To respond to this question directly, a rum stops being a rum if, when tasted, it no longer exhibits the characteristics of its base material, which is sugarcane, in any one of its different forms. This principle is key.
“Wanting to classify rum with simple, or even simplistic, formulas by trying to organise it into specific boxes would be a grave error”
The job of the distiller and the cellar master is to create a superb spirit with a lot of character, by working according to their technique, which is unique to them and is often the heritage of their country and their land. Hence, excessive modification through an overly heavy distillation could detract from the rum’s true nature. For us, this is the moment where it changes categories and becomes a vodka. This is the same for activated carbon filtration, which would be too strong and, which, in this case once again, would change the nature of the product. With Plantation, we work on and offer rum for their clear and distinct character – above all else!
Indeed, when considering r(h)um it is important to know about the diversity of culture and expertise that goes into it. This is fundamental. Wanting to classify rum with simple, or even simplistic, formulas by trying to organise it into specific boxes would be a grave error. To really understand rum culture, you have to consider, for example, wine culture globally. It would be ridiculous to try to summarise or classify all of the world’s wines using a single rule (same grape variety, same production process, etc.).
The same should be true for rum, whose richness of culture is comparable, if not superior (and this is from a cognac producer, Ed.). Many years ago, along with the team who passionately set up Plantation Rum by my side, I studied and practiced the technical and cultural elements of rum and its diversity. And we worked hard to understand and perfectly master these. It is because we understand them so well that we are striving to preserve them.
Within the Plantation team, we also have an inflexible rule whereby each one of us is forbidden from arguing with or criticising a technique that we have not mastered. We believe that ignorance is destructive and that pleasure comes with knowledge. We are always dismayed to see people criticise techniques that they don’t understand or haven’t mastered because this is surely reductive. That is why, for example, we’ve imported molasses and sugarcane syrup to Cognac to distil ourselves. Not to make a marketable product, but to better understand the base material and fermentation techniques in a non-partisan way. It’s the same as for wine, in which tradition and production culture differ significantly from one region to another.
They also differ historically and geographically in the case of rum from one country to another, and this is what creates a fascinating product. It is the value of this that we are tirelessly seeking to demonstrate with our range of Plantation Rums.
WHY SHOULD RUM COPY WHISKY?
However, there are those who are trying to impose a stricter and completely European framework to dictate to producing countries how their rum should be made. This is often by imitating whisky, or some elements of it. Why should rum copy whisky when it has so much to offer in terms of diversity and richness of cultures and techniques?
Should we not instead be trying to understand rum in all its exciting diversity?
Specifically, for example: should we impose a certain type of distillation machine by forbidding all others? Should we impose a single length of fermentation period by forbidding, for example, long fermentations, however interesting they are (like for the French rhums grand arôme, at one time called “rhums industriels”, or the Jamaican high ester, and let’s not forget the Clarins from Haiti, Ed.)? Should we impose a single location for aging, even though for centuries the best rums were also produced using a double-aging process? Should we impose a minimum age for marketing rum, thereby forbidding certain countries from offering their rum, which offers freshness and florality when leaving the still (rum with Venezuelan controlled designation of origin requires a minimum of 2 years for example, and occasionally you find non-aged Latin rums, Ed.)?
On all these points, some people want to rewrite the history of rum and/or confine it to a single rigid category. This would not only be idiotic, but would cut rum off from a large part of its DNA. A simplification of rum would come at its own expense, and at the expense of its diversity and richness of tastes, and therefore of our pleasure. This is an issue I have already been considering for over 20 years. I have also carried out extensive self-reflection concerning this subject. As a young man, when I was working with rum for the first time, I thought that a “true” rum could only be distilled in a still. Indeed, to my mind, having seen the richness and finesse produced through distillation in a small copper still with a naked flame, a column was an unacceptable compromise which was simply motivated by a lower cost price. But then, I tasted, I listened, I worked and I learned. I discovered, and then worked on, delicious rums distilled in a column.
The same goes for secondary fermentation. One country, France, with its rhums agricoles, which are products that I like very much, recently banned secondary fermentation (towards the end of the 1980s/beginning of the 1990s). Why not? However, should it then be banned in the rest of the Caribbean and the world, where it has been done in this way for centuries? We cannot ignore or erase parts of rum cultures and techniques without a second thought. I think, rather, that we need to learn about them and understand them. During a debate on rum at Tales of the Cocktail, where I was a panellist, I found certain comments interesting, which also serve to illustrate what I’ve said. For one of the producers who was present, Roberto from the Serrallés distillery, it is hard to accept that other distillers are able to market white rum which hasn’t been aged since, in Puerto Rico, a rum must legally be aged for a minimum of two years before going on the market. I understand Roberto’s frustration, as other countries haven’t had to wait 2 years to put their rum on the market.
So what do we do? Oblige all countries to age their products for a minimum of 2 years? I would categorically say no, with all due respect to my good friend Roberto. I think that we instead need to understand and respect the tradition and history of each country and accept that there are differences. Rather than reduce them, we need to understand and explain them. Besides, it is these differences that give rum its beauty. We therefore cannot simplify here either, or we would no longer be able to sample a superb high ester from Jamaica having just left the still, or a very nice Clarin. That would certainly be a shame. Here again, the solution resides in knowledge and curiosity. It is up to us, the producers, to work on and explain these points of difference which make rum such a rich category. I sometimes say to certain colleagues who criticise their competition “explain to us what is unique about your way of doing things, educate us on your technique and on what makes you stand out rather than criticising when you don’t really know or understand the fundamentals of another product”.
So, according to the Plantation philosophy, we are partisans of the use of different types of casks. Not only bourbon casks but also the other types of casks allowing for interesting double maturation, like for example Porto casks, Cognac casks, etc. The Plantation range also offers certain rums that benefit from these variations, which, although rare, are often delicious.
YOU HAVE TO BE WARY OF CERTAIN THEORIES ON SIMPLIFICATION
In the same way, we are currently in the process of working on certain Plantation rums in casks with other types of wood such as Amburana or Grappia, which are fantastic varieties from the Amazonian rainforest. Aging in this way produces very interesting notes in the taste. To do this, we worked with the University of Sao Paulo to ensure that we were using trees that weren’t endangered. You have to be wary of certain theories on simplification, which are often supported on a purely commercial basis.
It has always been this way, and not only for rum. There are technical and historical principles that are intrinsic to and inseparable from rum. And these are clearly set out in the regulation 110/2008 of the European Community. I would encourage everyone to read up on this, if they haven’t already (in its entirety and including its interaction with the law as a whole, to avoid any hasty interpretations, Ed.). Generally speaking, the main principle is that of transparency on the part of producers and of education, in the noblest sense of the term.
The exchange of knowledge; in production, the more you know, the more pleasure you take from working with rum. I think the same is true for consumers. And that’s why I am always delighted to see the enthusiasm and curiosity incited by this marvellous product. It is sometimes forgotten that a great rum is above all the creation of a person or team in possession of knowledge, heritage and also a vision. Only very rarely is it the product of a cask stumbled upon by chance which miraculously turns out to be good. Excellence is hard; it requires talent, passion and hard work, a lot of hard work. It is also worth remembering that, quite simply, all this has one aim in mind, to stimulate emotions. And rum is made up of so many emotions.