Why should we look beyond rum's origin? Sly Augustin explains

Imbibe Editorial

11 July 2019

From fluctuating costs of sugar during World War I to tax collection, Trailer Happiness’ Sly Augustin explains the factors that have had a surprising impact on the rum category

To get some real insight into the rum category, both past and present, you can do a lot worse than consult Trailer Happiness owner Sly Augustin.

Considering his venerable Notting Hill bar has about 200 rums, not to mention his heritage, which ticks the boxes of not one but two rum-producing countries, Jamaica and St Lucia, he’s immersed in rum culture. Augustin shared some of this wisdom during a packed talk in The Cocktail Lounge at Imbibe Live this year. At its heart, this was a talk about taking the conversation about rum beyond just where it’s from. ‘It’s about how it arrived, and about the integrity and the intentions of the people,’ he explained.

To describe a significant factor when considering rum’s history in general, he borrowed a term from Wu-Tang Clan: CREAM. ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Rum is the most monetised spirit, with such a desire for wealth,’ he explained. He spoke about how St Lucia was passed between France and England a frankly ludicrous number of times over the years, and about how 17th-century Barbados was the richest colony.

Jamaica at one stage had 126 distilleries – a number that’s now reduced to six. ‘It’s easier for a government to collect taxes from six rather than 126.’

Rum isn’t wild. It’s just wildly misunderstood

Sly Augustin, Trailer Happiness

And then there’s Cuban rum. ‘When we talk about Cuban we talk about pre– and post-Castro.’ What isn’t talked about, he explained, is Allied governments coordinating to control the price and distribution of sugar during World War I. After the war, various factors caused the price of sugar to fluctuate, ultimately contributing to a financial crisis in Cuba.

One way of going beyond the origin is by taking a closer look at production methods, and the best way to do this is to actually taste these. Augustin obliged, with samples starting on Admiral Rodney HMS Royal Oak Rum, made entirely using a column still.

‘The downside of using a column is that a certain amount of flavour is stripped out, but this one is a really good example, and challenges those perceptions,’ he explained.

Next up was Chairman's Reserve Limited Edition 1931, a combination of column and pot still. ‘You should be picking up more leather, stone fruit and apricot. It’s warming, like a nice hug,’ he described.

But it’s not only about still type and country. Current considerations within rum are about age statements and adulteration. ‘It’s 80% of the conversation. I want to step back and ask whether we’re having the right conversations, and move forward,’ he added.

Among these is the prevalent idea that rum isn’t regulated. ‘Rum isn’t wild. It’s just wildly misunderstood. I’d argue that it can be diverse while following strict guidelines,’ he said, citing rhum agricole’s use of sugarcane juice as an example of something that has its own niche, and own production method.

That use of juice, as opposed to molasses, gives agricole more of a sense of place too. ‘You can’t transport it like you can molasses. You could, however, open a distillery around the corner from here and get molasses from Brazil,’ he said.

For some context about regulation, and perception, Augustin described a drink to the audience that has a reputation as a party drink, that promotes both aged and unaged expressions, and uses dosage. Rum? ‘No, I’m talking about champagne.’

Considering the prestige that category holds, and with a history that goes back a not dissimilar amount of time compared to rum, it certainly makes you think.

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