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The Minister Loses His Robe
I'm proud to announce that I've been banished by none other than Ed Hamilton! But only after I'd already left...
This is a rare and special moment and proof positive that I really am a Compleat Idiot (which is perfect for this website) - or - that somehow I've had the gall to present the Minister sans his robe. You be the judge. Either way, I'm honored. Here's what happened - it is truly an amazing story...
* * * * * * *
Over a period of time I became a regular at what Ed calls his "Ministry of Rum".
This is a place where the "Minister" holds forth as the one and final arbiter of rum. Like a polygamous Utahnian "Prophet" who can grant you either a fine 15 year old, or banish you from the heavens. The Boss. Discussions by the flock - let's call them the flockers - are typically resolved by Minister Ed who'll stroll forth and dispense "the final word". The flockers generally fall to their knees in rum-induced thanks and respectful praise and then go back to discussing how much they like whatever rum/rhum they've most recently poured.
Or need to pour.
The prevailing chant is "It's all good, it's all good...", or as Minister Ed puts it "the best rum is the one in your glass". This isn't bad in a sycophantic kinda way, but it really does leave the compleat idiots among us - actually, most of us - somewhat adrift insofar as how to enter this secret handshake world of what borders on rhum snobbery. And it's obvious that not all rums are good - some are just plain crappy, but no one will really say so. So here comes moi, the Compleat Idiot - just chock full of "Beginner's Mind", open to all the possibilities, seeing things pretty much without prejudice - and I proposed what has become my now infamous "Case for Reference Standards".
The "Case" was based on the observation that you frequently run across such cryptic statements as "it's a fine, classic rum" or absolutely impenetrable but seemingly favorable reviews of a "great rum" that only a rhum idiot savant could even begin to fathom. Of course, I wondered "compared to what"?. It became clear that those flockers who held forth certainly must have an actual rum, or type of rum or taste "profile" in mind as a standard of comparison. Research led me to discover that indeed there were identifiable types - five of them (thanks to Dave Broom) - and I proceeded to name and select representative standard rums for each one.
The standards - which included Mount Gay XO, Appleton Extra, Barbancourt Five Star, El Dorado 15 and Matusalem Gran Reserve - were selected on the basis of top ratings, widespread acclaim, company history and tradition, low price and easy availability. All met the approval of the flockers save one (the Minister watched and waited).
Barbancourt Five Star as the representative of French style agricultural rum ("rhum agricole", Fr.).
Actually I'd originally chosen one of Clement's offerings at a pocket emptying $90 per copy, when the insightful Robert Burr offered that I oughta consider Haiti's Barbancourt Five Star. Fortunately, and as the Compleat Idiot, I am allowed such stupid oversights, and immediately amended my list to honor the $19, five star rated Five Star as the rightful representative of this category. Screw Clement. And thank you Robert! And this was when the battle leading to my own personal Waterloo was joined.
My first shot was an article entitled "Rhum Agricole: Defined". (Link to Article)
This article established the history of the term "rhum agricole" or agricultural rum as applied to cane juice rum - a term established about 1850 and applied ever since to cane juice rums made in the French Indies and including Haiti. These used the French method, and were made primarily from cane juice rather than from molasses. It established that the term "rhum industriell" was a pejorative used by the French to refer to molasses based rums. Last, this article noted that the term "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" was but a recent (1996) invented legal term applying only to the subset of agricultural rums made in Martinique under voluminous and oppressively strict regulations. I called the cane juice rums from Martinique "rhums by regulation" as compared to the agricoles rhums from Haiti as "rhum by art". I noted that AOC scheme was an obvious attempt at protectionism and marketing dominence. The points made were:
1. Agricultural rum (Fr. rhum agricole) refers to rums made from sugarcane juice, made mostly in the French Indies but also in Haiti, Panama, Trinidad and Brazil.
2. This term was created in the mid 1800's and has been in popular use since then.
3. The term "rhum agricole" does NOT specify rums from only Martinique.
4. "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" is a term of French law and DOES refer specifically to most rums from Martinique. Usage requires strict adherence to extensive regulations and is limited to only rums distilled from in this fashion in Martinique.
5. "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" is a subset of "rhum agricole" or agricultural rum, not the reverse.
This seemed to offend a number of the flockers, but Minister Ed still held back, awaiting the perfect moment to hold forth and cite his "final word". Things were now fermenting vigorously.
Next I published an article entitled "AOC: Designation or Derogation". (Link to Article)
This article established, in excruciating detail, the vast and miniscular regulations imposed by the French, and with which rums in Martinique had to comply to earn the coveted "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" label. I noted that the label applied only to rums made in Martinique and in no way defined or regulated agricultural rums made elsewhere (primarily Haiti). I summarized the regulations which included type of cane species, geographical boundaries, months of harvest, output per hectare, method and size of crushing rollers, type of filtration, Brix and pH of the vesou, fermentation method and equipment, duration and temperature of fermentation, percent alcohol output, type and species of yeast, exit temperature, percent of alcohol and volatile elements, type and method of distillation, number of plates in the still, metal of construction - ad infinitum.
Rhum by regulation.
I pointed out important loopholes in the regulations, and opined that such rhum by regulation was no more or less than an attempt to exclude agriculturals - and all other rums made elsewhere - as somehow inferior. A marketing ploy.
This article got a bit more attention and both the Minister and a few flockers began to take issue. Their primary argument seemed to be that the AOC scheme was simply a method to insure consistent quality, and alleged that this had succeeded. Which led to my next article: "Comparing Agricoles". (Link to Article)
This was a masterpiece.
"Comparing" was based on perhaps the only valid and published comparison of agricultural rums as done by Dave Broom, an internationally respected spirits authority and professional taster, and the author of "Rum". Broom had meticulously compared, reviewed and rated 38 agricultural rums from Marie Galante, Martinique and Haiti. I summarized his findings and they were damning. Overall, on a five star system, by island, the rhums scored:
Marie Galante: 3.0
I noted that all the rhums by art from Haiti all received four or five stars, while those from Marie Galante and Martinque were dominated by relatively average three star rhums. Last I reported that the eight distillers in Martinique - all producing rhum using nearly identical methods under the same strict regulations - were anything but consistent - not by the island, not within any one company, nor even by bottlings. Last I noted that Haiti's Barbancourt agricultural rums were exceptional bargains, averaging perhaps $22, while the rhums from Martinique were terribly overpriced. My conclusions were:
If the sugarcane "terroir" of Martinique was really identifiably different...
If the oppressive, miniscular regulation of their rum making process worked...
And if super-duper-mega premium prices were an indication of tip top quality...
These products would be much more uniformly excellent or better.
They were not.
It was at this point that our good Preacher took the time to send me a private "thank you" for publishing what he called valued and educational articles and offered that he looked forward to buying me a drink! I was shocked. And moved and honored - until I finally checked back on the Ministry to find...
A gang of cheap shot, flippant, smug and condescending one-liners intended to discredit my work. Worse yet, many of these were by the very same Minister who'd just praised and thanked me. I could only assume I was really being thanked for being a willing and complacent foil - a sinner to be made a convenient example and for an opportunity for his "final word". My response was simple.
Goodbye. I deleted my posts and posted this fare-thee-well:
My Fare-thee-well at The Ministry
"Having designed and run a number of successful websites, and participated in a few more I've learned a few things, for example that sponsorship inhibits open criticism of, uh, sponsors. Which is why my own sites remain entirely free, independent, ad-free and non-commercial. I have come to dislike especially shoot-from-the-hip flippancy and smug polemics which are strictly disallowed in my pasture.
In his stupendous book "Cult of the Amateur", Andrew Keen speaks of the digital revolution: "It's ignorance meets egoism, meets bad taste, meets mob rule... on steroids". A completely accurate description of what I've seen happen on so many websites.
Keen is very well known in the international digital community for his views regarding the future of media, culture and technology. He is one of the golden boys who developed products like Google, et al. As an intimate participant he became aware of a terrible trend on the net - the "democratization" of the internet, with access for all - leading to all posters, all posts as being considered somehow equal. True talent - true expertise - gets swallowed whole by mediocrity. Few have the stamina or expertise to filter out the little true from the massive false.
His main point: without good moderation and/or editing the net gets taken over by the lowest common denominator and the monkeys take over. And he means it. But let's get to it:
It's silly season at the Ministry.
Now please know that among other things I have been well rewarded for my work performing research. I do enjoy ferreting out hard-to-find truths, subtle but important distinctions and I take particular, nay, orgasmic pleasure in identifying and busting myths. In the instant case the myth is that "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" as established by French regulation provides the working definition of what is and what is not "rhum agricole" elsewhere. Related myths are that this system of miniscular control is intended primarily to preserve or improve quality (rather than for protectionism and marketing dominance) - and - that this system, in conjunction with its invented notion of Martinique as "terroir" with its incredible cane species and unique soils, leads to significantly improved consistency and quality, and accordingly reviews. And last, that Haiti, despite common recognition for 150 years to the contrary, does not make agricultural rum.
Each and all demonstrably false.
Now agree or disagree, I spent serious time and effort writing, rewriting and finally publishing reasonably competent, long but well cited and argued articles supporting my view of these issues. Certainly these are debatable, but it's fair to expect that any rebuttals ought to be equally thoughtful and competent. Instead, here's a smattering of the hipshot tripe posted in reply:
Dave Broom, a complete, thorough and well regarded spirits writer and professional taster if there ever was one, was curtly dismissed with such flippant and smug putdowns as "if only he'd spent more time in the islands" (as if you can't get the product elsewhere) and "no wonder, he's a Brit" (as if his country of origin makes his experience and observations invalid regarding agricoles). Over 150 years of usage of "agricultural rum", aka "rhum agricole", defined simply and entirely as "rums made from cane juice", and applied to rums made in Haiti, the French Indies and several other islands, was simply ignored, as was the clear pejorative of "rhum industriell".
Mr. Hamilton was completely confusing regarding what "someone once told him" regarding Barbancourt at one time or another as made from "cane juice" (his book), from "sugar syrup" (forum thread) and last, from "cane juice, syrup and sometimes a bit of molasses" (his list of distilleries and their products). Only after I pointed out these long existing discrepancies did he come to promote the latter version - but even that remains unverifiable and outdated hearsay contradicted by Barbancourt and authors Ian Williams and Dave Broom. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Another quick shot proffered that "I've never seen Barbancourt label their rums as "rhum agricole", apparently implying that not doing so must be an admission that the rhum is something other than agricole. Never you mind that of the hundreds of molasses based rums on the shelves, I've yet to see one that is proudly labeled "fine industrial rum", er, "rhum industriell". Yet somehow are still molasses based.
And yet another one liner suggested that Barbancourt's "large" (compared to?) production was proof positive that their rhums were not artisinal but rather I guess, manufactured akin to a Coke bottling plant. Forget that at Barbancourt (reported as late as 2005), you'd still see cane cut by hand, some still delivered by oxcart, every drop still finished in individual pot stills under the direct and costly supervision of skilled individual artisan distillers, still barreled in imported, coarse grain imported French Limosin oak, still barreled at low ABV (requiring additional and expensive years of aging), et al. As a major employer in a third world country they can do so.
About which Dave Brook was ecstatically effusive: "They don't only produce rum; they make a rum with a finesse that is almost unsurpassed in the world." But hey, he's British.
No they said, Barbancourt produces way more gallons than Niesson, so they can't be artisan, just that simple. Right. Simplistic is more like it. Such responses went on and on, but were just more of the same. Cheap shot polemics, one-upsmanship, flippant, smug and unconvincing toss offs. I know things have reached Keen's cult stage when I find myself drawn to responding by simply linking articles and commentary already posted, but apparently not read, or parsed into nonrecognition. However tempting, that's a sure indicator that the rock of knowledge has met a hard headed place. Repetitive, unproductive and wasteful to all concerned.
When a dialogue descends to such smug and stubborn quippery, it's over - at least for me. Been there, done that, way too much work for way too little return. Like arguing with trees.
It's bad enough enduring such polemical preaching - so you can be sure that preaching to someone else's choir is not in my job description. As for me I'm more moved by the Aboriginal peoples who take great pain and meticulous care to return the environment - every twig, every footprint, every cooking fire - to the pristine condition in which they found it - not a speck of disturbed desert dust to betray their passage. Accordingly this post will remain for a time, then join all the other deletions I have already made. And I leave all you fine people to yourselves, in your natural habitat - untouched by human hands - myths intact - and happily drinking rum interrupted only by occasional spit takes, lol. It's all good, nicht vahr? I came, I saw, and...
I truly enjoyed my time here. Honestly.
I've had the great pleasure of meeting the tireless and multitalented Robert Burr, and experiencing with my dear Sue Sea, Daniel's spectacular big wood artisan rums as poured by his own expert hand. And I eagerly await the drink Ed Hamilton privately promised to buy me (though now I may need to use the queen's taster, lol). Up Spirits! May the most you wish for be the least you get! And may you enjoy the fine agricultural rhums from Haiti!
Jimbo's articles were completely unreliable because:
He didn't spent enough time in the islands.
Whaddya expect, he's from Erie, Pennsylvania.
They were never been labeled "l'information fiable".
Long articles are industrially mass produced.
Way too many big words.
Someone told me so!
For those who regret the loss of challenging rum documentaries regarding agricultural rums especially, do know that they survive and prosper at my own humble, free and completely non-commercial Rum Project website and forum, beholden to none. There crappy rum is called "crappy rum". Watch too for some important announcements there for some amazing new rum tasting and discussion opportunities. They will be spectacular..."
True to my word, I exited and returned a day later to delete my fare-thee-well only to discover that I'd been "banned" by Ed for his curt reason "because I want to"!? And that the previously complimented "educational thread", along with the flippant retorts it had generated, had been deleted. Can't blame him a bit, what with one's "expert" status having been so clearly challenged.
I'd quit and was on my way out the door - left with no option the Prophet resorted to a pouty face-saving kick in the pants, taking a shot from behind at my rapidly receding rear and "banning" me after the fact. Naturally, I respectfully replied by email:
Email to the "Minister"
"Feel better now?
Earth to Ed... closing the door after the horse has left the barn, though personally satisfying I'm sure, is just another form of "You can't quit, I'm firing you!", lol. And looks pretty dumb. But thanks for saving me the trouble of deleting my final post. Does this mean you won't be buyin the Capn a drink? Sure hope not.
Really the responsibility is entirely mine - having forgotten that well reasoned and cited internet dialogue - where one liners rule - remains an oxymoron. And I should have known that while such flippant toss offs are tolerated (particularly when they agree with the prevailing mythology), recognizing and exposing them as such is not. Last, I ignored the most important maxim: "Rule #1: The boss is always right; Rule #2: When the boss is wrong, see Rule #1", lol.
FWIW, my fare-thee-well was the kind and gentle version, sufficient to posit my dismay without joining in the mudslinging (while recognizing it), and leaving on the most positive and respectful note possible under the circumstances. And it is final. I think you're a fine gentleman - who just happened to paint himself into the "expert" corner. Completely understandable. But in accord with rule #2...
You were entirely right. May your health be bottomless! I mean rum glass, no, no - your women! Yeah, that's it..."
Sincere best regards...
ps. kindly delete my account... and thanks - I had an otherwise enjoyable experience. I stand on my posts.
At this writing Minister Ed has refused to delete my account, preferring to promote the myth that he "banned" this writer, by keeping only my name, "Capn Jimbo" on the register - with the sole purpose of subtitling it as "banned". How childish, really. It's like checkin in at the Hotel California...
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
'Relax,' said the night man, 'We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!'
So that's the story behind my absence at the "Ministry" (if you'll pardon the pun). As for Mr. Ed: To your health! May you never tap dance faster!