Are All Brown Spirits Starting to Taste the Same?

Too many recent bottlings are going out of their way to taste like Bourbon. A recent tasting of rum has professionals asking, “What’s going on?”
Illustration by Julia Lea

Usually, rum is one of my favorite categories to review. I dig its range of flavors, from the banana-bread funk of rhum agricoles to luscious, longer-aged rums reminiscent of pecan pie glazed with brown sugar, and all the mellow nuances in between.

But during a round of rum reviews for the upcoming June issue of Wine Enthusiast, a troubling phrase kept popping up in my tasting notes. Over and over again, I wrote: “tastes like Bourbon.”

I wondered if a bottle or two of Bourbon, the category on deck for the July issue, had accidentally slipped into my tasting lineup. But no, it was all rum.

Those who adore America’s “native spirit” may not consider this much of an issue. Certainly, there’s no shortage of Bourbon lovers out there. According to the latest statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., the boom in Bourbon sales is still going strong.

Lately, though, it seems like brown spirits have edged ever closer to American whiskey territory. Cognac is recalibrating to appeal to America’s whiskey lovers. Añejo Tequilas and even the swelling ranks of barrel-aged gins are often stored in former Bourbon barrels and taste like it.

I’ve always thought of rum as particularly expressive and wide-ranging in its flavor profile, but the gap seems to have narrowed there, too. Perhaps it’s because so many rums are aged in ex-Bourbon casks, either wholly or in part. I peeked at one label in particular: HSE’s Black Sheriff Rhum Agricole. It’s matured in virgin oak casks from Kentucky for three to four years—exactly like Bourbon.

“Tastes like Bourbon” just might be the spirits equivalent of “tastes like chicken.”

Are rum makers simply gunning for consumers obsessed with American whiskey?

“No, I would not say that,” says Cyrille Lawson, the Martinique-based head of commercial development for HSE. He believes it’s a function of the wood rum-making countries have access to.

“In the Caribbean, we are not oak producers,” says Lawson. “Historically, we always get barrel oak from France, from the U.S. It’s a key to our identity.”

And since the U.S. is much closer than Europe, it contributes the lion’s share of oak to rum producers in the Caribbean and South America.

And if those Bourbon-like flavors are intensified, blame the climate, Lawson says. The heat and humidity results in the rapid extraction of vanilla and spice tones from the barrels. “Eight-year-old rum from Martinique can be compared to whiskey or brandy aged 20 years in European or U.S. conditions,” he says.

While Black Sheriff may not have been engineered to specifically taste like Bourbon, there’s no denying it still tastes an awful lot like American whiskey. And so do a lot of other rum bottlings.

Stop Scoffing at Spiced Rum

I might not have cared so much had I not started the tastings with an exceptional lineup of unaged and minimally aged rums. Some were blanc agricoles, with their signature bouncy funk. A couple were outside of the agricole category, with perky hints of coconut and lime zest that made me crave an icy daiquiri.

These first rums were expressive. They had personality. They had what’s referred to in the wine world as “typicity.” You know what it’s made from, and you know what you’re drinking.

I enjoy Bourbon. But I think I’ll enjoy it much more when it’s distinctive from other brown spirits.

By law, Bourbon makers can use their casks just once, which results in a lot of used barrels on the market. There’s good reason that former Bourbon casks are so pervasive to age or add a finishing touch to other spirits.

But we’ve crossed a line. There are too many Bourbon-soaked Scotches and gins and yes, rums. Let Bourbon be Bourbon. Let rum be rum. And let me stop wondering what the heck is in my glass.

Published on March 30, 2018
Topics: Rum
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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