Staring at the paper mat before me were 12 unlabeled rums in glasses, all slightly different colors. I’d come for a blind tasting in a room with some of Washington D.C.’s most educated and ambitious bartenders and beverage directors in the United States Bartender’s Guild, unsure of whether I was really going to discern any differences. Because with variations in exactly how much, rum’s all sweet and caramel-y, right? Wrong.
The event was part of a national series called Rum for All, spearheaded by venerable spirits reviewer and Spirit Journal author F. Paul Pacult and industry mogul Sean Ludford. It aims to help the spirits industry appreciate the nuances and varied characteristics of a liquor that, frankly, is too often associated with cheapness and drunkenness.
But au contraire, as I came to fully understand that day. Rum is the most versatile spirit in the world, able to stand up against even the finest of cognacs and whiskeys.
Other spirits “don’t have the latitude, the spectrum of broad flavors from dry to incredibly sweet, light to remarkably heavy…the incredible array of ages, of styles, of types per country and on a global basis as rum,” Pacult explains.
Unlike other spirit categories like cognac or bourbon, rum is not governed by a set of internationally followed standards or regulations. Rum does not have to be aged in a certain kind of barrel or distilled in a certain kind of still.
Rum can be made anywhere in the world. Some origins like Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic impose standards and laws within their own countries, but that’s it.
The United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau says that rum sold in the U.S. must be distilled from the fermented juice of sugarcane, sugarcane syrup, sugarcane molasses or sugarcane byproducts to no more than 190 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof, and “having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum.” Whatever that means.
The lack of rum-making guidelines can be incredibly advantageous for the ambitious blender or distiller, because they have the creative freedom to make a range of diverse products without restraint, even within a single brand.
“You can play with different types of oak, you can play with different blends to get the final product,” says Jassil Lucia Villanueva, master blender for Brugal Rum Company, which is based in the Dominican Republic.
For example, Brugal’s 1888 rum is warm and oaky, making it suitable for a rye substitute in a Manhattan, while the Brugal Especial Extra Dry is clear, herbaceous and clean, making it an excellent cocktail mixer.
But this freedom has also led to rum’s branding as mediocre swill.
“Not all the companies play fair. There’s a lot of rums that…only use artificial aging [for example],” Villanueva adds. “It’s how you take advantage of the freedom that you have. What makes a good rum is the ingredients that you use, how you treat the raw material in the distillation process, and the quality and care you put into the blending and the bottle.”
Artificial aging is when, rather than placing the distillate in a wooden barrel, companies put it in a stainless steel or plastic tank with wood chips or staves.
Adding artificial coloring is also common in the rum category, which is added to make the liquid appear darker (read: older) or maintain color consistency. Usually, the amount is so small that it doesn’t make the rum taste different. But, either way, law doesn’t require its disclosure to drinkers (those dang nonexistent rum standards again).
And it’s this kind of stuff that has helped hurt rum’s image. “The perception of rum has largely been defined by a couple of large brands that have dominated the market for the past century,” says Robert Burr, founder of Rob’s Rum Guide and the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. “These top-selling rums are simple, meant to be mixed and enjoyed with other dominate flavors, such as rum and Coke. This overwhelming dominance almost made rum a simple commodity with little value.”
Rum’s image is also deeply rooted in history going back to the colonial era.
“Rum was essentially made from industrial waste — the molasses was a byproduct of sugar making, and instead of throwing it away sugar makers found they could be make something sellable,” says Wayne Curtis, author of A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. “Rum didn’t have a long history of traditions and growth in the 18th century, like beer or wine-making, or brandy or whiskey.”
He adds, “This was compounded by the fact that initial production was on the islands of the West Indies, and so a major market was to sailors. Evidence suggests sailors were not very particular when it came to swill. If it was cheap and got them drunk, they liked it. That’s the cradle where rum was nurtured.” And because rum was “scarcely potable,” the colonists mixed things with it to mask the taste, a custom still widely embraced today (ah-hem, rum and Coke).
Thankfully rum is gaining traction as a formidable dram, with efforts like those of Rum for All and groups like Rum United, which organize public events around the country for National Rum Day every August. But there is still a long way to go in helping drinkers understand what is a quality rum.
Both Pacult and Burr say the quality of rum is determined by several factors that include the maker’s attention to detail in the process and quality of stock, but revolves a lot around the finesse of the blend; how well balanced and integrated it is.
Burr’s favorite current rums include those from Guyana (El Dorado), Guatemala (Ron Zacapa) and Venezuela (Diplomatico, Ron Pampero, Santa Teresa). Light rums from Cuba (Havana Club) and Puerto Rico make excellent go-tos for their lightness and dryness, while Jamaican and Barbadian rums make the kind of juice by which the entire category could be judged.
Specifically, Pacult raves about El Dorado 12 and El Dorado 25, and the Puerto Rican Don Q 151 and Don Facundo Eximo - three richly balanced and flavorful varieties.
“When we're evaluating rum, we're looking for flaws, for compatible notes, for harmony in the way the spirit is presented,” Burr, a reviewer and rum judge, says. “Sometimes the nose is perfect, with aromas of vanilla, cane, brown sugar, baking spice and dried fruit, but the taste is flat and the finish too quick. A great sipping rum might suggest a sweetness in the nose, then deliver a robust and complex expression on the palate evolving into a dry long lasting finish.”
“Rum can never be described as one thing,” adds Maggie Campbell, head distiller for Privateer Rum in Massachusetts. “It can be broadly textured and pliant giving it an unctuous mouthfeel, or it can be more tightly knit and aromatic, giving it a nervy vein of energy down the mid-palate. There are stinky rums, and then there are rums so wispy and filtered of character and mouthfeel that little identity of the spirit comes forward at all.”
To earn Pacult’s rare five star rating in Spirit Journal, a rum has to set a benchmark for all the others. It has to be iconic. I bet you don’t hear that word often associated with rum, do you?
But then again, as Pacult puts it: “Rum is so much more than what people think it is.”