…And a Bottle of Rum
Will rum ever garner the international regard that comes so naturally to other distilled spirits like Cognac, Scotch, Bourbon and Gin?
Rum, that distilled, sugarcane-based elixir of the tropics, is at a public-relations crossroads. Its champions argue that the flagship rums of the Caribbean region—including those from northern South America and Central America—should be classified among the world’s blue-chip spirits, an exclusive group that includes fine brandies (especially France’s Cognac, Calvados and Armagnac), gins and the whiskeys of the British Isles and North America.
Rum’s critics scoff at that suggestion, dismissing rum as a rustic, fundamentally crude and unregulated distillate made from sweet grass that only on rare occasions shows glimpses of civilized behavior. Rum is perceived by more than a few spirits authorities, journalists and many consumers as little more than rotgut fit solely for cocktails that sport miniature paper umbrellas.
Part of the concerted effort to elevate rum’s global profile is the annual RumFest, held on the motherland of rum, the West Indies island of Barbados. RumFest is a competition and promotional exposition established and sponsored by Caribbean Week, a widely circulated regional news magazine and supported by major rum distillers and importers. In its twelfth year, as always, RumFest attracted an ardent group of rum aficionados.
Tim Forsythe, the publisher of Caribbean Week and the organizer of RumFest, told me that he is weary of having rum dissed by demanding and, in his eyes, ill-informed spirits connoisseurs. “It’s hardly a state secret that around the world rum doesn’t get the respect of other liquors,” says Forsythe. This is my way of offering a chance for journalists, beverage alcohol trade people, and the general public to sample scores of rums from all over the Caribbean region in a single setting. I take particular delight in seeing people realize that rum isn’t a backwater hooch, an unsophisticated liquor as it’s frequently portrayed.”
Forsythe characterizes rum as the least respected category of distilled spirits for several reasons. “First, rum suffers from having few, if any, governmental or industry-imposed quality control systems for production. Hygiene, unfortunately, has long been sorely lacking in some quarters, even today in the age of technology.”
At present, there are only two regulatory bodies that dictate rum production and maturation guidelines: one in Puerto Rico, the other in the French West Indies. All other rum distillers around the Caribbean region and the world are unregulated. This differs significantly from competing spirits categories. Cognac, Armagnac, Scotch, Bourbon, Irish whiskey, and Calvados all are produced under strict governmental supervision and standards with regard to base materials, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
“Second, rum has always been looked upon as a cheap drink as opposed to the top-drawer images of Cognac and Scotch,” continues Forsythe. “I think that it’s about time to focus on what rum really is. As has been made very clear by this year’s competition entries, rum is, in fact, a world-class spirit made by talented distillers and blenders from a multitude of nations.”
Forsythe’s RumFest is the biggest and most extensive festival of its kind in the world. Over 40 countries participated in this year’s competition, with 175 individual rums evaluated by a panel of judges. Official RumFest results should be available at Caribbean Week’s Web site (http://www.cweek.com).
Rum, or rhum as it is spelled by French-speaking people, is born of the fermented and distilled juice of sugarcane and molasses. The juice or molasses is diluted if necessary by the addition of water, then fermented with indigenous or cultured yeasts until a final alcoholic strength of between five and nine percent is reached. This liquid is then distilled; either pot stills or continuous (column) stills may be used.
Sugarcane, a reed-like natural grass, flourishes in warm, humid climates that are typically described as tropical. Although it was introduced to the western Hemisphere in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane cultivated on the Canary Islands with him on his second New World voyage, the era of modern rum production didn’t dawn until the 1600s, when the French and English colonized the West Indies. Like many spirits, rum has a checkered curriculum vitae, mostly in that its widespread production relied on the plantation culture that flourished primarily through the toil and misery of African slaves.
Nevertheless, rum was an integral component of the opening of the New World by European explorers. In colonial America, rum was the overwhelming spirit of choice due in part to the fact that trade with the West Indies was critical to the fledgling economies of both regions. The colonists in Massachusetts, for instance, imported enormous quantities of molasses for the purpose of distilling their own rum.
By the 1650s, the British Royal Navy began issuing daily rations, called “tots,” of Jamaican rum to every sailor, replacing beer, which didn’t travel as well as rum over long voyages. This tradition continued until July 30, 1970, known as Black Tot Day, when the Royal Navy officially turned off the rum spigot on all oceangoing vessels. Winston Churchill once angrily quipped, “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”
In the United States, whiskey replaced rum as the favored American tipple in the 1800s, as settlers moved west into the broad, fertile valleys of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers, where corn, rye, wheat and barley grew easily. But during the 20th century, rum reasserted itself in the U.S. as domestic whiskey production declined during the war years; distillers concentrated on making industrial alcohol for the war efforts. The national drink during World War II unquestionably was the rum and coke. With the cocktail explosion of the 1990s, rum sales advanced in step with the resurgence of mixed drinks. By 1999, rums accounted for two of the top ten spirits in the world, Bacardi selling 19.5 million cases and Tanduay 13.7 million cases.
Sales statistics aside, what can be done to put a better, more polished and up-market face on rum, and what can the rum industry do to attract a younger, less jaded generation of drinkers?
Some of the most delectable gems yet to be adequately mined by the spirits-consuming masses are the Caribbean region’s seductive oak-aged rums. These serious spirits are neglected because of the astonishing success of the ubiquitous “white” rums. Once-used charred-oak barrels that housed Bourbon are the preferred aging vessels in virtually all Caribbean region rum-producing countries. The more consumers avail themselves of aged rums, the more they will appreciate the art and skill of sugarcane distillers. Time, a change in attitude toward rum due to generational succession, and broader distribution of better rums are the keys to rum’s successful face lift.
Luis K. Ayala, author of The Rum Experience, a new book on rum, thinks the salvation for rum’s image lies just beyond the reef-like barrier of the banal white rums in the deeper waters of oak-aged rums. Observes Ayala, “With greater exposure in the marketplace of the finer, older rums, consumers will be able to advance past the white-rum mindset. These exotic and occasionally profound rums most definitely rival the world’s finest brandies and whiskies.”
Ayala likens the potential of rum’s makeover to the one Tequila underwent over the last decade. “The appreciation by the consuming public of better Tequilas is largely responsible for the dramatic growth of Tequila sales in the U.S. The same can happen for rum in the next two or three years as increasing numbers of high-end rums reach the shelves of retailers and the back bars of restaurants.”
The cultural evolution in the U.S. will also affect rum sales, according to Ayala. “Today’s younger generations are growing up under stronger influences of Latin culture, music, and drinks. Many of these people don’t perceive rum as a pirate’s or a rum runner’s drink but rather as the main ingredient in Mojitos. For them, drinking rum is a natural thing to do when they go out to dance salsa and merengue.”
Tim Forsythe thinks that more cooperation between rum-producing nations will establish a positive message concerning rum, though he doesn’t think it will happen anytime soon. “It always comes down to economics and national pride,” Forsythe says wistfully. “And the cold reality is that the animosities run deep among the largest and most productive countries like Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Barbados. Such an organized regional public relations effort might be pie in the sky.”
There’s something alluring about such cockeyed optimism. After attending RumFest, though, my gut tells me that Tim Forsythe and his band of rum mavens will, in all likelihood, have to settle for getting all the region’s rums together in bottle form only. But the expansion of rum styles into increased numbers of spiced and flavored rums, and the wider distribution of older rums will definitely accomplish much with regard to contemporizing the image of rum.