Developing a Rum Lexicon

As rum makes a comeback, the category will benefit from the development of universal style, aging, and flavor classifications

collage of Rum Bottles
Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

When there are several dozen countries producing rum, the likelihood that everyone is going to agree on some sort of universal classification framework for the spirit is pretty remote. But as U.S. consumption of the spirit rebounds and consumers explore more upscale expressions, it will behoove the industry to create a system that employs terminology and guidelines that apply to all rum-making traditions across the globe.

“It’s a pretty tough thing to do, especially as more and more people are getting interested in rum,” says Mike Treffehn, rum consultant and former bar manager for Portland, Oregon’s sugarcane-spirit-centric cocktail hot spot Rum Club.

Overall rum volume in the U.S. may have dipped a modest 0.2 percent last year, but the highest price tier, super-premium, surged nearly 8 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council—a sign that consumers have grown more curious and are trading up within the category. But it’s not always the easiest category to navigate.

“There’s such a diversity of ways to talk about rum that it can be really confusing,” Treffehn says, “especially for the newcomer.”

The problem, says Jacob Briars, global advocacy director for Bacardi, is that rum lacks a single organizing architecture. “Each rum-producing country and many of the rum styles that come out of those [countries have] their own rules and categorization—some are implied, some are just convention, and some are actual regulations,” Briars says. “But those regulations [derive] from the producer—how should rum be made, how should it be aged, etcetera.”

The real struggle, though, occurs at the point of sale, when, for example, a consumer tries to select between a dark rum from Barbados or a gold rum from Jamaica. The vague color scheme doesn’t communicate much about flavor.

The Limits of Color

“If I’m a consumer or a bartender, or some mixture of both, and want rum to make drinks, how do I know what I’m getting and what would be the perfect rum for making a certain kind of drink?” asks Briars. “That’s where it becomes quite confusing because… we’ve organized rum by color. You’ve got this very loose [group]: white, light, gold, and then black.”

Color creates a perception that the spirit is aged, even when there’s minimal aging involved. The color could be from added caramel. And then there are rums like Bacardi Carta Superior that actually are aged but have the color filtered out.

“One thing to understand is that color is a pretty useless way to categorize rum,” Briars says, “but it still gives you the best indication of what a rum is going to taste like. Color has an impact on the perception of flavor, so we tend to think things that are darker have more coffee, vanilla, and caramel notes. We think that they taste more aged even if they haven’t been. Color is a good first place to start [to classify it], but it doesn’t tell you very much.”

Age Statements

The rum industry could take a cue from tequila if it wants to develop a category-wide, age-related classification system. Even when consumers don’t know the precise age ranges for each of the main tequila styles, they have a sense that a silver/blanco is the youngest (zero to two months), reposado (two months to just shy of a year) is slightly older than silver, añejo (one year to just shy of three years) is older than reposado, and extra añejo (three-plus years) is the oldest of them all.

But it’s relatively easy to develop that sort of naming system when a spirit’s producers are all from the same country, not to mention the same state—Jalisco, Mexico, in the case of tequila. Getting producers from multiple islands and continents on the same page about maturation criteria—and nomenclature—is considerably more complicated.

The real hurdle here is convincing everyone to agree on exactly what a bottle’s age statement means. Puerto Rico’s Bacardi 8 or Guyana’s El Dorado 15, for instance, are in line with the Scotch whisky tradition: he number reflects the youngest spirit in the bottle. Meanwhile, on the label for Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa Solera 23, the “23” signifies the oldest.

And even if some worldwide age statement standard emerges, international producers might still disagree on  umbrella terms for those age ranges. Some rum makers in Spanish-speaking regions often use terms similar to those employed by tequila producers—particularly añejo, since it basically means “aged”—while others, regardless of local language, have adopted Cognac classifications. Mount Gay XO (Barbados), Ron Zacapa XO (Guatemala), and Rhum Clément VSOP (Martinique) are among those that have gone the French brandy route, which makes a little more sense for a rum from French-speaking Martinique.

Regionality and Nationality

Consumers and people working in the trade can learn a bit more about the spirit if they know a rum’s country of origin, but geographic categorization also has its limits. Historically British-controlled islands, such as Jamaica and Barbados, have had their own sets of distilling traditions, as have those with ties to Spain, like Cuba and Puerto Rico. And the French Caribbean—Martinique in particular—is famous for pure-cane-juice-based rhum agricole. Martinique even has its own AOC for it.

Things get complicated when a producer on a particular island dabbles in multiple traditions. Bacardi, Don Q (Puerto Rico), Angostura (Trinidad), and Appleton (Jamaica) are among those that cross stylistic borders within a single country and single distillery.

“That’s part of what’s so fascinating about rum: how many different places it’s from” says Treffehn. However, he concedes that it can be confusing for consumers who don’t have a sense of what different regional styles are like. “[The geographic categorization] doesn’t tell you anything about what that rum’s going to taste like.”

Flavor Profile

And “what does it taste like?” really is the ultimate question that needs to be answered. Perhaps more critical than grouping rums by region or length of maturation period is developing flavor categories. Briars envisions an industry-wide multi-axis tasting matrix. On one end of the flavor axis would be light, crisp, and dry rums—those ideal for mixing in a mojito or daiquiri, for instance. On the opposite end are the more heavily aged rums, with deeper, woodier elements. There’d also be a texture axis, from smooth to rich, as well as a sweetness-to-dryness continuum. (However, the “sweetness” classification would need some finessing, as Briars points out that rum makers aren’t likely to want their products classified as “sweet” since it has negative connotations among many drinkers.)

Globally standardizing rum classifications may seem like a fairly uphill battle at this point, but the industry will likely find some common ground that will help shape the future of the category. “We’ll get to the point where there’s a kind of language by which we talk about rum,” predicts Briars. “I think we’re moving away from talking about color and country as being the organizing system for rum, toward things like age, production, and ultimately, the most important, taste. Whether you’re a bartender or consumer or some hybrid of the two, what’s going to be most important is how does rum taste and what should you do with it?”

Jeff Cioletti is the author of the books The Year of Drinking Adventurously, Beer FAQ, and the upcoming The Drinkable Globe. He is the founder of the beverage travel video site The Drinkable Globe and a frequent contributor to a number of publications, including FSR Magazine and Beverage Media. Jeff is a Certified Sake Adviser and the winner of two North American Guild of Beer Writers awards.

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