The Rum Classification
1. About the Classification
2. Examples of Common Classifications and Why they are Misleading
3. The Difference between Traditional and Modern Rum
4. Gargano Classification – A New Framework for Rum
IN RUM, there is a lot of confusion due to misleading categorisation and inefficient communication of real intrinsic value. More often it is also hard to discern what makes for a premium rum and it shouldn’t be the case as there is a big difference between traditional artisanal rum making and modern industrial scale rum making. The new classification was first proposed by Luca Gargano of Velier and he hopes professionals of the rum industry and rum lovers alike will adopt his new system.
Below we will go through the old classification, some common misconceptions and why the old categories simply do not work. Most importantly, we will learn the key components that all rums calling themselves ‘premium’ should have. We will show the new classification for rum, the aim of which is to provide a framework that will not only enhance our appreciation of rum but our understanding. When reviewing rums, this will be the same classification we rate and compare the rums in.
All of the rums produced today are generally classified under the same categories of White, Gold, Dark, Navy, French or Agricole and Spanish style rums. Basically rum is categorised based on its colour or in the case of Agricole, by its raw material. Generally it has been accepted that ‘Spanish Style’ rums are lighter bodied, that is to say more rectified, than other styles of rum and the ‘Navy’ or ‘English Style’ rums are heavy and full bodied, whereas Agricoles are expected to be drier and vegetal.
When talking about the colour of the rum there is also an expectancy of a certain kind of flavour; White rums are expected to be light bodied and subtle, gold rums are medium bodied and dark rums are full bodied and rich. The truth could not be further from these stereotypes as colour does not guarantee flavour, body or age. This expectation comes from the slightly misconceived idea that the longer a spirit matures, the darker and more complex it becomes. The colour of rum is irrelevant because it changes when the rum is diluted with water for example. It can also be filtered out entirely, or adjusted to any extent with the addition of caramel colouring. Every rum, including aged rum, can be made white, gold or dark. In the same way every rum can be made French or Spanish style, regardless of its country of origin.
The above in its entirety is based on misconception and is of course completely inaccurate and misleading. No useful information can be gained by this type of categorisation and there is nothing to tell you how the rum is like, how it is produced and where the true value is. The latter is usually left entirely for marketing, giving birth to some of the most ludicrous fairy tales ever conceived in the world of spirits.
Rum is distilled from the fermented by-product molasses or the juice which is obtained from crushing the cane. Sometimes the juice is concentrated into a syrup to better preserve it during long trips or to save it for later. Most rum these days is distilled in column stills and in large, modern multi column plants with the minority being distilled in traditional copper pot stills or traditional coffey/creole column stills. A 100 years ago this was opposite and multi column plants did not exist. Traditional pot distillation was once the norm until technological advancements took over the Caribbean and a once ubiquitous industry dwindled down as the more efficient Coffey stills replaced the less efficient and more expensive copper pot stills forcing many distilleries to close down.
3a. Understanding Flavour
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood idea about spirit making is where the flavour comes from and what the purpose of the still is. To understand this we must look at the entire process of creating rum or spirits. There are three main steps in rum or spirit making:
Step one is fermentation of the molasses, juice or syrup into a wine and it is important to understand this is where the flavour is created. Step two is the extraction of flavour from the fermented wine by distillation. Contrary to wide held belief, distillation is not simply the extraction of alcohol but it is in fact a separation process that splits the volatile component from the non volatile components in the fermented wine. The volatile part is what comes out of the still and is our distilled spirit. The non volatile parts are the leftover components containing no alcohol. Step three is the part we all know that has been romanticised by the media who often forget the first two steps altogether in their marketing material. Maturation in wooden barrels is the evolution of flavour contained in the distilled spirit, also imparting its own flavour to the spirit. So if you have a neutral spirit matured in oak barrels, yes you will obtain flavour from the oak but there is no evolution of flavour because there is no flavour in a neutral spirit or in other words the barrel has nothing to work with.
3b.The Importance of the Batch Still
A common assumption people make when discussing the different types of stills is that a pot still produces a heavy rum and a column still produces a light rum or that the pot still produces a lower ABV spirit than the column still. Certain producers or marketers go as far as claiming they can take lower ABV ‘heavy’ rum from a position in a column that it is equivalent to the lower ABV rum from a pot still. Doing this generally results in a flawed distillate as they are tapping into parts with undesirable components.
The main difference between a pot or a batch still and a column still is that pot output is time driven and column is location driven. In a batch process your output is a function of time, and as you are distilling the fermented wine the output is changing continuously because the wine is changing. We have been made familiar with the terms ‘heads’, ‘heart’ and ‘tails’; Heads come off in the beginning, heart comes off in the middle and tails come off in the end. The heads and tails are the undesired components and only the heart will be used to make the spirit. The ABV of the distillate coming from the pot is an average because of the continuously changing wine that goes down in alcohol over time as it is distilled, which means the resulting distillate also goes down in alcohol. The batch still also allows the distiller to make his cuts to make the heart as he pleases.
Column still in the contrary is a continuous process in which you take your desired output from a specific physical location in the column and where the wine remains a constant. So the same ABV distillate taken from a point in a column still is not the same as the average ABV distillate taken from the pot still.
Other differences between the two are the materials they are made of; copper and steel. Pot stills are made of copper and column stills are generally made of stainless steel or is a combination of the two, though some old Coffey stills are made entirely of copper.
The reason why it is used and the effect copper has during distillation is that it acts to reduce bad sulphury and meaty aromas in the spirit by reducing compounds such as ‘dimethyl trisulphide.’ Basically the copper turns some volatile parts into non volatile parts, effectively preventing them from ever arriving in the spirit. What of the old copper Coffey stills then? Even though they are made of copper, and it is certainly better than steel, they are still not as effective as a pot still where the contact time with copper is greater. Furthermore, pot stills are cleaned after each batch, when a column still running for weeks will build up sulphides on the surface, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the copper.
The copper is also more effective in some parts of the pot still than others, which can help the distiller in maintaining or altering the aroma of the spirit. This can be done by controlling the speed of distillation by controlling the input of heat. In a small column still this can be done to a degree but a big multi column plant cannot turn down. The pot still or a batch still produces small batches of spirit, is not easily automated like the column stills, and is significantly more costly to operate. These facts have long been established in Scotch whisky production and are important advantages the pot still has over a column still, which make it a fundamental part of any premium spirit.
The only real distinction in rum thus far has been Agricole rum (pure cane juice) and molasses rum. That is to say you have rums distilled in pot stills and on the other end you have rums or alcohol distilled in large industrial scale continuous stills. There is a very important difference between distillation of spirit and alcohol and there should not be any problems distinguishing Rum from Vodka for example, the latter which most of the time is neutral alcohol produced in multi column stills. When you drink Whisky, Bourbon or Cognac, you know and can easily distinguish what they are and there is no grey area like there is with rum. The value is also clearly communicated through effective categorisation and markings on the bottle such as minimum age statements.
In Scotch Whisky we have Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Whisky, Blended Malt Whisky and Blended Grain Whisky. This helps the category to effectively communicate how Whisky is produced and where the value is. Naturally the truly artisanal pot distilled products are the most valuable, then blended products and finally the cheaper and efficiently produced column distilled products. Even if you do not know the production methods it is easy to recognize the cues of value from the categorisation. Everyone knows Single Malts command a steeper price. The value is not to be confused with preference as they are two different things. For example there are people who prefer Blended Scotch over Single Malt etc.
With rum, recognizing the value has not been so easy as there have been no clear definitions before. In the old categories by colour, rums that could not be any more different have been slumped together into the same category. For example artisanal pot still rums and traditional column still rums are often found competing together in ‘Gold Rum’ or ‘White Rum’ categories or have similar price tags. You would not compare a Single Malt with Grain Whisky
PURE SINGLE RUM – 100% Batch (POT) Still Distillation
SINGLE BLENDED – Blend of Traditional Column and Pot Still
TRADITIONAL RUM – Traditional Column Still Distillation
MODERN RUM – Modern / Industrial Multi-Column Distillation
A.O.C. MARTINIQUE RHUM AGRICOLE – Martinique rum has its own classification.
Pure = 100% Pot Still Rum
Single = Single Distillery
A.O.C. = Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée
The framework is clear and easy to follow; These simple terms provide cues of value, objectively allowing you to quickly recognize how the rum is produced rather than interpreting complicated marketing mumbo jumbo.
Why is it important? If rum is to be considered as more than a fun party drink and looked at seriously alongside Cognac and Whisky, then we must work to elevate the category as a whole. To do this we must address the lack of communication, outright lies and the problems they cause. The categorisation is only a part of the solution and laws must be properly enforced but it is a beginning.
The key to premiumisation of the rum category is understanding rum itself. The way to understanding is through education, clear categories, real age statements and real indication of value.
Many thanks to both Luca Gargano and Richard Seale for their support, the wealth of information they have provided and their tireless efforts to promote the rum category for the betterment of the whole industry. Thank you also to the contributors in the global rum community for their increasing thirst for knowledge and passion to share new information whether it is through books, seminars or scientific study. Do you believe these categories are the way forward for the rum category? Would you adopt them in your own competitions or product labelling and what should the next steps be to bring the appreciation of rum to the level it deserves?