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Chapter Two: A Case for Reference Standards
Early on when you first hear of rum, it is not long before you hear afficianados exclaiming the beauties of a spirit that has few standards - other than the requirement it be made from sugar cane juice and/or molasses. After that, it's anything goes. Rum is made all over the world, with tastes and sensations so diverse it's sometimes hard to believe they are all "rum".
Yet "rum" does mean something and it has for well over three hundred years. All of the posters you read will speak glowingly of an "excellent rum" just sipped. And of course, I would have to wonder, compared to what? To nothing? To everything? To a vague standard of "decency" and quality? Based on simply personal preference? Or to some unstated, unidentified standard of reference? And you'll certainly hear the descriptor "classic", tossed about and not just by the average rummy.
"It's a superb classic rum!" Heard from all quarters, with the inevitable conclusion is that some kind of standard does indeed exist in de facto fashion. I want to make a case for a "classic" standard or reference point from which other rums can be compared. Why? And why by and for relative (but serious) neophytes?
Just what is a classic rum anyway? Neophytes need such guidance, and rum drinkers ought identify and recognize de facto expectations and reference standards that really do exist, but that are scrupulously avoided by jealous and competitive distillers and purveyors. But not me, lol! So let's go...
I propose that there exists one original standard, with four worthy successors, based on history, tradition and taste.
All deserve the designation of "classic". Let's begin at the beginning, 350 years ago. Although arguments can be made (not least by Ed Hamilton and others) that sugar cane spirits may have been created elsewhere, there is no argument that Barbados was the de facto home of rum - both the product and its name - as we know it. It emerged in a perfect storm of history, with its location as the first port of call, one of the few coral islands (with its ideal, coral filtered water), its perfect flat terrain and superb growing conditions, availability of slave labor, knowledgeable Celtic indentured workers and much, much more. The influence of Barbados in sugar and rum production and on the economics and politics of the Carribean and of the American colonies cannot be overstated. It is simply so.
Thus the first tradition, the first recognized standard (however reportedly "hellish" it may have tasted) began in Barbados in the latter 1600's, using double distillation in pot stills. That rum continued to be made and steadily improved over 300 years by one company, and one company alone. Mount Gay. And currently expressed by their flagbearing Mount Gay XO. There are few rums indeed that muster the same long and widespread respect of MGXO, still made using traditional methods and with great pride and respect for their own unique history. Thus, I view Mount Gay XO is the primary and original standard or reference point of "what rum tastes like".
Now, now, I know your ox is bawling, but please don't kill the messenger.
Quoting Mount Gay: "EXTRA OLD, in its category, is the reference of the rum world... This is the reference in aged rums; a masterpiece crafted from a unique distillation process that has remained unchanged for three centuries to which human passion and craftsmanship have been added." Enough said.
If there can be only one - original - standard reference of "rum" it has to be Mount Gay XO.
"Barbadoes Waters" (rum) were reknowned. But it was not long before Jamaican rum became the second de facto standard. French and American (New England) rums were tolerated, but the much more flavorful Jamaican rums were prized by almost all, not least our own George Washington and Ben Franklin. This was primarily due to the additional aromatics in Jamaican rum, using techniques that continue to this day. Using the original pot-still process, but also their own fermentation processes - Jamaican rum retained far more of the aromatics and became the premium rum of its day. It became the first rum of the Royal Navy. Appleton Estates was established in the mid 1700's; Wray and Nephew are figurative family members in Jamaican households. The singularity and stubborness of the product and its makers have preserved the integrity of this second standard.
Accordingly, if we may have but two standards, I deem the second standard - aromatic - reference: Appleton Extra.
Exponentiation now threatens. But not quite yet! Simply following history and geography will lead to the hodgepodge of the confusing choices of today. Thus, I will defer to a better mind than mine - Dave Broom - who has identified and defined "four broad styles" of rum: Jamaican (above), French (agricole) Demerara (soft and subtle) and Cuban (light).
Transitioning from the historical, let's first cover the agricoles, perhaps the only rum in which (stifling) regulation appeared. The French agricoles were widely rejected by the early colonists in favor of the Barbadian (Bajan) - and especially - the flavorful Jamaican molasses-based rums which set the standards and expectations of the day. Some would not even consider the agricoles as rums. But the French remained true to their tricolors and continued to develop their agricole and other rums. Today they are surely a clearly identifiable category that, like cachaca, appeal to smaller subsets of rum drinkers. Last, we must thank the French for facilitating American trade with the West Indies under the guns of Great Britain. Enough history, we are left only to choose the flagship/bottle of this third standard.
Accordingly, I was about to deem the third standard - agricole - reference: as Clement Cuvee Homere, reviewed by Dave Broom as "austere but will appeal to classicists". But not so fast! Some may argue that Clement is not a distiller; further it is almost unavailable and last - you will have to take out a mortgage to buy it. In this case I prefer to nominate a truly historical and much respected alternative: Barbancourt Five Star (8 year) agricole. This cane juice rum is truly a world class: as so well put (again) by Dave Broom "They don't only produce rum; they make a rum with a finesse that is almost unsurpassed in the world."
Next are Broom's Demerara-style rums from Guyana, with a rich and fortunate history. Established by the Dutch, rum was produced and identified by the "marks" of the English sugar plantations producing them. More than 200 plantations, each producing its own "mark", propered and the unique Demerara style soon became the prime ingredient in the British Navy rums (apparently supplanting Jamaican rum). Unfortunately, by the 1970's all but three disappeared along with their unique marks, and then but only one - DDL (Demerara Distillers). Fortunately, DDL bought and preserved the many old pots and stills, some even wooden -and still uses them to make the Demerara rums. Unfortunately, the pressures of the marketplace for bulk rum led to the addition of flavor-obliterating caramel. And last - but fortunately - DDL came to the conclusion that, in the interest of financial survival, they would have to return to producing premium rums. The fourth standard is easy.
Accordingly, I deem the fourth standard - Demerara style - reference: El Dorado 15.
The fifth and last style is Cuban, greatly pleasing us in South Florida. Cuban cigars - rum - and women! It doesn't get any better, and trust me they are all available in these parts. Broom believes Cuba elevated an interesting drink to "a modern classic spirit". Preceeding rums and styles were pot still-based; Cuba, as a Ronny come lately, changed all that when Bacardi imported continuous column stills in the 1860's. With more than 1000 distilleries these produced a modern, lighter, softer sweeter rum that appealed to the modern masses. Bacardi was expelled, leaving their distilleries and perhaps even the quality behind. My humble pick...
I deem the fifth standard - Cuban style - reference: Havana Club Anejo 15 Anos. No alternative but let's face it, most of us will never see this one. I can only suggest Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva Solera.
That should conclude this proposal, but I find it difficult to exclude rums like Angostura 1919, Diplomatico, Pyrat XO, Zaya and Zacapa Centenario 23. Most representing the modern faddish marketing of rum as liqueur. I am truly torn by this departure from the notion of Classic Rums. They are wonderful and interesting, but in the end - are not classic and can serve only to confuse, however pleasantly.
To review then...
1. The Original, Barbados/Bajan: Mount Gay XO
2. Jamaican Aromatic: Appleton Extra
3. French Agricole: Clement Cuvee Homere or Barbencourt Five Star
4. Demerara Style: El Dorado 15
5. Cuban Light: Havana Club Anejo 15 Anos or Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva.
And for fun: Zacapa Centenario 23 (or any of the sweeties). In the interest of tradition, understanding and appreciation I believe they should be approached in exactly that order, although the Dr. Pepper drinkers might attack the list in reverse.
Now. Does this answer the question of expectations, or establish a reliable route of entry? I think it does. For the good of rum, I believe we do need to recognize de facto standards. Quoting Dave Broom "...the sooner universal controls are applied to age statements, permitted levels of caramel and addition of 'other substances', the better for rum." At a recent tasting, Richard Seale said much the same. For the rest of us, it cannot hurt to try to agree and promote such.