Notes & Categories

Towards an appropriate classification of Rum

In the current rum world, rums and brands may be overvalued (or undervalued). Consumers are struggling to find the origin of the rum they drink, the history of the rum, and its characteristics, and a way of assessing the spirits they drink so as to permit comparisons of like with like.  There is simply too little information on hand for such analysis and comparisons to be made.  And although some would maintain this vagueness is a good thing, continuing to provide rum with its marvelous variety and bad boy image, it is desirable for all consumers and enthusiasts to at least have a consistent methodology and system to classify their rum. Faced with the exponential growth of rum in the public consciousness, as well as the increase in new makers, brands, rum festivals, expositions and contests, it is very important -- even essential -- that all consumers or producers can rely on a common classification that would not rely on fanciful variants as price or color or style of rum, but rather on clear, objective and transparent criteria.

The current difficulty - background

Rum has usually been classified by style, by geographical region, by age, colour and occasionally by strength.  A hundred years or more ago, if people cared at all, the regions were dominant – British West Indies, Spanish West Indies, French West Indies, and then
subdivisions related to individual islands or countries; married to that was the historical gradation of rums into colours – white (or
clear, or silver), gold, and dark.  Strength rarely came into it, except insofar as an “overproof” was considered 57% or greater.

David Broom’s seminal 2003 book “Rum” has had an enormous influence on the subject.  In it, he made a case for five regional styles: Demerara (Guyanese), Jamaican, Barbadian, Cuban/Spanish, and French Agricole.  And of course the ageing of the rum was in there somewhere on top of all that.

To a greater or lesser extent, these uneasily joined, multi-pronged systems have permeated the industry and the literature ever since.

But there were issues from the beginning

You could theoretically have a situation where a gold rum was made in Guadeloupe but not be an agricole. A US company can make a rum from cane juice that is to all intents and purposes an agricole, but can it be named so since the concept is so intertwined with the French West Indies?  A rum like Ocean’s distillery “Atlantic” which blended agricoles and molasses rums – how could this be properly classified in a style system? A little outfit in Grenada or St Lucia or Tortola, could uneasily be straddling more than one style category. In some cases the category a rum was placed in was entirely in the opinion of the writer, the reviewer, the maker or the tasting-fest organizer – based on their own assessment. And so in the absence of agreed-upon global standards, confusion and inconsistency abounded.

Another weakness of the style system was always that there were exceptions and outliers and rums that fit more than one band (or none). The classifications were almost entirely based on Caribbean and Latin American products, and so it was difficult to place rums made in far flung locations into this convenient style-map. Where, for example, do we put the Tanduay from the Philippines, Bounty from Fiji, Manoa from Tahiti, Old Monk from India, all the rums from Australia, to say nothing of Mauritius, Reunion, Japan and so on. They rest uneasily on a system not really designed for them, and adding a style called “other” just seems to be a cop-out that ignores the underlying issue.

Matters were not helped by additional gradations that filtered into the rum world over time: the concept of an overproof rum, without ever rigorously defining at which point a rum was considered one (as noted, historically it’s 57%); or "craft", handcrafted, premium and super-premium, which have no meaning beyond a perception of production method, or status conferred by age (or price or really good marketing). Yet these classes of rum are popping up more and more often in rum tasting contests and judging matrices.

Each system has its weaknesses, none is very compatible with any other, none caters well to exceptions; however it’s clear that the Rome, Paris and London rum fests are doing their best to be more detailed about things, irrespective of their each-to-the-other incompatibility with respect to ages.

Clearly, the situation is untenable - classifying rum must have a firmer conceptual basis. Richard Seale wasn’t kidding when he facetiously said he would and could enter a single rum into all categories for a recent competition, nor was he wrong to say it. The varying systems either try to address everything or speak to their own ideas, but in trying to cater to all things and all regions and all styles, the end result is so much bafflement.  Certainly comparability is not enhanced. And with new drinkers coming on board all the time who are tired of the expense of scotch but who grew up understanding the strict system of rules under which it operates, this lack of clear classifications in the rum world is an embarrassment.

There’s more: because all the competitions and festivals have different rums under consideration, the awardees lack comparability because these systems don’t relate easily to each other.  A single rum might be in four different categories in four different festivals.  It wins in one and doesn’t in another.  So…how good is it really?  How well does it rate against a rum similar in type but which wasn’t in competition?

How does a judge compare an French Agricole with a light Puerto Rican Rum if they are both placed in the ‘white rum’ category.

Movement towards a new system

In recent years, the situation has been helped somewhat helped by the lobbying for a new system by some of the major brands, and many of the minor ones.  And some people have decided to seek a more homogeneous, just classification, which respects the rum in its purest form (and thus, inevitably, the less pure also).

Another positive recent development is the emergence of new Rum Festivals and attendant master classes, hosted worldwide, for example, by Luca Gargano of Velier and Richard Seale of Foursquare. These are gradually changing attitudes; and even training for merchants, distributors and the press, to enable them to differentiate rums for what they are, and not for what they are proclaimed to be. It's a real challenge which will be surely erode the dominance on information provision previously held only by marketing departments and brand ambassadors.  Whether major producers with an investment in the currently vague status quo will come on board remains to be seen.  However, in general, many writers and consumers have seen this development as a positive step.

Result - A simple and effective method

The idea being proposed is very straightforward: differentiate rums by their raw material (molasses and/or cane juice), and their methods of manufacture (pot still, single column still, multiple column still, etc).  This strikes us as the most logical and clear, providing objective means of starting the process of stratifying rums into a meaningful set of classes. All the subcategories would then be secondary sub-classifications under these main headings.

The source of the rum is clearly a return to first principles. Currently it is felt that there are standard rums (assumed to be from molasses) and agricoles, the latter deemed almost exclusive to the French West Indies.  However this line is often blurred by producers who are not “French” themselves who may be making molasses based rums but also have rums made from cane juice with which they make white rums. This distinction also impacts cachacas, which currently fall into no class except their own.

Another important primary variable is to identify the production-source of the distillate. A rum distilled from a pot still or a traditional column (coffey still, Creole still) allows the production of richer and more authentic flavours than a rum from a huge multi-column still, which will come out at over 95% (i.e. close to the neutrality, and therefore without the famous non-alcohol ester components). Differentiating the raw material and the production method is therefore essential to be able to see more clearly what the source of the rum actually is.

The basis of a homogeneous classification

In this new classification, it is essential to distinguish two principles, two distillation methods that will classify and differentiate rums between them: on one side the batch distillation, and the continuous distillation. This is the backbone on which the whole set, the cornerstone of a better differentiation, and a clearer understanding.

Let's recall briefly that the principle of distillation is to separate the spirit from the wine, the aim of which is to produce a rich and complex distillate. It is the distiller's responsibility to judiciously balance the mix of volatile components other than alcohol, which provide the aroma, and taste of rum. This will, according to the aim of the distiller/blender in creating the character and desired profile of the end product, separate out the undesirable elements from those that are deemed worthy.


BATCH DISTILLATION

This is a distillation method that requires additional handling and work, complex work: the fermented cane juice (or molasses) to be
distilled is loaded once into the system, where the components are distilled and drawn off one after the other. This implies a permanent change in the composition of the initial mixture, and temperature profiles. The performance of these stills is low and it may be necessary to make several runs to concentrate the distillate. After each distillation, the boiler is emptied of slops, cleaned, refilled and heating continues. This work intensive process meant that the system was gradually abandoned for the more economic continuous distillation.

Batch distillation generally allows greater aromatic concentration, since this system gives the distiller mastery of the composition of
non-alcohol components. He will collect only the "heart"; this is the art of the 'cut', the crucial moment where the distiller decides to stop the running off the portion that ends up being the rum to be aged (i.e., the heart). Distillers shape rum according to their own predispositions and desired end product: light or full-bodied, dry or fruity, and so on. Note that the flavours must exist first in the fermented wine before they can arrive in the distillate.

We speak in English of the term Pot Still to define more commonly a batch distillation process. We nevertheless prefer the latter term - it is a term better used to avoid linguistic misunderstandings related to the term pot still: it is indeed usually used to describe the still that is utilized, but it is just one among many others. A Pot Still allows for batch distillation, but batch distillation is not only done using a simple pot still.

The dichotomy is not the physical pot (and swan arm) versus a column and plates. You can have a pot still with plates and a column still without plates (it would be impractically tall). The dichotomy is a batch process versus a continuous process. In the batch process the wine is changing as it is distilled, in the continuous process the same wine is continuous distilled. In the batch process it is nonsensical to speak of a single “distillation proof” because the proof of the final output is necessarily an average. In the continuous system the distillation proof is constant. It is because of this fundamental difference that the output from each process can never be identical.

This batch process is the traditional method that was originally used for rum, like all European spirits, inspired by the Charentais method and led to, among other things, widely varying profiles of the resulting spirit from batch to batch. It was also very energy inefficient and was unsuited to producing large quantities of distillate (a problem that continuous distillation addressed much more successfully). Nevertheless, as technology progressed, the distillate from such older methods became more sought after because of the deemed richer flavours, and batch variation became less as time went on. Nowadays there is a movement back towards such rums, as the popularity of white pot still rums from Haiti (the Clairins), Brazil, Jamaica, Barbados and independent bottlers demonstrates.

CONTINUOUS DISTILLATION

A continuous distillation process is one where the still is continuously fed with the mixture to be distilled, so there is no need to empty the apparatus at any time. The wine is introduce at one end, and the distilled rum progressively drawn off from various levels of the output column in fractions (using vapour partial pressures), much like hydrocarbon refineries, with the unwanted portions being eliminated and drawn off progressively as part of the overall cycle.

This type of installation permits working without changing the composition profiles and temperature. Some of the better known types of still are the Savalle, Barbet, Crepelle and Coffey, modified over time by distillers, which gave rise to the Creole column stills of the French West Indies, of which there are many variations.

A column of this kind in the "agricole" world produces spirits between 65 and 75 °, with a rate of non-alcohol items that more than 225gr per hectolitre (275 gr/h rum for the 'élevé sous bois' and 325 gr/h for the “vieux”). Traditional heavy rums have to around 600 gr/h, and the Grand Arome (or dunder) rum 1,200 gr/h, depending on the raw material and the addition of wines, the fermentation time, and distillation method used.

However, there is still an enormous difference between continuous distillation in a column still (Creole type coffey still), and a multiple column distillation system used by large companies on an industrial scale.

Contrary to common belief, there is also a large difference between a rum distilled rum at 94° in, for example, a Coffey Still, and distilling a similar 95° or 96° in a multiple column industrial-type still. The first method will give still a very aromatic rum, then the second will create a much more neutral alcohol, and therefore devoid of flavor. For comparison, light rums of Puerto Rico can drop to 30 grams of non-alcohol per hectolitre element, and some producers are able to produce distillates at a very high degree (96 °), purified to the extreme and therefore closer neutral alcohol (ethanol) than true rum. It will then be necessary to flavour to give it a certain strength, and thus taste.

Some typical congeners quantities from whisky distillation illustrate these points very well.

  Ethyl Acetate
"Heads"

 Isobutanol
"tails" or "feints"
 Amyl Alcohols
"tails" or "feints"
 
Malt Whisky
(Batch Still @ 65%*)
 45  80  176
 
Grain Whisky
(Coffey Still @ 94.5% ABV)
 18  68  23
 
Bourbon Whisky
(Trad. Single Col. @65%)
 89  160  385
 
Neutral Spirit
(MULTI COL @ 96% ABV)
 < 1.3
 < 0.5
 
       

There are some important points to notice:

1. The batch still will produce a lower congener count than the traditional single column because of the ability of the batch distiller to better control the tails cut.
2. The coffey still can produce a very flavourful spirit even distilled at high proof. The main difference in comparison to the batch still is the large reduction in the heavy fusel oils.
3. ‘Distillation proof’ alone is not an adequate indicator of the congener counts or aromatic profile of a spirit.

*- as explained before this is an average of the output



Summing up
This kind of primary classification based on distillation methodologies and apparatus therefore allows producers, consumers and writers to distinguish between a genuine product, traditionally made...and a product that is intended for mass production and  onsumption and which is more neutral and with less taste. In other words, it separates mass produced distillate from more exactingly made rum aimed at a connoisseur.


The Classification - Details

Here is the classification that has been proposed. It is the fruit of the reflection of many enthusiasts; it may not please everyone, but will have the merit, hopefully, of addressing all rums. All the rums categories reflect the work of single distilleries


Pure Single Rum (100% pot still from one distillery, molasses)
Pure Single Agricole rum (100% pot still from one distillery, cane juice )
Single Blended Rum (Pot + Column from the same distillery)
Traditional Rum (single/artisanal column)
Agricole Rum (single/artisanal column)
Rum (multicolumn + 95% abv)

In detail now, with some examples of rums :

Pure Single Rum - 100% pot still rum from one distillery or estate

This is molasses-based rums from a single distillery/Estate, and distilled only from a pot still (“batch” distillation).

Examples of rums: Worthy Park, Hampden, Mount Gilboa, Port Mourant, Foursquare and Versailles. below pictures of Hampden Estate double retort pot still and Foursquare's double retort pot still.
 

The tradition of pot stills is more rooted in English speaking territories, and while there are very few in existence nowadays, new micro-distilleries are springing up all the time (especially in the USA) -- and It is important through this category to value these pot
stills and their product, which represent the best the identity of rum, as well as the Art of the men behind, call them distillers or producers.

In the wider Caribbean, only 18 of the 50 distilleries still possess pot stills, representing a total of 38 pot stills, and 8 marks.

Usually, distilleries use their pot stills rums to blend/mix with their column distillates to produce what we call Single Blended Rums (that is the subject of a separate category).

Barbados, though known for being the birthplace of rum, has not produced a Pure Single Rum in the modern era until very recently. St Nicholas Abbey rum distillery produces a pure juice (cane juice, Pure Single Rhum Agricole), while the others, Mount Gay and Foursquare produce typically produce Single Blended. Foursquare has recently produced a Pure Single Rum in collaboration with Velier.

In Jamaica, only Hampden and Worthy Park (2 distilleries on the 6 established in Jamaica) are Pure Single Rum; While Long Pond,
Monymusk, Appleton Yarmouth also only use their pot still rum to blend with their column ones. Others, such as DDL, also use their pot stills (Port Mourant, Versailles) to blend with a more recent foray into single pot still rums in 2016 ; Saint Lucia Distillery (SLD) has 3 pot stills. Long Pond at the moment is closed.

We should also mention the examples of micro distillery Josè Cruz Puerto Rico, and the Venezuelan DUSA (Diplomatico), which produce their 'Ambassador rum', considered the first example of Latin pure single rum.

Appleton, St Lucia Distillers and DDL can, for example, decide to produce Pure Single Rums, only from their pot stills.


Pure Single Agricole rum (100% pot still from one distillery or estate)

From pure cane juice from a single distillery, which uses a majority of its own sugarcane. Distillation will be exclusively from pot stills (“batch” distillation).

Examples of rums: Rhum Rhum (below on second picture), Clairin, Saint Nicholas Abbey (below, first picture), Issan, Chalong Bay, River Antoine, Chamarel, Callwood.
 

Rhum Rhum in Marie Galante is the only Pure Single Rhum produced in the French territories.

River Antoine is in Grenada. On the small island of Tortola, Michael Callwood's micro distillery use a small pot still of 125 liters, and in Barbados, Larry Warren from St Nicholas Abbey distils in a batch still called Annabelle, designed by Arnold Holstein.


Single Blended Rum (Pot + Column from the same distillery)

These are blend of rums distilled from pot stills and traditional column stills, from the same distillery or estate. They are easier to
produce than Pure Single Rum. The Single Blended Rum often allow master blender to express all his talent and his personal signature, and is often behind the success of a brand

Examples of rums: Appleton, El Dorado, Diplomatico, Mount Gay, Foursquare/Doorlys, Saint Lucia Distillery/Chairmans. All Single Blended Rum producers could in theory produce Pure Single Rum and also Traditional Rum. Here are the pot and column from  Appleton (pictures courtesy of Cocktail Wonk):
 


Traditional Rum (artisanal column, creole column still)

This category contains molasses-based rums which are distilled from an artisanal column (Coffey or creole) stills. Such stills are smaller column stills on a human scale, compared to the towering industrial-scale factory-sized columns of major producers.

Examples of rums: Antigua Distillers (first picture below), Saint Vincent Distillery, Savanna (second picture), Bellevue, Riviere du Mat
 

A continuous distillation column derives from technology that dates from the nineteenth century and has evolved with the times. It
represents the median between the 'authentic' pot still distillation and the mass bulk production of industrial-sized columns stills. The Coffey Still, a double column of distillation and rectification (the engineering was perfected by Aeneas Coffey in 1830) produces a light rum, but relatively complex, which retains certain peculiarities of fermentation and gives an identity to a specific rum.

Historically Caroni was also an example of this style of rum.

The distilleries that use this kind of column have a limited size. Examples include Shillingford in the Dominica, Grenada Distillery, St Vincent Distillers, English Harbour, as well as those that produce Single Blended rums.


Agricole Rum (artisanal column)

This is the ‘agricole’ variation of traditional rums, made from pure cane juice and distilled from artisanal column still, also known as a creole column still.

In this case, the rum definition diverges from the distillates obtained by a Coffey Still (and more in multiple columns). The distillate from Creole columns is richer. From an aromatic point of view, their complexity is closer in profile to rum from a pot still than one from a multiple column.
  

In this category can be grouped the producers from Martinique: Neisson (second picture), St James (Bally, Dillon), JM, La Favourite, Simon (HSE, Clément), Depaz (first picture) and La Mauny (Trois Rivières, Duquesne) ; and the ones from Guadeloupe: Damoiseau, Montebello, Bologne, Longueteau, Reimonenq, Père Labat, Bielle, Bellevue, Séverin.

To date, pure rum juice solely from the Creole column does not offer the same freedom to experiment than Single Blended rums.


Rum (multicolumn + 95% abv)

Rums in this category come mostly from very large distilleries, and originate from distilled molasses. These large factory-sized stills use several columns which typically produce a distillate of more than 95% ABV.  Such rums are characterized by being lighter, much less rich in esters, and are aromatically almost neutral. They are therefore modified: by producers who make blends, white rums, spiced or flavoured rums, or low quality spirit for mass consumption.

Such stills have the advantages of efficiency, low production costs, and massive output (if not any kind of originality or uniqueness of profile).  This makes the rums they produce the “everyman” of rums and they are widely adaptable, and available.

Producers utilizing such stills decided in the 1960s to modernize their production to higher volumes and economies of scale, gradually replacing their traditional double column with five columns: one for a “wine” and separate ones for extraction (hydroselection), rectification, demethylisation and a heads/tails concentration column. After the third column, the distillation process is technically over, and the last two steps are just for making adjustments to the rum making it even more neutral...practically ethanol, and improving efficiency. Various subsequent filtration steps further push the "purification" and trends towards a search of the purest product, which then has wide applicability in the production of other rum variations and spirits (notably vodka).

Examples of rums: Havana Club, Bacardi, Don Q, Brugal, Barceló, Flor de Cana, lantern, Pampero, Cacique.
Below is Industrias Licores from Guatemala (house of Zacapa and Botran), and Angostura:
 


Some producers, such as Clarendon (Monymusk) in Jamaica, blend this pure distillate to their pot still rums.

Bacardi , Serralles, Angostura mix/blend their distillate from their multiple column (5 columns), which they call redistilled, to the aguardiente produced from the wine column.

It is not likely a mere coincidence that most rum found to contain sugar/additives is distilled in multi column plants. Devoid of flavour/and oils from the distillate, the producer seeks to add the flavour and body to the produced spirit.