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The Trouble with Rum Nerds

June 9, 2016

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).





7 Comments leave one →
  1. dontomek permalink
    June 9, 2016 4:19 pm

    Well said. And agreed.

  2. Richard Medve permalink
    June 9, 2016 5:38 pm

    Ey bruddah no hear from you lately, Due to some personal health issues, I invented a useful concoction that Will help ones bowel movements. I love my Dark & Stormies , so I have added a shot or two of prune Juice And changed the name to a “POOPDECK ” 😬😜😆 Guaranteed results ! 💩 Regards, Tiki Dick, Hawi, Hawaii

    Sent one poke at a time♿️


  3. June 12, 2016 7:28 am

    Do excuse this lengthy post, but Josh has raised some VERY important issues, for which we should all be grateful.

    Speaking of Buddha, let’s do speak the truth and not a version that will please the Big Three – Diageo, Fortune and Bacardi. Josh cited three important sources: Seales, Gabriel of Plantation and the constantly misunderstood 2-1/2% rule. Let’s start with Gabriel.

    Per Josh “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.” Josh then exclaims that Plantation’s “authenticity” is the reason people keep buying it. Is this so?

    No. Until Plantation was outed by the sugar tests of ALKO, the Swedes, Drejer, et al – until then Plantation’s position was like the mafia’s omerta – silence. Even today, a meticulous review of Plantation’s website – many pages – could not find a single admission of added sugar. The claim that Gabriel “freely admits” to a “bit of sugar”? He’s never, ever admitted the amounts used; to the contrary the many Plantation rums tested showed a typical addition of 20 grams of sugar per liter. That’s not a pinch of sugar – it’s about 5 teaspoons of sugar per bottle, enough to smother the underlying profile in favor of sugary smoothness. Ouch.

    If Gabriel is so free, open and proud, why is it that not a word of this hallowed and traditional practice is excluded from their large and otherwise descriptive website, nor is there any mention on the label like “flavored with skill using the finest Demeraran sugar”. Don’t hold your breath. And how about the notion that Gabriel is “out front” about his sourcing?

    No again. About as far as Plantation will go is to name the alleged island of production. There are indications that Plantation purchases at least some product in bulk from a very large third party bulk distributor. During a past study of all their products, I could find not a single mentions of the actual distillery, method, raw materials, fermention, yeast, or specific cooperage facts. That’s “out front”?

    Let’s now move to Richard Seale, who in comparison Josh properly praised for making real, honest and scrupulously legal rum. No unlabeled adulterants like sugar, glycerol, flavorings or even wine. Here’s what Seales had to say in a debate with Gabriel:

    “The sugar issue has been regrettably spun as a “partisan issue” but this is neither accurate nor fair. For many producers e.g. Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique sugar is an illegal adulterant. This is not molasses v juice or column v pot or tropical v temperate, this is legal v illegal. Sugar proponents and I do not have opposing views on sugar”

    Reader should note that by test, Plantation seems to have added sugar to rums from countries where sugaring is illegal. How “authentic” is that? Seale’s continues:

    “However if we are to believe the very seductive story of using “ancient techniques” and “a small touch” or “dosage” of sugar then we must check if this currently accords with reality. Johnny Drejer tested some 73 ultra premium rums and only found 12 without sugar (no surprise they mostly came from Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique). More disturbingly 53 (87%) of the 61 rums with sugar had more than 10g/l a limit rarely exceeded in Cognac. 48 (79%) of the 61 were at or higher than the legal limit for Cognac. “

    Gabriel’s cognac story fails both legally AND in actuality. Although Seale’s complete response to Gabriel was much longer, I’ll add just one final exerpt about the counterfeiting of real, honest and pure rum with sugar:

    “Last year at Tales of the Cocktail during a seminar I presented two rums, one was an industrial produced purported “super premium” brand with a double-digit age claim and great reverence in the rum community. The other was an un-aged rum suitably coloured, doctored and sweetened. The knowledgeable rum audience was unable to distinguish between the two and over half of the audience present preferred my ‘counterfeit’ (Note, I agree with their choice).”

    Point made. Gabriel’s and Seale’s full dialogue can be found at The Floating Rum Shack, like Josh’s, another good site I frequent. Last, let’s try to briefly cover the widely misunderstood 2-1/2% rule, Section XXXXX of the US code of regulations. In sum Josh believes that “coloring, flavoring and blending materials” may be added to any rum up to 2-1/2% by volume without being labeled. He stated:

    “…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…”

    This is statement is an extracted miscitation of Section 5.23 of the code, which is:

    “§5.23   Alteration of class and type.

    “(2) There may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as are an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added… (or)

    …which are not an essential component part of the particular distilled spirits to which added, but which are customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage, if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 21⁄2 percent by volume of the finished product.”
    In other words, the regs do NOT allow blanket addition, but set forth four criteria to be legal:

    1. it speaks only to harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and

    2. if used the named additive must be ESSENTIAL to the making of the spirit, or

    3. if not essential, it must be in use under the legal standard of ESTABLISHED TRADE USAGE, and

    4. may not exceed 2-1/2% by volume

    “Essential” is easy. If the class, in this case “rum”, can be made without it, the material added is not essential. Neither coloring, flavoring or blending materials are essential to the making of rum; indeed hundreds of “rums” are made without them. Thus these additive cannot be used under this test.

    We are left with the allowable use under “established trade usage”. What is that? Established trade usage is a long, long established legal concept. Simply it means a practice or custom so widespread that it need not be specified.

    Example: If a dealer offers a new car for sale, under “established trade usage”, you will expect it to be delivered with wheels, full fluids, a set of keys and enough gas to drive it out of the dealership. While many other optional accessories will be specified, as will the price and terms, there is no need to specify the wheels, fluids, keys, or gas in writing as this are expected by all buyers and sellers under customary established trade usage.

    Only harmless coloring meets this test as the use of coloring is almost universal for rum (unlike whisky or bourbon). Flavoring and blending materials are not expected, and are nowhere near so universal as to meet the strict test of “established trade usage”. The proof is on the rum shelves. Coloring is near universal in usage, flavoring and blending material are not. It has not been established that distillers must use or are expected to use flavoring or blending materials.

    If they do, the same section makes clear that the other regulations remain in full force, ergo add flavorings and the rum must be so labeled, with the primary flavoring identified, eg “Vanilla Rum” or “Sweet Surprise”.

    The use of sugar (or any of the other trickery used) to alter cheap rums (ala Seales) to appear aged, smooth and complex is fraudulent, wrong and qualify as the “counterfeit” rums knowingly argued by Seales.

    In closing and in defense of Josh, he is not alone in being led by the many circulated misrepresentations of this section. While the terms “essential” and “established trade usage” have been widely litigated and well understood in the law, a number of commercially oriented spokesmen and promoters have intentionally misrepresented it to the point that Josh (and me at one time) have been led to believe otherwise.

    We can be forgiven, as for year the producers denied the sugaring entirely. Only when caught and revealed by the governments of Finland, Sweden, etc., did they finally admit the alteration, but then attempted to explain it away as “tradition”, or somehow allowable under a rule that is easily misrepresented, and truly understood by few, usually lawyers.

    That the TTB has been lax and offers a convenient blind eye does not change the facts. Rum is secretly and unlawfully altered and promoted. The good news: about half of the 780 rums tested are truly pure, honest and legal, containing only legal coloring, if any. And more and more rum buyers are now rejecting these tricked out sugar bombs for what they are: a knowing adulteration of lesser rum to be premiumized for great additional profit. Make a good, pure and honestly aged rum is expensive. Altering a lesser rum with squirt of artificial flavoring, 5 to 10 teaspoons of sugar, glycerol, or even wine is cheap.

    And now the buyers know it. And that’s the truth. Keep up the good work Josh…

    • Ramon Fernandez permalink
      July 30, 2016 7:42 pm

      27 CFR § 5.23 a (2) pertains specifically to what “may be” (not “must be”) be added to distilled spirits, meaning that such additives logically need not be present in everything sold as rum, and therefore your interpretation of “established trade usage” as implying an expected, standard ingredient in everything labeled as rum is clearly inappropriate. Clause (ii) even specifies additives “which are not an essential component part of the particular distilled spirits to which added” – in other words, they are optional and non-universal in use. As you’ve interpreted it, the regulation is self-contradictory and makes no logical sense, a not unexpected result of plucking the definition of “usage of trade” from the UCC and trying to apply it to “established trade usage” in the CFR. That leaves us with your “the proof is on the rum shelves” definition as to what is “established”, and you helpfully provide us with numbers indicating that 83% of the premium market and around 50% of the overall market contains additives. By this standard, additive-containing rums are at least as established in the modern trade as rums without.

      By the way, while they can detect which rums are heavily adultered, your amateur tests don’t prove a rum is clean, pure, honest, legal, or whatever else you imagine. Rather, they just mean any additives that are present don’t alter the density to the extent that a (Chinese-made, bought on eBay) hydrometer can detect it. In all likelihood, many of these rums also have additives…as you discovered with Matusalem. Even the Finns’ and Swedes’ numbers aren’t a guarantee: is that 1-2 g/L of extract from barrel aging and evaporation, or was it added deliberately? Or perhaps the rum contains milligram quantities of artificial sweeteners (which are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar)? Even if additives were banned by federal regulation, would you seriously trust producers in far-flung countries not to skirt the rules, to say nothing of trusting the US to even enforce the rules when they ignore solera-style average/maximum age statements printed right on the front of bottles? It’s pointless obsessing over which rums are completely “pure” and which are not because it is ultimately unknowable. It comes down to a matter of trust, trust both in your palate to discern quality rum and in your favored producers to make quality rum.

  4. August 16, 2016 5:05 am

    I dont really care if a producer or a brand freely admit they ‘re adding sugar (will they with additives ?), the idea shouldnt be to respect the laws ?

    Thus, we must not forget that Plantation (since its in the original post) are not selling Just rums.

    And if someone is admitting the sugar thing, he also admits the illegal part, isnt it worst when we think about it ?

  5. Robert Lemieux permalink
    August 16, 2016 10:21 am

    Nicely said.
    I’ve passed on your article to a few distributor here in Quebec who don’t seem to realize that we are passed Bacardi White…

  6. Ocean man permalink
    July 20, 2017 12:46 am

    But do we “know” Plantation adds sugar? Are they up front about it? I have a bottle of XO here and it doesn’t say anywhere on the bottle that there is added sugar (and there most definitely is–it tastes like very sugary characterless vanilla ethanol water).

    I agree with your idea of telling the truth. Currently, however, it seems that Plantation does not. They’re happy to remain ambiguous. The truth should be stated plainly on the bottle, imo, not buried away in an interview on some blog somewhere, if that’s even the case. As far as I know the only reason people know about Plantation’s use of sugar is because people tested their products and some countries require sugar volumes to be stated by law (Finland, IIRC).

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