even these have a big problem: unlike beer which can be sold quickly, fine rums take years of aging. Most of the new small and microdistillers do not enjoy the fast aging environment of the Caribbean, so these rums will require at least 10 to 15 years of aging in North America, a time requirement that few small distillers can afford. The best they can do is to produce good new and/or very young make, whites and golds. True aged rums will be greatly delayed, if ever made and successfully marketed, no doubt in miniscule quantities.

    Frankly its hard for me to share you enthusiasm Josh – Lord knows I’d like to. Caribbean rum as we knew it is fading. The few new American micros will never, and truly can never replace the Caribbean distillers who will be driven out of business, or reduced to supplying the Big Three with new make.

    It’s a shame. I do wish you well, but I’m afraid we will only be there to report rum’s demise insofar as most rum lovers are concerned. And a sad story that will be.

  5. Bridget permalink
    November 9, 2013 4:37 pm

    Way to go Josh! Question: I’m loving Dark and Stormys right now , what rum is the best for this drink?

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 9, 2013 10:31 pm

      Hahaha. Not gonna touch that one with a ten foot pole. That being said, when I have a “rum mule”, I prefer the combination of Coruba Dark and Bundaberg ginger beer. If there’s no Coruba to be had, I’ll goo with Myers’s Dark. Cheers!

  6. David McCauley permalink
    November 9, 2013 6:23 pm

    Glad you are doing well. I appreciate the efforts you put into all your reviews.

    Cheers and aloha!

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 9, 2013 10:32 pm

      Mahalo nui loa, David! Cheers

  7. November 14, 2013 3:03 am

    Sorry I’m so late in adding my voice to this lovely recap of your first two years, Josh. I think now as I thought then, that your reviews are insightful, whimsical and well written, and your work added to the body of reviews out there. It’s always hard to stay motivated, yet you have found our groove and I hope you stay in it for many years to come. All the best

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