Not So Sweet Talk…
Following along from the recent article featuring Alexandre Gabriel’s viewpoint, I’m pleased to share with you the thoughts of Richard Seale on the subject. Be under no illusion that I flinched a little when I read this the first time. If there is chastisement to be taken, I’ll take it. My viewpoint hasn’t changed from the previous article on the matter although I might take a moment to point out how I see the world of rum – a view borne from the perspective of someone who doesn’t actually produce rum.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome Richard Seale to the mic:
RS: Last December I rather stirred a hornet’s nest revealing (via Facebook) the extent to which many rum brands have added sugar. I make no apologies for this; it is a subject that needed to be raised. The bitter truth (pun intended) is that many rum bloggers, journalists and other rum opinion leaders were oblivious to this fact. Some feign now they “always knew” but they are only fooling themselves. The reactions were interesting and generally fit two camps; horror or denial. Of greater concern to me is how the debate has been “spun” the wrong way (that is actually part of the denial mechanism) and I thank Peter for an opportunity to get this necessary debate back on track.
Let’s start the discussion where we should have some common ground. The status quo is unacceptable. By that I mean both the obliviousness of the “experts” and the generally ‘free for all’ that exists in the market. So if the producers will not provide the necessary transparency (if its “all good” what are they hiding?) then we must look to the testing of Systembolget and Alko Finland for our information as well as the excellent work of Johnny Drejer who has published his own test results on the web. The days where the rum community are uninformed and accept the denials of the producers at face value are hopefully over.
“Denialists” have struggled with the revelations. They have tried to discredit the results (of the Swedes and the Finns? good luck!) or run to their favourite brand spokesman for an explanation (him or her having hitherto denied sugar). I have heard some spectacular claims; “many things affect density” and “the sugar comes from the barrel”. For the former, only dissolved solids affect density in a distilled spirit and if not sugar, do enlighten us please. For the latter, a curious phenomenon not seen say in Whisky or Jamaican Rum (or any other spirit) apparently, do explain why. I have heard the moronic refrain; “I like sweet rums”. No, actually, you like sweetened rum. Big difference. The nuanced world of sweet and dry rum is sadly lost to you. Another asinine comment; “do not tell me how to drink my rum”. Actually it is the producer who is premixing the rum that is denying you that privilege (you do understand once you buy it, it's yours to do as you please, right?). It is disappointing that some opinion leaders have tried to trivialise a serious issue. I will elaborate later on why it is so important.
Transparency while important at this stage is not enough. We need resolve on this issue. Some have suggested having producers declare sugar on the label (I am amused some are brave enough to continue to trust producers, there is an old saying; “fool me once…”) I do not consider this acceptable for two reasons. Firstly, we are making a distilled spirit. It does not and should not contain an ingredient list [Note: not even caramel? – Pete]. I do not see an ingredient list on Whisky, on Cognac or even fermented products like beer and wine. This cannot be a serious option and will make a mockery of the rum category. Secondly, a declaration is only meaningful to an informed consumer. Most consumers frankly will not know what to make of it.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The correct solution in my view, where sugar might be allowed, is a limit or cap as is practiced for Cognac. If the category has a cap, there is no need to have a declaration. We are effectively saying we have restricted adulteration in such a way that the product remains essentially as it is declared; rum. A cap should be moderate enough that the potential difference between brands is so minor that the consumer cannot be mislead by the absence of a declaration on the label. Many sugar apologists are quick to point out that sweetening of spirits is legal in the EU, they usually omit to mention that the EU standard requires a “maximum level” set by the “member states”.
Proponents of using sugar in Rum, those at least who have the decency to admit to the practice, argue a “small touch of quality sugar acts as natural flavour enhancer”. Therefore, this practice should not conflict with a cap. When I look at the Alko Finland test results on Cognac nearly every brand has less than 10g/l (the very best have none) and a cap at no higher than this level (just a “touch” after all) should be quite acceptable to any legitimate practitioner of sweetening.
The sugar issue has been regrettably spun as a “partisan issue” but this is neither accurate nor fair. For many producers e.g. Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique sugar is an illegal adulterant. This is not molasses v juice or column v pot or tropical v temperate, this is legal v illegal. Sugar proponents and I do not have opposing views on sugar; we all agree it is a flavour enhancer. It is how we respond to that fact that differs. For proponents, because it is an enhancer it is ok (even positive) to add but for us because it is an enhancer it is not ok. It is an illegal adulterant for Barbados (or Jamaica) because the authorities view a flavour enhancer as an affront to the integrity of the spirit. We agree with them. Barbados and Jamaica have very special places in the history of rum and it should be obvious the need to protect this integrity.
However if we are to believe the very seductive story of using “ancient techniques” and “a small touch” or “dosage” of sugar then we must check if this currently accords with reality. Johnny Drejer tested some 73 ultra premium rums and only found 12 without sugar (no surprise they mostly came from Barbados, Jamaica and Martinique). More disturbingly 53 (87%) of the 61 rums with sugar had more than 10g/l a limit rarely exceeded in Cognac. 48 (79%) of the 61 were at or higher than the legal limit for Cognac. Most of these rums carried ‘double digit’ age claims and several claimed over 20 years of aging. In direct contrast to Cognac, the more premium, the more sugar seems to be the trend. Bacardi Superior – zero grams (source: Alko Finland) but Zacapa Gran Reserva – 41 g/l (source: Systembologet). Hennessy VS has 9g/l (source: Alko Finland) while in contrast Hennessy Paradis has none. Remy’s Louis XIII of course has none (source: Alko Finland) likewise Courvoisier L’essence (price £1,685) also has none (source: Alko Finland).
Rum has borrowed a convenient story from Cognac but the reality is very different. The “dosage” story is simply not a credible one with Rum producers. It is nothing more than marketing spin. Rum producers are typically using between three and five times more sugar than found in Cognac (and whisky is doing just fine without any!). Legitimate sugar proponents have likened sugar to “salt in a great dish” and if I borrow this analogy then compared to Cognac, rum apparently is like bland soup, needs a lot more ‘salt’!
So what is going on here?
Whenever anything of great value is created there exists an opportunity for ‘counterfeiting’. By ‘counterfeit’ I mean ersatz or spurious. Not a ‘knock off’ but something pretending to be what it is not. The problem in rum is that counterfeiting is legal and worse largely enthusiastically welcomed by the rum community (the bloggers, the journalists, the enthusiasts etc). They are like Justin Bieber fans, they are believers. Overnight brand with incredible double-digit age claims? No problem, apparently they were waiting for the “right time”. Colour like coca cola? Apparently from those same years in the barrel, duh ! Smells like sherry? Must therefore be good rum! Industrial production? Lots of shiny stainless steel equipment must mean high “quality”.
It looks good (package included) and it tastes good, ergo it’s the good stuff. It is not difficult to look at the rum reviewers and find the correlation between sugar and high approval and vapid criteria like “smoothness” and “afterburn”. The seductive sweet taste is enough to be convincing of quality (and premium value). It makes the outrageous age claims believable and is the indispensable tool of the counterfeiter. So oblivious to sugar are rum “experts” that they think nothing amiss in a competition where an agricole and a Jamaican might fall either side of a South American ‘sugar festival’ as they hold dearly to the banal categories of white, gold, aged etc. Little wonder the counterfeit fits in like a sublime party crasher. When these “beliebers” are grown up, they might figure out to compare rums by style and set aside trite sugar bombs as not worthy of evaluation at all (and hopefully listen to Pink Floyd).
That many great producers also use sugar unfortunately only conflates the issue. It also makes my wading in on the issue fraught with danger of misinterpretation (and worse). There is little doubt in my mind that the existence of the ‘counterfeits’ forces many of these producers to use more sugar than otherwise. If sugar were in fact simply a “partisan” issue of “dosage” I doubt it would be in anything more than the most esoteric of discussions. Legitimate practitioners of “dosage” or even idiosyncratic rum producers and I are really on the same side.
Now here is a bit of irony. I will likely be condemned for daring to call out ‘counterfeits’ but the rum community is happy to throw around the inane moniker “sipping rum”. Apparently, according to the experts, much rum, if not most, is in fact undrinkable! A rum merely reaching palatability is worthy of elevated status. Other rums must be appropriately drowned in “mixers” so we can bear consumption. There are few terms that encapsulate rum’s colonial inspired inferiority complex and the community’s own immaturity than this vacuous descriptor. There is just rum, some good and some less than good.
Last year at Tales of the Cocktail during a seminar I presented two rums, one was an industrial produced purported “super premium” brand with a double-digit age claim and great reverence in the rum community. The other was an un-aged rum suitably coloured, doctored and sweetened. The knowledgeable rum audience was unable to distinguish between the two and over half of the audience present preferred my ‘counterfeit’ (Note, I agree with their choice). Without sugar, this feat could not be done. More importantly with sugar, it was easy. We need to be careful that the difference between rum and “sipping rum” is not a “dosage” of sugar.
This result occurs because rum has an identity crisis. In Cognac production, we have the alembic; in whisky we have the blend of pot and coffey still, in Armagnac (or American whisky) the single column. These ‘beverage stills’ are essential to retaining the authentic character of the spirit. In Vodka, we have industrial production via multi column ethanol plants. In Rum we have them all and the problem is we do not understand the proper hierarchy. Nor is authentic rum character well defined. The raison d’être of the great spirits is the raw material (producing the wine) and production without a ‘beverage still’ (pot, single column, coffey still) is the antithesis of intrinsic value or authenticity. To facilitate the rum story without a beverage still, distillation has been conveniently spun as a function of abv as if spirit and ethanol are easily interchangeable. I will save the details of the necessary correction of this terrible falsehood for another article. Industrial production, contrived flavour, surfeit colour and overwhelming sweetness are the signatures of the ‘counterfeit’. The famous rum brand I discreetly mocked at Tales was chosen carefully. It was not an excellent but idiosyncratic rum producer who used sugar. It had all the ‘qualities’ of the ‘counterfeit’. Demonstrably so!
Vested interests in the status quo have argued that better rules will stifle diversity. This is patently false. We have the greatest diversity in rum from the territories with the best and most effective existing regulation for example contrast rum from Barbados with Jamaica and Martinique. Elementary rules on distillation, age, colour and adulterants are the basics of maintaining the integrity and identity of the category. Does anyone really believe that the stringent rules of Bourbon and Scotch whisky hamper their success? Whisky has both global diversity and strong regulation. Regulation does not stifle diversity it protects it.
Opinion leaders in rum need to make a decision. Will they demand rum to be a great spirit of real intrinsic value and authentic character or will it be a product of “smoke and mirrors” like vodka where value is perceived rather than real. They need to do more than tell us “it tastes good”. After all, do we really need expert advice to decide that? Surely buying what we enjoy drinking is a given. They need to tell us if it worth paying for. Dealing properly with the sugar issue and understanding the proper hierarchy of spirit making is a critical juncture in this question. Rum will continue to fare poorly against whisky and cognac if it does not match their clarity of communication and delivery of real value to the consumer. To reduce the sugar issue to one of “partisan views” and leaving it “for our palette to decide” is to misunderstand the issue.
I hope to have contributed to a better understanding.
As a final word: I would genuinely welcome any further viewpoints on the subject. Pete