I’ve just finished watching season two of Ugly Delicious. It unlocked a new way to discuss rum in a more relatable manner. Episode 2, was called “Don’t Call It Curry”. Obviously, it’s about curry, which is Indian food. They mention that Indian food isn’t just curry. They have many more dishes in India, highlighting how important the region is.
Just like some of us, like to eat Japanese curry and Indian curry, I bet many didn’t know curry powder doesn’t have anything in it that gives us the right to call it curry powder. The term was also just invented by the English. It’s the same for rum. Most of us have likely chugged a large quantity in our youth, because there are a lot of cheap and widely accessible brands. We, sometimes, still drink them in bars. Yet, a lot of drinkers still don’t really know what rum is. It’s still usually assumed as a type of alcohol that comes from sugar.
Before I discuss what rum is, I think it’s proper to discuss how rum came to be? While rum originated in the Caribbean, sugarcane is not indigenous there. The origins of sugarcane are said to be from Papua New Guinea. It spread to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Different colonial powers, like the Dutch and Portuguese, eventually brought sugarcane to the Caribbean and South America. This is where most of the world’s rum, or sugarcane-based spirits, are made nowadays. The Portuguese brought sugarcane to Brazil. This eventually led to Cachaca. Then, the Dutch were the first to bring sugarcane to Barbados and cultivate it.
The earliest records found in 1654, suggest that Mt. Gay in Barbados is the birthplace of rum. Because the Caribbean has so many island nations in it, the different islands became territories under different colonial powers. Most, if not some of these island nations, changed hands multiple times. Naturally, these colonizers left their imprint on those islands. History is long and complicated, so I’m only going to mention the colonial powers who left a mark on rum styles and production. These are the Spanish, the French and the British.
The majority of rum is made from molasses. Molasses is basically a byproduct of sugar production. Sugarcane juice is boiled down to a syrup, so the crystals can be extracted. At least 90% of the rum in the world are molasses based. This is primarily because molasses does not spoil. So, distilling year-round and anywhere in the world, is not an issue. This leaves us with the minority of rum being sugarcane juice based. Rhum Agricole, Clairin from Haiti and Cachaca (this is debatable as Brazilians don’t like Cachaca to be referred to as Brazilian rum), are all sugarcane juice based.
With all my mentioning of sugarcane, it should already be obvious that rum is a sugarcane-based spirit. Sugarcane. Not sugar. Alcohol comes from sugar. You need sugar to be converted into alcohol by yeast. Fruits and sugarcane have readily available fermentable sugars. Sugar in agave and grain are stored in more complex forms, such as starch for grain. But heating/cooking these, breaks them down into simple sugars, which is why agave for Mezcal is roasted and barley is malted.
In my opinion, it’s largely thanks to Bacardi’s Carta Blanca that the misconception of white/unaged rum being flavorless came to be. Sugarcane vodka is a term I’ve heard, but that’s not true. Unaged Jamaican rum and unaged cane juice rum are very flavorful and complex. Then, there’s the most annoying misconception that all aged/colored rum is sweet. Just because it’s made from sugar…cane. Well, a rum can be sweet, but a lot of rum is sweetened post distillation. You’ve most likely already come across readily available brands like Don Papa, Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico (most) and Plantation (most).
The biggest issue facing rum is how it’s being classified. My initial attraction to rum is how diverse it is. Where there is sugarcane, then there is rum, or some form of sugarcane spirit. The massive diversity is rum’s best and worst advantage. Worst, because there’s so much to take in that people give up upon getting a glance at the surface and just generalize. Best, because there’s so much variety that one must take a longer and deeper look to properly understand it. There are so many rum producing countries with their own rules and traditions. So many that rum was, for the longest time, dismissed to be the wild west of spirits (having no rules). There is no global regulatory body for any spirits. There is only a general understanding for what spirits should be. People think whisky is such a regulated spirit, but the single malt producers all over the world are mostly following the SWA standards.
Saying all unaged/white rum are flavorless and all aged/colored rum are sweet, is like saying dumplings and noodles are all there is to Chinese food. But like rum, Chinese food has a variety due to China being so big and having many regions. For example, you have Sichuan cuisine which is a southwestern Chinese province. It is known for its hot & spicy taste thanks to their heavy use of Sichuan peppercorn and facing heaven peppers in dishes like hotpots. Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton, is in the southeastern part of China. Cantonese cuisine, which is easily known for dimsum, is probably the most well-known thanks to Hong Kong being such a foodie destination.
Now that we know what rum is, it’s time to discuss how one classifies rum. The most widely known way of classifying rum is the color classification. This is the worst and laziest way to classify rum or any spirit. The color of a spirit does not give any useful information about the product. There are lightly flavored aged and filtered white rums like Havana Club 3. There are also unaged funky and full-bodied white rums like Worthy Park’s Rum Bar Silver. What’s the difference between gold and dark rum? Gold rum just has less caramel coloring than dark rum? The color of a rum does not give any information about its production style or provenance. Think of it in a cocktail perspective. The Daiquiri’s recipe is rum, lime sugar. Using the “white rum” Havana Club 3, will make the cocktail a light and refreshing one. It will be very different from the Rum Bar Silver, which will give the drink a funkier flavor. Then imagine whisk(e)y being sold via color. Bourbon and rye would be sold as dark whiskey. Scotch with natural coloring would be sold as gold whiskey.
For me, the other next best known is the Colonial classification. According to Velier’s Luca Gargano, this is something he taught back in the late 90s or mid-2000s until he developed the Gargano Classification. This classification generalized the characteristics of rum from the former colonial powers. English style rum refers to former British colonies like Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua. They mostly use pot stills and/or traditional column stills which make funky and/or full-bodied rum. Rum from these islands, especially Jamaica and Guyana, are said to have made up much of the British Navy’s rum. But this is another can of worms I won’t get into now. Scotch, Japanese and Irish single malt as well as Cognac should come to mind as they use pot stills.
French style refers to the French Caribbean islands such as Martinique and Guadalupe. These islands make rhum Agricole and are known for using sugarcane juice based rhum. These are earthy, grassy and funky flavored. Since they are still a part of France, Agricole rhum are under the protection of the French AOC. But not all cane juice based rhum come from French Caribbean islands. There are distillers in other parts of the world such as Thailand (Chalong Bay & Issan) and Vietnam (Sampan and Rhum Mia) which make French style rhum. There aren’t much of these styles around because the quality of the rhum relies on the quality of the cane juice. After the cane are harvested, they must be pressed and fermented within 24 hours of harvest. So global shipping isn’t really an option here. The distillers have to rely on the cane around their distillery.
Lastly, are the Spanish style rons, which herald from ex-Spanish colonies. There are the Spanish speaking South American countries like Panama, Guatemala and Venezuela. Let’s not forget the Spanish speaking Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico, Cuba and Dominical Republic. These rons are characterized by the primary use of column stills, their fondness of sweetening the rum post distillation (Diplomatico, Ron Abuelo and Ron Zacapa) and usage of fake age statements (Flor De Cana and Ron Zacapa). While also being molasses based like English style rum, their column stills are known to produce light flavored spirits. The flavor of the rum from these areas rely more on the casks and aging.
***I’d like to note that there is a huge difference between traditional column stills and multi-column stills. Like Armagnac and a number of Bourbon distilleries, Agricole distilleries in Martinique use traditional column stills for distilling. These rhums are far from being light in flavor. Barbados and St. Lucia also use traditional column stills which produce flavorful rum. Caroni used traditional stills to produce their trademark petrol flavor. Multi-column stills are modern technology. They’re designed to strip the spirit of flavor and are mainly used for volume production. Multi-column stills produce almost neutral spirits like vodka.
I see the Colonial classification as a stepping stone to classify rum by its origins. This is a very specific and sure way of understanding how a rum is made and how the style came to be. For example, Barbados and Jamaica may both make English style rum as they use pot distill molasses. But Jamaica uses pot a lot more. Aside from being more pot heavy, the longer fermentation times also make Jamaican rum a lot funkier. It also lets us know what kind of regulations there are in the country it’s being made in. For example, one of the things the AOC states is that Martinique Rhum Agricole must be distilled via Creole stills. While Guadalupe is also a part of France, they’re not part of the AOC. So, they opt to follow the AOC but also use pot stills.
For molasses-based rum the classifications are:
Pure single rum – 100% molasses, pot distilled, from one distillery.
Single blended rum – 100% molasses, blend of pot & traditional column, from one distillery.
Traditional rum – 100% molasses, traditional column distilled, from multiple distilleries.
Blended rum – 100% molasses, blend of pot and traditional column, from multiple distilleries.
Rum – 100% molasses, multi-column distilled.
For sugarcane juice-based rum
Pure single Agricole rhum – 100% cane juice, pot distilled and from one distillery.
Agricole rhum – 100% cane juice, traditional/creole column distilled.
It seems like Luca took a page from the way of classifying Scotch. The usage of the term “pure” harkens back to the days when pure malt was being used by Scotch brands. Pure malt being an outlawed term, which meant 100% barley was used to make the whisky. Single/pure malt from Scotland means it has to be pot distilled. Single in the Gargano classification is similar to the meaning of single in single malt. Meaning the spirit/s is/were distilled in one distillery. Luca also borrowed the blended term from Scotch as well. Since pot distilled single malt blended with column distilled grain whisky makes blended Scotch.
Next, is The Whisky Exchange classification, which was inspired by the Gargano classification. The rum category has also grown a lot. So, this is TWE’s way of helping their consumers understand rum better.
Single distillery rum
● Single traditional column: rum distilled at one distillery in traditional column stills.
● Single traditional pot still: rum distilled at one distillery in traditional pot stills.
● Single traditional blended: a blend of traditional pot still and traditional column still rums from the same distillery.
● Single modernist: rum made at a single distillery using modern multi-column stills.
● Blended traditionalist: a blend of rums from multiple distilleries that only includes traditional column and/or pot still rums.
● Blended modernist: a blend of rums from multiple distilleries that includes single modernist rums.
Before I conclude things, there are other ways to classify rum such as Martin Cate’s and by way of ABV. I didn’t include them here as I’m not familiar with them. The Cocktail Wonk discussed these and the other classifications I mentioned here. The Rumaniacs do a great job of breaking down and discussing the Gargano Classification better as well. The Cocktail wonk also has his own proposal, which is something I like, but it will be a bit too much for those lacking technical knowledge with regards to spirits production.
Some of you may be asking, which one is the best classification? The color classification is absolute rubbish and must be forgotten. Anyone who promotes this, either does not understand rum and is lazy to understand it, or does not respect it. The rest have good points but aren’t perfect.
When I started getting serious about rum in 2017, the most used classification in online forums was the Colonial styles. It was easy to understand. But Luca is encouraging the rum geeks to stop using this as this is like re-living the colonial times. Most of these countries are now independent and have their own identities. This classification also generalizes the styles of rum production. Much of Jamaican may use pot stills, but there are a couple of distilleries that use column stills. Antigua’s English Harbour only uses column stills and also sweetens some of their rum. The Cuban Havana Club, despite being “Spanish style”, does not sweeten their rum.
The only flaw I can think of for the Origin classification is that it isn’t much help for rum from countries with little to no history of rum making. Come to think of it, if a rum distiller from a country with a well-established rum tradition, decides to break from the norms, then this classification will be of little help as well. Sure, you can hope that the brand is transparent and apply what you know from other countries’ style, but not all brands will be transparent. Especially when there’s still a lot of shenanigans and embellishment going on in the rum scene.
I’ve pretty much wholeheartedly accepted the Gargano classification. I’ve been able to understand the process and different kinds of factors that go into spirit production better thanks to the tons of educational rum talk online sparked by Luca and Richard Seale. But I can’t deny that I see some flaws in this. For one, the big brands will not play the game of the smaller brands. Also, not everyone will understand the terms used. The average drinker nowadays, still thinks the type of casks and aging makes the magic bullet. They usually don’t think of the wonders of fermentation and distillation. It might happen one day, but the two reasons above will be why it will take longer to happen. Another flaw is only the French territories are allowed to use the term Agricole. Because of the rise of rum, there are now more sugarcane producers in other parts of the world. It’s going to be odd and confusing when former French territories like Vietnam make cane juice rum. Then, they classify it as an Agricole Rhum, but can’t really label it as an Agricole.
After having taken another long look at TWE’s rum classification, I believe this is better than the Gargano. It really follows the Gargano classification but is made easier to understand. It’s more specific with the types of still used. With regards to my Agricole complaint, this is less inclusive. It also has more direct contact with consumers. It kind of forces the person perusing the site to understand the classification when shopping for rum at the TWE online store. I guess the biggest flaw in this is the none-TWE shoppers will find little use for learning it. Unless it becomes recognized by more and more brands.
So, which classification is the best to learn and use? I say start with the Colonial to Origin to the Gargano or TWE classification. The Colonial then Origin classification, were the starting points of my formal rum education. I love that they doubled as geographical and history lessons. Wanting to visit certain distilleries in the Caribbean, prompted me to do research for future tours. There are history lessons such as rhum Agricole only became a thing because of Napoleon’s shift from sugarcane sugar to beet sugar. These two give you a foundation of knowledge to use when navigating the other two. What matters is that you stay open-minded and keep learning.