Does rum need a new categorisation system? Imbibe investigates

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

29 April 2019

The myriad regulations of rum-producing countries has led to widespread categorisation confusion. As this spirit becomes ever more premium, that needs to change. Jacopo Mazzeo and a team of bartenders put some potential new rum categories to the test


As rum continues its unstoppable voyage towards premiumisation, there’s a growing school of thought that the old method of ‘white’, ‘gold’ and ‘dark’ labelling by colour is often meaningless when it comes to determining what’s in the bottle. A multiplicity of factors can influence colour, after all, imparting wildly varied flavour profiles to liquids with identical hues. Some people believe that even widely accepted, classic styles such as ‘Jamaican’, ‘English’, and ‘Spanish’ are obsolete, due to the vastly different rums some of these countries of origin have come to produce.

The trade’s response to the issue has been to raise a call for new categories. But that’s easier said than done. Recent attempts, including that proposed in 2015 by entrepreneur and rum guru Luca Gargano, have enthused only relatively few, and failed to convince a sufficient number of producers to make the suggested categories relevant. Undeterred, we at Imbibe decided it was time to pick up the baton and find out which features best determine the taste and style of the final product.

For this tasting, we focused on two crucial components of rum production: the type of still used (pot or column) and the raw material (sugar cane or molasses). The aim was to see whether tasters could distinguish which had been used and, therefore, whether they should be indicated on the label. Within the results, we’ve recorded how each rum is distilled and what it is made from, plus the number of judges who guessed these elements correctly.

How it works

We collected a range of rums, varying in style, colour and country of origin. They had to be either pot or column distilled, and made entirely of either sugar cane juice or molasses. The panellists also tasted a small number of molasses rums made with a blend of column and pot distillations – they were asked to guess the raw material of these samples. Rums had to be available to the UK on-trade. Samples were tasted blind, with panellists only aware of rough age (under or over 6yo). Scores were collated to give percentages, with all rums scoring below 60% listed as Also Tasted. All prices listed are RRP.

Panel

Adam Binnersley, Mojo, Leeds; Andy Hayward, The New World Trading Company, Manchester; Lee Jones, Sandanista, Leeds; Conor Knowles, Cottonopolis, Manchester; Hannah Lodge, Smugglers Cove, Liverpool; Jacopo Mazzeo, Imbibe; Adam Wilson, Liars Club, Manchester

Results

Under 6yo

80 Barceló Gran Añejo, Dominican Republic
Column still (5/7); sugar cane juice (1/7)
‘The nose displays notes of lemon, while vanilla and butterscotch are more evident on the palate. The finish reiterates the vanilla, plus a bit of cedar wood,’ AH. ‘Well-rounded rum, with a big punch of fudge aromas. In the mouth it’s really enjoyable, displaying classic flavours from the maturation in oak such as vanilla, fudge and caramel. Big gold star for me,’ AB.
37.5% abv, POA/70cl, Amathus Drinks

80 Bayou Select, Louisiana, US
Pot still (6/7); molasses (6/7)
‘A creamy and delicate interpretation; its silky texture really stands out,’ HL. ‘Nice appealing red-brown colour; well balanced both on the nose and the palate with some burnt notes, a little sweetness and long finish,’ AW.
40% abv, £28/70cl, Cellar Trends

80 Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry, Jamaica
Pot still (5/7); molasses (6/7)
‘It definitely tastes Jamaican to me, with its nice spiciness, intense flavours and lots of vanilla,’ AB. ‘Very unique scent; ripe, it reminds me of candies. Quite sweet on the palate,’ HL.
43% abv, £32.95/70cl, Identity Drinks Brands

76 Clément Canne Bleue NV, Martinique
Column still (5/7); sugarcane juice (7/7)
‘Certainly an agricole rhum. Hints of grass and vanilla on the nose. On the palate it shows citrus and vanilla again, and is pleasantly creamy. The finish is long and dry,’ AH. ‘Pear and pear drop aromas dominate the nose; the body is full, creamy, with little hints of liquorice and a crystalline herbaceousness on the finish,’ JM.
50% abv, POA/50cl, Amathus Drinks

77 Clément VSOP, Martinique
Column still (3/7); sugar cane juice (6/7)
‘Fragrant orchard fruits on the nose, herbaceous, elegant. The body is full yet balanced by more garden flavours such as crushed peas and runner beans. Stylish,’ JM. ‘This rum boasts a bright, fresh and juicy nose, with vegetal hints and a palate that pushes it close to a cognac,’ AB.
40% abv, POA/70cl, Amathus Drinks

75 Issan Distillery/That Boutique-y Rum Company, Thailand
Pot still (2/7); sugar cane juice (4/7)
‘The nose is intense with an almost rustic character that reminds me of earth and mushrooms. On the palate it is light and slightly bitter, with flavours of coconut,’ AB. ‘The aromas are intriguingly unusual, with strong grainy, ricey and yeasty notes. This yeasty character is found again on the palate and the finish, with marked flavours of bread crust and toast,’ JM.
40% abv, £38.95/50cl, Maverick Drinks

70 Rathlee 3yo, various provenances
Column still (5/7); molasses (5/7)
‘Very light and delicate nose, but deliciously creamy in the mouth,’ HL. ‘Very balanced aromatic profile, certainly made with a column still,’ CK.
40% abv, £35/70cl, Rathlee Distilling

70 Havana Club Añejo 3, Cuba
Column still (5/7); molasses (5/7)
‘Elegant nose, with hints of hay, honey and citrus peel,’ AW. ‘Fresh and well rounded, with a very clean finish,’ AB.
40% abv, £18/70cl, Pernod Ricard

70 Pusser’s British Navy Original, Guyana
Pot still (6/7); molasses (6/7)
‘A full-bodied rum, with rich toffee, liquorice and tobacco aromas,’ LJ. ‘Excellent complexity, with notes of sour cherry, dried fruit, toffee and oak, with a touch of spice,’ AH.
40% abv, £38/70cl, Cellar Trends

65 JM VO, Martinique
Column still (3/7); sugar cane juice (3/7)
‘The aromas are of orchard fruit, vanilla and liquorice. On the palate it’s grassy and a little bready. Drinkable on its own, but great in a cocktail too,’ JM. ‘Very elegant nose, with vanilla and cocoa beans. The palate is more herbaceous, balanced and harmonious,’ CK.
43% abv, POA/70cl, Amathus Drinks

64 Portsmouth 1968, England
Pot still (3/7); sugar cane juice (2/7)
‘Spicy nose, vegetal and grassy, so my guess would be sugar cane juice. Powerful palate,’ AW. ‘Herbaceous, spicy, almost gin-like character. Rum & T anyone?’ JM.
41% abv, POA/70cl, Portsmouth Distillery Co

Also tasted
Barceló Gran Platinum, Dominican Republic – column still (5/7), sugar cane juice (7/7); Manchester Still Faraday’s Proof, England – column still (4/7), molasses (4/7)

Over 6yo

85 Travellers Distillery/ That Boutique-y Rum Company, Belize
Column still (1/7); molasses (6/7)
‘Notes of vanilla and walnut characterise the aroma, while in the mouth I pick up vanilla and spices such as cinnamon, plus flavours of dark fruits, plums, jam, leather,’ AH. ‘While the nose is elegant, the palate is powerful, with a finish that hides an intense kick. Lots of dark fruits and toasted notes, rounded out by aromas of vanilla, oak and a creamy, buttery finish,’ JM.
56.1% abv, £52.95/50cl, Maverick Drinks

80 Plantation 2004, Panama
Column still (3/7); molasses (7/7)
‘The palate of this rum leaves me breathless. It’s oily, silky, concentrated. The very well hidden alcohol, with a refreshing saline touch, makes it easy to drink. Its complexity develops as
it warms up in the glass,’ JM. ‘On the nose, I get fresh notes of crisp red apples, while the palate delivers significant weight and complexity,’ HL.
42% abv, £45.95/70cl, Identity Drinks Brands

78 Plantation 2004, Peru
Column still (4/7); molasses (4/7)
‘There’s lots going on here. The nose is floral, with hints of elderflower and earth, and on the palate I find dried fruit, leather and bitter chocolate,’ AH. ‘This rum’s clean aromas and flavours makes me think it could have been column distilled, while the strong notes of caramel and the sweet character points towards molasses as the raw ingredient,’ CK.
43.5% abv, £43.95/70cl, Identity Drinks Brands

69 Havana Club 7, Cuba
Column still (3/7); molasses (5/7)
‘This rum has intense orange peel and spicy aromas. Given the colour, I would expect a fuller palate, but still a great pour for mixing,’ HL. ‘Herbaceous nose, with hints of caramel, liquorice and dried fruit. Quite warming on the palate, but overall good complexity,’ JM.
40% abv, £22/70cl, Pernod Ricard

Blends

81 Hattiers, various provenances
Blend of stills; molasses (3/7)
‘Fine floral nose showing hints of liquorice, while on the palate I find a little wet grass. The finish is dry, dominated by floral and caramel notes,’ AH. ‘It must be molasses based, and certainly of good quality having not been overproofed. The main flavours I pick up are grassy and vegetal,’ CK.
40% abv, £42/70cl, HB Evelyo

79 The Duppy Share, Jamaica/Barbados
Blend of stills; molasses (3/7)
‘Stone fruit and herb aromas, plus banana. Amazingly smooth and pleasantly sweet,’ HL. ‘Demerara character, hinting at the use of molasses. Full palate, with lots of dark berry and a hint of tar,’ JM.
40% abv, £26/70cl, The Duppy Share

74 Neptune, Barbados
Blend of stills; molasses (2/7)
‘Rich, biscuity nose of butterscotch and frangipane. On the palate it’s sweet and slightly spicy on the finish,’ AH. ‘Fresh, fruity notes with aromas of cedar wood and winter spices. Velvety and spicy palate,’ LJ.
40% abv, £35/70cl, Neptune Rum

Conclusions

  • Panellists agreed that a new categorisation system would represent a significant step forward for rum. With new expressions being released all the time, the trade needs reliable categories that can work beyond obsolete categorisations such as country or colour.
  • When looking at the raw materials, discounting the rums made with a blend of distillation methods, the majority (five or more) of the panel correctly picked molasses rums in nine out of the eleven molasses expressions in the tasting. They struggled with the sugar cane ones, however.
  • When trying to determine between still types, the age of the rum had a significant bearing. The panel found it easier to identify still type in the ‘Under 6yo’ category, and when breaking this down between pot and column still, they found it easier to identify the column rums.
  • Having said that, the panellists found it easier to pinpoint widely used styles such as ‘Jamaican’ (often pot/molasses) or ‘agricole’ (column/sugar cane juice). Once they recognised these, they could then match the samples with the correct raw material and method of distillation.
  • Most panellists struggled when it came to identifying the raw material in the blended rums. Given they were all molasses, this was surprising.

Panel comments

Adam Binnersley Mojo

I find it fairly easy to tell which rum was sugar cane juice-based and which was molasses, and I think one can also tell between pot and column distillation. In my opinion, rums made with one single distillation method and one raw material tended to show more unique characteristics than blends which instead seemed to taste fairly generic.

Andy Hayward The New World Trading Company

I’ve been struggling to find information when it comes to production methods. If there was more information on the bottle or if I could get more from the producer that would help me approaching rums and selecting them. Cases like Plantation Rum, which gives you lots of details on the website, are very rare.

Lee Jones Sandinista
I don’t think I’ve ever thought in that much detail when blind tasting rum. Most of the information I get is usually based on country of origin or style. I would maybe pick up the obvious stuff, like if it’s an agricole rhum or Jamaican. But if more specific information was on the label, it would certainly make it easier to recognise a common thread of what you like.

Conor Knowles Cottonopolis
The main thing that a guest wants to know about rum is the flavour profile, then they want to know about the age and lastly where it’s from. To know what raw material has been used or what type of distillation is something that makes a real difference to bartenders, but consumers aren’t that bothered with it.

Hannah Lodge Smugglers Cove
When trying to distinguish between column- and pot-distilled rums the main thing that I was looking for was intensity: pot-distilled spirits would have a stronger aromatic profile and a longer finish. Certainly distillation method and raw material affect rum styles as much as grape variety would affect the finished flavours of a wine.

Jacopo Mazzeo Imbibe
Rum is an extremely exciting and vibrant category, but at the same time it’s a very diverse and confusing one. By focusing our attention on unequivocal elements such as raw material and distillation method I think that we could clear away some of that confusion and help rum to reach its real potential.

Adam Wilson Liars Club
There are certain guidelines that I follow when tasting rum, like grassy aromas for agricole rhums, or funky flavours in Jamaican. A widespread categorisation wouldn’t help the majority of guests, because what they’re after at the moment is country of origin, but would definitely help bartenders and those consumers who have an interest in the product.

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