Over the years of reading online opinions and statements regarding rum one of the most consistent words that’s been thrown around when it comes to Latin American rum is culture. They’re mostly either about the light column-distilled style of rum imparted by their former Spanish colonizers. Or the tendency of most to sweeten their rum and not being honest about it.
I understand the statements regarding the light style of rum because of a Spanish royal decree, which only ended in 1796. The gist of this decree was Spanish colonies, at that time, weren’t allowed to produce their own rum. Spain wanted their colonies to consume only Spanish made alcohol such as brandy, sherry and wine. This led to the Spanish colonies ending up being behind the rest of the Caribbean, who were mostly under the English and French, in rum production. Maybe even other types of alcohol were not allowed to be produced. Though this guess could be invalidated by mezcal². Relative to how trends change in the world, 1796 isn’t far off from 1831. This was when Aeneas Coffey created the Coffey still aka the column still. Because the Latin American countries didn’t have a long history of using pot stills, it was easier for them to start using the column still. Yet, I’ve read accounts of Bacardi using pot stills when they were still in Cuba. But they eventually only used column stills when they moved to Puerto Rico. So, not all Latin American countries immediately exclusively used column stills.
When people use the term culture to defend their points, I think they’re mostly only initially thinking of the positive aspects it refers to. But based on the definitions below¹, culture can pertain to negative things such as behavior. I mean, some of our negative biases come from some negative aspects of culture as well. To share a bit of my thought process, when culture is mentioned in the same sentence as former Spanish colonies, memories of a college history professor comes to mind. He was a passionate professor who could endlessly talk for the whole period. I remember him well for reciting a litany of reasons and historical facts for us to be thankful to our former colonizers for imparting to us influences such as religion, cuisine, a weak sense of national identity and of course, corruption³. Latin American countries have these things to be thankful for as well. We only need to look at the negative stereotypes the Mexican government and Colombian government has become infamous for.
One might think I am simply hating on Spain for what they’ve done to us. For me, what matters is history must not be forgotten. But I’ll take a stab at any former colonizers who’ve done their former colonies any wrong. The English took whatever they wanted and pretended it’s theirs. Take the Koh-I-Noor diamond as an example. When Haiti revolted from the French in 1791, France threatened to invade Haiti in 1825 unless they paid the demanded compensation of 150 million gold France for losing their slaves and colony. I was informed that in 2010 the reparations imposed by France was worth $21 billion. In many ways, Haiti is still paying for that.
Please don’t think I’m accusing you of anything. It wouldn’t be right of me as the majority of Malt’s readership are whisk(e)y drinkers. It’s just that I’ve read plenty of Facebook and Reddit rum posts freely using the word culture. I hope my example above is enough to convince you to be more careful that using culture, without sufficient knowledge, as a reason or excuse to defend a point can be irresponsible. I’m not saying whoever does this is malicious but ignorance has its downsides. Information can just as easily spread as misinformation after all.
The ever-growing rum community has been learning that a lot of Latin American rum has additives such as sugar and sweet wines along with using fake age statements. These dubious practices are common for a lot of Latin American rum brands such as Ron Zacapa with their Solera “23” and Dictador. These are dishonest actions as many of them don’t own up to it when asked. I’ve spoken to a few rum industry folks who regularly visit rum distilleries. Their testimonies are consistent. They also don’t put it on labels or on their social media. I think this is where a lot of the misconceptions regarding rum have come from. While the amount measured and types of additives are said to be inaccurate, bloggers such as Fatrumpirate share proof that there are additives.
One of Latin American rum brands that doesn’t get discussed much and thus retains mystery is Ron Abuelo (Spanish for grandpa) from Varela Hermanos S.A.(VHSA) in Panama. According to the Ministry of Rum website, VHSA is the largest sugarcane spirits producer and bottler in Panama. Their history dates back to 1908 and they currently operate Destilleria Don Jose where they produce spirits from sugarcane juice and molasses.
The sugarcane is said to be hand-cut on the 1000 hectares of sugarcane fields surrounding the town of Pesé. Being hand-cut this means that the VHSA provides employment to their surrounding community. Oddly, molasses from another sugar mill in Panama is bought to be used for the Abuelo rums.
The distillery is said to operate four continuous column stills to produce several sugarcane-based spirits. Aside from Abuelo, they also distill for other rum brands and other spirits like gin and vodka.
I find Ron Abeulo mysterious because there’s a lot of speculation about them. For one, some credible rum blogs say the age statements are real but some say they’re like Flor De Cana as they use average age statements. While Abuelo denies they use additives, there’s a consensus that Abeulo uses them. The speculation lies in what kind of additives are used. The geekier folks from the rum community think it’s sweetened fortified wine, such as sherry, added or left in the cask during aging.
The Ron Abuelo “12” is aged in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 40% abv. You can find it in The Whisky Exchange for £35.25, at Master of Malt for £35.14, via Amazon for £35.14 or at Shared Pour for $46.99.
Ron Abuelo 12 year – review
On the nose: A bit hot considering the 40% abv. There are flashes and obscured scents of vanilla, cinnamon, muscovado syrup, prunes, cherry cola, cherry flavored chocolate and old wooden furniture. At the end is a big and more lasting whiff of orange flavored gummy bears and orange peel.
In the mouth: A lot less heat compared to on the nose. The tastes present themselves better here and last longer. I get a disorganized and brief mix of pleasant tastes like cherry cola, prunes, vanilla, coconut sugar syrup, orange flavored gummy bears and dried dates.
Judging by the smell, I wouldn’t think this was sweetened. However, the heat on the nose makes me assess the rum smells younger than the label suggests. I think drinkers expecting a more mellow nose may find the heat on the nose offensive. But then, I’ve had some mass-produced 10- or 12-year-old single malts bottled at 40% give off a hot ethanol smell as well. So, I could be considered wrong. Aside from the heat obscuring the smells, the shortness of the scents also makes me think there’s way younger rum in this. Also, Panama has a tropical climate. As we’ve learned from comparing Bourbon with Scotch, hotter climates make spirits age faster. So, shouldn’t this Abuelo 12 act older than the age statement it has?
The heat is significantly less in the mouth. However, there’s not much personality. It’s fine. There’s nothing for me to complain about. There are enough layers in it to be considered expressive enough. I also like that the additives don’t have that cloying mouthfeel I got from rum-like Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva and Don Papa which creates an illusion of good quality.
If it weren’t for Drecon’s list of measured rum, I would be second-guessing myself if this was really sweetened. And this is me, an experienced rum drinker. So, what chances do newbie rum drinkers stand? However, the sweetness in this does not feel and taste like the measured 29g/L of additives. Which is a good thing. The sweetness is not as dominating as other brands infamous for adding additives such as Ron Zacapa 23 and Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva. Which makes me agree that the additives maybe a sweet wine rather than added sugar.
One thing I’ve come to guess is that most Latin American rum brands are either unaware of the rising demand for transparency in the spirits world. Or they just don’t care to follow it. I say only Latin American rum brands because you have Mezcal, which is a Mexican agave spirit, being very transparent with their production process. While the rum brands still pretty much keep on pushing their marketing.
Defenders of dishonest rum brands say the hydrometer test results shared online are inaccurate so they are wrong. And that the speculations are hurting brands. What I say is all the speculation and inaccurate measures can be done away if only the brands were to come forward with what and how much they add.
You might start thinking I have a vendetta against sweetened rum. Or that I want all sweetened rum to disappear. No. There is a rum for everyone. It’s more that I don’t like the dishonesty of brands. Keep in mind that not everyone knows that rum is the spirit with the most variety. So, if they try a dishonest brand like Don Papa, they’re likely to end up thinking all rum is sweet. What if they don’t like sweet drinks? What if an avid whisky drinker tries a rum with a fake age statement and finds the length of the flavors a rum disappointing? Then rum just lost a potential customer. It’s unfair to honest brands. If a brand were really proud of their techniques why hide it? If you were proud of your craftsmanship, shouldn’t you boast of it to the world?
¹According to the Merriam Webster culture means:
– the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.
– the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.
– the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.
– the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
² There is a type of clay pot still used in Mezcal production called “Manila stills”. There is a popular theory that the technology and know-how of distillation was brought to Mexico via the Manila Galleon trade. This trade route from Manila, the Philippines to Acapulco, Mexico lasted from 1565 to 1815. There are records of trade between Chinese and Muslim merchants even before we were colonized. The technology for clay pot stills and distillation techniques most likely came from trading. The tagalog word for alcoholic liquor is alak. It’s safe to say the word came from Arak. So, there’s a high chance mezcal was allowed to be produced before the 1796 decree. Illegal distillers have to be considered too. Mexico has Charanda as well which is a sugarcane-based spirit. I thought this was worth mentioning but I need to do more research on this.
³ The Philippines was under Spanish colonization from 1571- 1896. We were then under the Americans from 1896 – 1942 &1945 – 1946. Japanese colonization (1942-1945). While some blame can be directed towards America, more than 300 years of Spanish rule should be the obvious winner. Spain sent governor-generals to manage the Philippines. There are a lot of records of Spain sending us, usually, abusive governor-generals. As well as prayles (priests) who would sometimes be criminals on the run and would do what they want in the name of religion.
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