There is much myth making in the booze business. Spirits are not just products you hold in your hand but imaginary ideals built from ancient recipes pulled from Grandpappy’s notebook, a clear stream cutting across a backcountry hill, and trusty old stills maintained for generations.
There’s great appeal in historic narrative, but to a real spirits fan, the day-to-day should be just as interesting. In reality, spirits are produced by teams of highly trained professionals who must constantly make decisions. Grandpappy’s dusty recipe might be an inspiration, but producers still need to make adjustments due to variations in what is, after all, an agricultural product.
Foursquare Rum Distillery, in Barbados’ Saint Philip parish, is the perfect backdrop for any romantic rum tale. Set among the waving sugar cane sits a busy complex of buildings, ranging from the original stone block antiquaries full of Barbadian sugar lore to the corrugated steel walls of workshops and warehouses.
But master distiller and blender Richard Seale is a pragmatic man. He studies history not for its legends but for what it can teach him about making rum. And it seems to be working, as Foursquare’s offerings are celebrated widely by rum drinkers both private and professional. The prestigious 2017 International Spirits Challenge awarded six of its 12 gold medals in rum to Foursquare, which is only the most recent of its many accolades.
The caliber of Foursquare’s rums speaks for itself, but just in case, Seale speaks for it too. He has become a vocal proponent for more transparency in the processes used in making rums and what ingredients they’re made from. In a world where marketing spin sometimes beats manufacturing know-how, some have attacked his purism. But Seale sees his approach as the natural order of things.
“It’s unfortunate that I even have to say I’m a purist,” he says sitting in his modest office at the plant. Seale notes he’s merely following age-old standards.
“First, we use traditional methods. We use a pot still and even our column still; it’s the same Coffey still principle that has been there for 200 years. Secondly, we don’t doctor the rums.”
The “doctoring” he refers to is the addition of sugar, which he considers the primary transgression against rum. This is a widely practiced strategy in rum production with some producers adding as much as 50 grams of sugar per liter of rum.
Ed Hamilton, the founder of the Ministry of Rum collection of Caribbean rums, is typically straightforward: “Producers and blenders that add sugar are trying to hide something in their product. Good rum doesn’t need added sugar.”
There is a long-established tradition of adding sugar at a late stage, known as “dosage,” in the production of Champagne and cognac. Accordingly, when Alexandre Gabriel, the owner and master blender of cognac purveyor Maison Ferrand, set his sights on Caribbean rum, he brought this practice along. Today, he offers a range of rums, under the Plantation brand, which spans the many islands and distilling practices of the Caribbean.
“The beauty of rum is its richness and diversity of culture and taste profile,” says Gabriel. “Much like the cultures of great wines, it’s very much alive.” To him, purity suggests a monochromatic product. “A stripped-down spirit or ‘pure’ spirit is the antithesis of a great rum, which should boast a fantastic and distinctive taste.”
“Of course, rum is made from sugar cane and should not be flavored with flavoring agents. This is agreed. Is that to say that rum should not be aged in a wooden barrel because it adds a taste that’s not the one coming from the cane or the molasses? What about using a barrel that has contained sherry or port in it before?”
Since rum and sugar are intertwined, for many producers “it made more sense to use a hint of local authentic Caribbean sugar with their rum after distillation, instead of the taste of European or American oak by storing it too long in a barrel,” says Gabriel. “It’s part of the heritage of rum.” In Gabriel’s Plantation rums, dosage is featured in some but not others, depending on what he feels is necessary to let the best flavors shine.
Seale isn’t calling for an end to dosing or any other practice. He’s suggesting more transparency about what’s in the bottle and what practices were used to get it there. Gabriel, for one, has been open about keeping dosage in his toolbox, but this is still not the rule for producers, many of whom add far more sugar than the Plantation line’s sweetest rum.
“Too many marketing people think that sweet sells better,” says Hamilton. “Maybe it does in the short term, but too many are sweetened to a point that they are no longer rum but rather rum liqueurs.”
Perhaps laxity in disclosing additions comes from the oft-repeated notion that “rum has no rules.” This phrase enrages Seale. “It sounds so seductive: no rules, nothing constraining you,” says Seale. “It’s spin. Because these are not constraining rules; these are standards of identity. No one’s stopping anyone from doing anything. You go make whatever brand you want in France, but you can’t call it cognac unless you meet the rules.”
Then why not a similar standard for rum? “People think rules were laid down, and then you went off and you made rum, but it’s the other way around. We made these things for 300 years and then wrote down what it is.”
But since rum is made in many countries, each with its own national standards, there’s no overall standard for the rum category.
One way forward is the French approach. For instance, as Martinique is a Caribbean region of France, its local rhum agricole has become a protected designation like Champagne or cognac, or indeed Roquefort or Camembert cheese. The appellation d’origine contrôlée (or AOC) program is based on the concept that geography, including climate, soil and local traditions, dictate the characteristics of a product.
While more rum-producing nations are considering their own protected geographic designations, Seale also advocates for a classification system that he helped develop with Luca Gargano of rum bottler Velier. This proposal identifies originating distillery, types of stills used, whether the product began with molasses or raw sugar cane, and whether blending has been employed. (Notably, the classification system does not incorporate dosage. As the nomenclature is intended as a voluntary addition to labels, perhaps it’s unlikely to expect brands that have yet to disclose such information to suddenly do so. As we’ve already seen, Seale is a firebrand but a pragmatic one.)
Gargano and Seale’s classification provides more clues that savvy consumers need to understand how a bottle fits into their own preferences. But some in the industry think the system needs to be revised to find wide acceptance.
“Luca is proposing a classification based on the methods of distilling,” says Gabriel. This classification isn’t understood by every consumer. “The terminology that’s created for this classification is mostly borrowed from the whisky culture and terminology, and I am saddened by this. I think that we should draw from the rich culture of rum instead of whisky.”
Nonetheless, the whisky worlds have already found ways to deal with these issues. “As my friend Luca says, ‘Imagine having Drambuie, The Macallan and Ballantine’s all under the same name,” jokes Seale. Scotch drinkers can easily tell the difference between those three products, but with current rum labeling, a rum liqueur, a single distillery rum and a blended rum are all just “rum.”
However, with many committed and passionate producers, Seale says, “Suddenly we have a common interest in speaking of the traditional rums and the pure rums.”
He recounts the story of a large liquor company approaching him about a partnership. Its executives bragged about using focus groups to create precisely what consumers want. He told them, “We do the exact opposite. We make what we like and then try to find someone to drink it.”