I’m moving this blog to the Ministry of Rum site. I hope you’ll follow me there.
The appreciation of sugar cane spirits has grown significantly over the last ten years, but my favorite spirit is just beginning to be noticed on a larger scale. More producers are exporting more sugar cane spirits to more countries and consumers are taking notice of better offerings.
In the middle of the last century, advances in fermentation technology and improvements in distillation fueled a change in the way rum was made in the Caribbean. Today almost every distillery uses stainless steel fermentation tanks and only a few distillers don’t have instruments to monitor the temperature and pressure in their distillation columns or pot stills. Once it was understood that cleaning fermentation tanks after each batch could improve production quality the practice was adopted at nearly every distillery. Today gas chromatography is a standard tool at all of the larger distilleries.
At the end of the last century rum distillers prepared to expand their production to meet the growing demand for their spirits. The price of used whisky and bourbon barrels has soared over the last fifteen years as distillers are putting more fresh spirits in barrels to age and replacing older barrels that were once considered ‘good enough’ to age the rum. Today the standards for aged rum are much higher than they were in the 90s.
Today almost every distiller is either reclaiming their spent yeast and capturing the methane to burn in their boilers or planning to reduce their polluting effluent in the next two years. Waste recovery is no longer considered too expensive, but rather an integral part of sustainable spirits production.
The interest in sugar cane spirits will certainly attract some less than scrupulous entries into the market just as the financial boom attracted more than a few operators who preyed on the less knowledgeable and experienced. As we enter a new decade, the way sugar cane spirits are marketed will see some of the biggest changes in an industry that dates back nearly 400 years in the western hemisphere.
As finances are stretched consumers are keener than ever to learn as much as they can about what they consume before they lay their money down next to the cash register, or, click the ACCEPT button on the electronic payment portal. The internet has changed the way we learn about new products and the way companies get their products noticed. Services like Twitter and Facebook are proving to be invaluable tools to connect with others of similar interest and to learn from others before we spend our hard earned money, which is becoming harder to earn. Electronic media is changing the way we get our news, newspapers are falling faster than politicians moral barometers, but those same electrons are enabling us to learn more about everything from the name of the latest celebrity to fall from grace to a trusted review of the bottle of spirits on the shelf in front of us, all from what we used to call a phone. Not our telephone, we haven’t used them since the last century.
In the next decade we will be able to learn even more about the products we consume, including the sugar cane spirits in our glass, before we click the ACCEPT button. In addition to competitive prices in our purchasing region, which may be a few miles to entire political areas like the EU, we’ll also be able to get real information about things like the carbon footprint of the container and its contents. Reviews by trusted colleagues, many of whom we only know by their screen names but who will become even more influential in the coming years, will be as accessible as the ingredient panels on the food packages we buy.
This won’t be a one way information street. As consumers, we will be able to challenge claims made by the hucksters and marketing companies that today claim no responsibility for their actions and are shielded from consumers by corporate lawyers. Consumers will be given more access to the people who are responsible for manufacturing and marketing the products we consume.
Of course not every producer, marketer or retailer is going to participate in the new age of product transparency. That will be limited to those who want to succeed on the merits of their products.
After reading about a white rum that was supposed to be aged 10 years it struck me that white rums aren’t white at all. No one I know would want to go near a white opaque rum. Clear rum should be called what it is, clear or transparent rum. Some, like Cruzan’s Light Rum is called light because it has a chardonnay hue. It also has a light character from the way it is made.
In Barbados E.S.A.Fields clear rum is called see-through. And if you can’t see through it, either you’ve been drinking too much rum. Or there is something else in the bottle.
All alcohol should be crystal clear when it comes out of the still. If it’s opaque, it’s a sure sign that there are fusel oils in the bottle and you shouldn’t be drinking it. When a friend in Grenada distills her rum, called hogo, she looks for the tell-tale grey hue on top of the jug and changes in viscosity to tell her when she’s not getting pure rum and is getting some fusel oils in her rum. At that point, it’s time to go home.
Most, but not all, of the clear rums we drink have been aged before being carbon-filtered to remove the color gained from the oak barrels while the rum was aging. Not all I say because some clear rums are bottled straight from the still, but even some of those are filtered prior to bottling to remove some of the sharp flavors that detract from what the distiller wants to put in the bottle. How can you tell whether the clear rum you’re drinking has been aged or not isn’t always simple though here are some indicators.
If the rum is clear and has an age statement on the label, it has been aged and then carbon-filtered. If the rum is imported from Puerto Rico, Venezuela or a few other countries, it has been aged and then filtered prior to bottling. If the rum is from the French islands, it hasn’t been carbon-filtered. They don’t carbon-filter any of their rum, though maybe they should think about it.
The color of one’s spirit is entirely a matter of personal preference and prejudice. Barbados is one of the few Caribbean islands where a significant percentage of the rum consumed by the local population isn’t clear. In the US and Europe many rum drinkers equate clear rum with a cheap quality spirit, but let me tell you that you owe it to yourself to try some of the aged clear rums that are being imported. You might even find your new favorite rum isn’t as dark in color as you thought it was.
The most common age for these clear spirits is one to two years, though some like Santa Teresa Claro and Cruzan’s Light Rum aren’t completely clear and retain a bit of color. The oldest aged clear rum that I’m aware of is Flor de Caña’s 4-year-old rum. I’ve read recently about some clear rums being aged up to 6 and as much as 10 years but the numbers just don’t add up.
When a distiller ages rum in a barrel in the tropics, he looses from 5-12% of the contents of that barrel each year. As Gary Nelthropp, master distiller at Cruzan Rum told me last week, after 12 years he’s got about 5 gallons left in a 45 gallon barrel. If you’re aging your rum more than 4 years, you can’t afford to sell it for less than your more expensive rums. And, in order to remove all of the color from that rum, you’ve had to carbon-filter it several times and that costs money as well as flavor. Contrary to what more than a few distiller has told me, carbon-filtering removes more than the color from the rum.
So what’s the point in aging a rum, say 5 years, and then carbon-filtering everything out of it. I’ve yet to taste a clear rum that has the smoky oak, vanilla and roasted nut flavors found in an old aged spirit, when I do I’ll change my mind. I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t tasted every clear rum in the world, but I’m looking forward to continuing the research.
Here are what the Ministry of Rum Forum members have to say about White, or Clear Rums.
Growing up I never knew what to get my older sister and her husband. Many years they got a bottle of rum. They weren’t surprised but it was something they enjoyed. Daylight savings time and the world series are sure signs that the holidays will be upon me again this year before I know it.
What I’ll give for gifts this year will undoubtedly include rum. Or, if you’re like me you’re hoping someone close to you will make a bottle of rum part of their gift to you this holiday season. What better way to give a little hint than to leave your computer browser open to the Ministry of Rum website where someone else can see what you’re thinking about for the holidays.
If you’d like to suggest a rum to be added to the list, take a look at the Rum Lovers forums to see how you can add your suggestions to the list.
Thursday, May 3rd the Today Show will broadcast a short RUM 101 segment which I recorded at the Forbidden Island bar in Alameda, CA a few weeks ago, in the last half hour of the show. There will also be a live studio tasting of several rums. If you miss the live broadcast, this segment will be archived on msnbc.com.
I’m on my way to Venezuela to continue the research at the Santa Teresa distillery in Venezuela. Next week I’ll share some photos and notes on this award winning rum distillery.
A new Forum for rum lovers is now operational on the Ministry of Rum website. There is still a lot of work to be done integrating all of the new features of the new website so your patience will be rewarded. If you have a favorite username, register it before someone else uses it.
I plan to continue to post articles about my travels here on this site for at least the forseeble future no one really knows how technology will change our directions on the internet.