I started thinking about this when I writing the previous article about the difference between rum, rhum Agricole and cachaça. Whilst there are clear distinctions between products made from different input products, how do you classify different rums that are all made from molasses. At the end of the day, fermented molasses is distilled, aged in a barrel and the output is rum. If it is as simple as that then it should be simple to classify, right? Wrong! In fact, the complex nature of rum-production and the variety that can come from using different distillates, barrels, altitude, temperature, age, yeast to name a few factors, is why many people respect the spirit and why, there has not been a universal standard applied. In simple terms rhum Agricole is produced based on a set of rules (this is certainly the case of rhum Agricole from Martinique) but its better-known cousin, rum has no rules… which may be why I like it so much!
Where do start when it comes to classifying rum. Well, the most obvious is the one people are familiar today, by colour/flavour: Dark, Light, Gold, Silver/White and to this most people will add Flavoured, and Spiced. Chances are in the supermarket, this is how you will see the rum displayed. I went to The Rum Festival last December and they organised the rum in this way (image below) – nothing wrong with this and it makes for a clear distinction, however this is not really helpful to the consumer as it is pretty obvious from looking at the bottle what colour the rum is!
You can also classify rum depending on the type of still used in the distillation process – column, multi-column or pot still. You can have the rums that are produced from a single still and some that are a blend of pot, column and any combination. Then there is age – not only can you classify by the age (for blends do you take the youngest blend, oldest blend or the one with the highest % volume) but you can even classify by the way in which the rum has been aged (type of barrel used, temperature). The aging process will also affect the colour – generally, rum goes into the barrel (usually bourbon ones) as a colourless liquid and tends to get darker the longer it is aged. Spices and flavours are added to create unique products – usually for use in cocktails rather than to be sipped.
Arguably, the best way to classify rum is by the way it is produced, however, at this point each producing country has its own standards that have to be upheld in order to produce rum (did you know that in Cuba, rum must be aged at least 2 years before it can be called rum!). Given the complexity, it is a shame that there is no universal classification or grade that has been applied and adopted by all rum producers to make it easier for the average consumer to know and understand what they are drinking. This does not mean that some people have not tried to devise a system of classification – most notably Luca Gargano. The Gargano Rum Classification put rum into one of the following categories based on the method of production:
- Pure Single Rum – Molasses 100% Batch Pot Still Distillation
- Pure Single Agricole Rhum – Cane Juice 100% Batch Pot Still Distillation
- Single Blended Rum – Blend of 100% Traditional Column and Pot Still rums
- Traditional Rum – Traditional 100% Column Still Distillation
- Modern Rum – Modern / Industrial Multi-Column Distillation
In his method, “pure” refers to a rum that is 100% pot still rum, and “single” = refers to a rum that is 100% from a single distillery rum.
I see 2 issues with this classification method: 1 – it creates a hierarchy which may not be the intention but you are likely to think that Pure Single Rum is the best and 2 – it doesn’t cover everything because you can have some blends from multiple distilleries which could simply be called “mixed” for example.
These reasons are not enough however to put me off this method and I would love to see rum producers start to label their bottles in this way – at the very least it will make it easier for bars and restaurants to list rum in a consistent way, and if the rumours are true, and the big players do not want to sign up to this… even better. Already you can see many rum-producers launching “single barrel” expressions and labelling bottles with elements of the Gargano method. If this means that by looking for the classification, consumers will choose smaller distilleries that have applied this categorisation over the larger producers then it may force the industry to apply a standard.
For further reading, there is a great piece on Rum Classification by Luis Ayala which you can find here.