This is the question which was posed by Ian Burrell during a conference and debate at Tales of the Cocktails in New Orleans. For our summer series, we have chosen to give the floor to those who make rum. We are asking each of them the same questions. Today, however, we are making an exception by questioning an amateur who is well-known amongst other amateurs, amongst other things for his candour. Doublespeak and concessions aside…
Who are you?
My name is Olivier, known online under the pseudonym Od Underwood, and I’m 35. I’m simply a non-professional lover of rum. For several years I have been a member of the Facebook group “La Confrérie du Rhum” (The Rum Brotherhood) and one of the administrators of “La Communauté du Rhum Agricole” (The Rhum Agricole Community).
How did you get into rum?
Like many people, I discovered rum during parties through cocktails and more or less successful mixes, generally with low-quality rums. During my travels, I then discovered higher-quality products, but it was four years ago, during a stay in Martinique, that I fell “in love” with rum, when I discovered rum houses like Neisson, Depaz, HSE or Trois Rivières. Since then I have tried to deepen my knowledge, firstly by tasting as much rhum/rum/ron as possible and then by delving into its production processes and history. After a tour of the world of rum left me with several disappointments, I came back to my first love: rhum agricole.
In your opinion, when does a rum stop being a rum?
This is a vast debate which raises several issues, including regulations concerning information on bottles. For several years we have witnessed the emergence of new brands riding on the growing passion for rum, with big marketing schemes and appealing packaging. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But what I see as an issue, and which therefore brings us back to the question, is the production of these products and the disinformation which goes along with them. Rum is a sugarcane distillate, whether that is molasses or sugarcane juice. Its differing properties in terms of aspect, smell and taste come from several factors; the sugarcane, fermentation, distillation, aging, the casks used, blends. All of these factors bring about the marvellous diversity we experience. Unfortunately, with these new brands another factor emerges, which is additions.
In order to give these new rums that lack history a character, it is common (laboratory tests support this) to resort to a range of tricks. Sugar, honey, caramel, spices, wood shavings (perfect for giving the impression of aging) or even glycerine are some of the delights you can find in these drinks. And it at this point, in my opinion, that we are no longer talking about rum.
Aside from the lies around the more than doubtful ages mentioned on bottles (I am thinking especially of those brands claiming 7, 10 or 12 year-old drinks when the brand only appeared in 2012 or 2010), it is these additions which concern me most. It boils down to nothing more than lies by omission, with the aim of deceiving the consumer. It is normal for a rum to have subtle notes of fruit. This is the fruit of expertise, in every step from the choice of sugarcane to its aging process, via the intricate work of the cellar masters. But for it to have the taste of a vanilla Grand Marnier and chemical caramel or banana à la Haribo is not. As well as having an unpleasant taste, and most probably effect on your health, this kind of product is, to my mind, fraudulent. At this point it is no longer a question of rum, but of a rum “arrangé” or a rum-based spirit. Unfortunately, there are no regulations on this subject.
Apart from the AOC in Martinique and to a lesser extent the IGP in Guadeloupe, there is nothing regulating the world of rum, thus leaving the door wide open to abuse. However, I must come back on a point. Some time ago there was a photo going around; a photo of a bottle of Don Papa whose name had rightly been changed to “spirit drink”. But I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never got my hands on this famous bottle. Maybe we’re on the right track.
A word of warning; these are just my own opinions and I could be misguided. But then I expect that to be proven. Otherwise, for the time being, with the evidence from all the different analyses and the palates of numerous connoisseurs, I fear that I may well be right.
I know that my words could be, if not counteracted, then at least nuanced. I can already hear certain people alluding to La Favorite and its famous family recipe which has been making waves, or others responding that for the majority of rons the addition of sugar or caramel is commonplace. I would simply respond that yes, they’re right. But with all its famous vintages, La Favorite doesn’t carry the AOC badge and that in the case of ron, by definition (for those the slightest bit in the know), there are additions.
Finally, if you’ll indulge me a while longer, I would like to tackle the issue of finishes. These have recently become very fashionable (I expect due to the success HSE had with three very good vintages), and several brands have or are going to exploit this niche. For some people this detracts from the rum’s nature, and one could therefore consider it to no longer be rum. I don’t personally agree with this. Sure, the touch added from these casks previously containing other alcohols modifies the taste or even the sugar content of the final product, but we must bear in mind that some rums are completely aged in casks, previously used for other brands or spirits, for their finish (I am thinking in particular of Longueteau, whose rums are aged in cognac casks) and that, at any rate, with rare exceptions all rums are aged in casks which have already been used.
There you have it. My thoughts could be considered those of an inflexible sectarian who only appreciates rhum agricole from French isles. There’s some truth in this, those are my preferences. But I still know how to appreciate and recognise the quality of other rums, whether made from molasses or pure sugarcane juice. Mauritius, Guyana, Saint-Lucia, Barbados… many countries offer a quality range without having to resort to modern methods of hidden sweeteners which, I’ll say once more, to my mind amount to no more than lying and deceiving the consumer.