Legal definition of rum: The Europe, CARICOM, and USA match

By Fabien Humbert & Alexandre Vingtier

What is a rum? This question is always on the minds of producers and connoisseurs. Especially since the answer varies depending on whether you are in Europe, the USA, Cuba, India, Guatemala, or Venezuela… because local production rules must be reconciled with the rules imposed in the major consumer markets.

Définition légale du rhum

In this dossier devoted to the perplexing subject of rum’s definition (rum or ron, there is no legal distinction! ), we will concentrate on three major markets: Europe, the United States and CARICOM (basically the former English and Dutch dominions of the Caribbean). The regulations in Europe and CARICOM are structured in mostly the same way in their first layers.

First, a supranational text (European regulation 2019/787 of April 17, 2019 and the CARICOM Rum Standard) gives the main guidelines, then it is up to each country (e.g. Jamaica) or each region (e.g. Martinique) to adopt more restrictive rules. The American market seems more nebulous, because there are few rules, and they apply essentially to rums as different as the large offshore producers of the US Virgin Islands (Captain Morgan) and Puerto Rico (Bacardí), or to the small craft distilleries present on American soil (and they are multiplying).

The raw material must come from sugar cane

According to the European regulation 2019/787, ‘rum is a spirit drink produced exclusively by the distillation of the product obtained by the alcoholic fermentation of molasses or syrups produced during the manufacture of cane sugar or the alcoholic fermentation of the juice of the sugar cane itself’.

This seems like the least we can do, yet not everyone agrees with this basic definition. In fact, in the CARICOM zone or in the USA, it is possible to make rum… from cane sugar (excluding beet sugar), which is therefore prohibited in Europe. From the start, there is a battle over the raw material… What about whole sugar loaves, rapadura, panela, kokuto, etc., should they be considered as dehydrated syrup?

The European regulation then states that rum is distilled at less than ‘96% ABV in such a way that the distillate presents, in a perceptible way, the specific organoleptic characteristics of rum’. Here, everybody seems to agree… except that the notion of ‘specific organoleptic characteristics of rum’ is in fact quite vague and can vary according to the territories of production. In any case, it should not be a cane spirit that is too rectified or a sugar cane vodka as it exists in some countries.

Définition légale du rhum

Another interesting point, what about the vat feet which are used to start the fermentations? In the British Empire, it was allowed to add fruit at this stage as it is still the case in Jamaica sometimes (and in the Canadian and South African legislations) but could it be considered as an ingredient?

Some would say that it is only the yeast in these fruits and not their sugars that matter. Moreover, the GI Ron de Guatemala, the first extra-European indication recognized by the EU, requires the use of pineapple yeast!

And the definition of the raw material, therefore the basis of the alcohol, does not prevent the addition of sanitary agents such as certain acids that are used to better control hygiene during fermentation and thus avoid aromatic deviations.

Flavouring, degree of alcohol… opinions differ

In Europe, rum cannot be flavored. In CARICOM, rum cannot be flavored either. If it is, it falls into another category and must be called ‘flavored rum’ and specify the main flavor on the bottle. In Europe, a rum with added flavors (spices, fruits, juices…), will become a Définition légale du rhum‘rum-based spirit drink’.

This is a major difference for ‘spiced rums’, a category clearly defined in CARICOM but not recognized in Europe. As for the sweetening limit, it is now 20g per liter in Europe, while in the USA there is simply a limit of 2.5% of blending material, colorants, sweeteners and flavors (natural or not, fruit concentrates, herbs, infusions, essential oils, spices, etc.) as long as it corresponds to the practice of the category and there is no obligation to mention the ingredients on the label.

The minimum alcoholic strength is 37.5% ABV in Europe, but 40% ABV in the USA and in the WIRSPA-CARICOM area (but with possible local adjustments). Elsewhere, local regulations authorize lower degrees, 35 or even 32% ABV below, which the rum is downgraded to ‘aguardiente de caña’ for the local market, and therefore very rarely exported.

The question of origin

After defining ‘rum’ in general, the European regulation focuses on ‘traditional’ rum (or ‘tradicional’ if it comes from Madeira). It must then follow stricter rules and come from one of the Geographical Indications registered in Europe. For example, the distillation must be done at less than 90% ABV and after ‘alcoholic fermentation of alcoholic products exclusively originating from the place of production considered’.

Here there is a clear difference with the American rum or with the CARICOM Rum Standard which simply indicates that the raw material must be fermented and distilled in the country of which the rum claims to be… but can be for all or part imported, which is often the case with the fall of the local sugar industries and even where it persists as in Jamaica or Guyana because the imported molasses is often less costly So the raw material of a traditional rum from Reunion Island must come from Reunion Island, while the raw material of a rum from Barbados can in theory come from Colombia.

The content of volatile substances of the traditional rum must be equal or superior to 225 grams per hectoliter of alcohol at 100% ABV (g/HLAP). There is no mention of these elements in the CARICOM Rum Standard or in the USA.

What about the age of the product?

Concerning the mention of the age of the rum, Europe, the USA and CARICOM follow the rule of the youngest drop but the USA allows to give the ages of all the components if their proportion is indicated on the label (25% of 4 years, 40% of 5 years and 35% of 8 years for example). Elsewhere, there are also regulations that allow the weighted average age, so an ‘8 year old’ can be 50% 4 year old and 50% 12 year old in these countries, often from Latin America.

Rhum Agricole is not protected outside Europe

The European regulation then defines ‘rhum agricole’. The latter must have been produced exclusively “by distillation, after alcoholic fermentation, of the juice of the sugar cane”. As rhum agricole is a sub-category of traditional rum from a regulatory point of view, it can only be used for the geographical indications of a French overseas department or the autonomous region of Madeira.

We can understand the efforts of rum producers in French Polynesia to set up and have recognized a geographical indication in order to have the right to market their pure cane juice rums under the category of rhum agricole in Europe. On the other hand, this remains impossible for Haitian or Mauritian productions.

However, if CARICOM respects this regulation, it is not the case of the USA where one can find ‘agricole rums’ produced locally and now a ‘ron agrícola’ in Puerto Rico… it is the price of success. On the other hand, the latter cannot be sold in Europe with this mention on their labels. In addition, to be called rum and sold in Europe, the ‘rums’ of CARICOM or Puerto Rico will have to comply with the standards of Regulation 2019/787, ie, at least 37.5% ABV, not be flavored …

And vice versa when a European rum wants to be sold in CARICOM. It will take great efforts and a permanent legal watch thereafter to ensure that rhum agricole is recognized as an exclusive production of our overseas territories.

These are the main rules governing the production and marketing of rum. It is of course possible to go much further in the comparison between rums from different areas by looking at the rules specific to countries or regions.

For example, rums with a Geographical Indication (GI) Guadeloupe or an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Martinique (the most restrictive) or rums from Jamaica will go much further into the rules concerning the degree of distillation, the duration of fermentation, the type of cane, the esters, the type of vat or distillation apparatus up to the number of trays or even the taste of the rum!

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