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A Tale of Two Stills – A Response

Written by Richard Seale on . Posted in Rum Chat

Featured Post By Richard Seale, Foursquare Distillery

I was very disappointed to read the November editorial of ‘Got Rum’ magazine by publisher Luis Ayala. It seems as though Luis is responding to hearsay rather than making a substantive commentary on the Gargano Classification of Rum. It is not about Pot v Column; it is much more nuanced than that. Luca Gargano of Velier, Italy is one of the leading independent bottlers of rum and considered one of the category’s foremost authorities. He is not “lacking in the knowledge to push the concept”. I am confident once Luis has it properly explained, he will support the initiative. 
 
Let's start with Luis’s first claim: 
 
“some people in the industry are proposing differentiating rums based on the type of still used for their distillation, the choices being “Pot Still” or “Column Still.”
 
This is entirely inaccurate! No such choices are proposed!
 
Here are the four categories of the Gargano Classification:
  1. Pure Single Rum – 100% pot (i.e. batch) still
  2. Single Blended Rum – a blend of only pot still and traditional column still
  3. Rum – rum from a traditional column still
  4. Industrial Rum – Modern multi-column still
 
Traditional Artisanal Rum Distillation
Traditional Artisanal Rum Distillation
 
Modern Industrial “Rum” Distillation
Modern Industrial "Rum" Distillation
 
Luis then sets up his first straw man:
 
“to claim that the distillate coming out of a simple pot still (round copper bottom, onion head with swan neck) and an Adams Pot Still with Two Retorts is the same”
 
But no one has made such a claim. 
 
Moreover, the point of the Gargano classification is not to place the “same” rums in the same category (indeed if that was the case we could just simply taste them). The purpose of the classification is to separate rums in an informative manner: traditional v modern, artisanal v industrial, endogenous v exogenous flavour, authentic v ersatz. The order of the categories is an order for authenticity, complexity and real intrinsic value. It is not an order of preference, more on that later.
 
And another straw man:
 
“To further assume that the distillate coming out of a “beer” or “stripping” column is the same as that coming out of a rectifying column is even more ridiculous.”
 
No such assumption is being made.  I reiterate, the classification is about authenticity and value, not whether the rums are the “same”. 
 
It further seems to me that Luis is making a common mistake. The dichotomy is not pot v column; the correct dichotomy is batch v continuous.
 
The “simple pot still” and the “Adams pot still” are both batch stills. And they are both traditional too, retorts and rectifying sections having been found on batch stills for rum since the early 19th century.  As they are both traditional batch stills, they belong in the same category. A batch still with plates is still a batch still. There are no hybrid stills batch v continuous is a dichotomy. Distillers are very much free to make different rums from them. The making of the wine is an important step as distillation and so too is maturation. We expect and hope the rums within a category will not be the same! 
 
What makes the batch v continuous dichotomy so important? Well in a batch still output is a function of time and in continuous distillation system the output is a function of position (in a system which is characterised by a steady state). The latter places an inherent constraint on profile of the spirit.
 
This key difference means several important things for our classification:
 
  1. Only the batch still affords the distiller access to the entire volatile component of the wine from which he can select his single heart or multiple fractions to make up his heart as he desires. 
  2. Time driven output does not lend itself easily to automation because of the lack of a steady state for any meaningful amount of time. Even today with the best of automation the operation is still largely in the hands of the master distiller and thus inherently artisanal. 
  3. The batch still is truly “small batch” and the cost of distillation is orders of magnitude higher than the continuous still (technically this is in part because in a batch still we are distilling a wine of decreasing strength whereas in the continuous still the strength of the wine is constant). 
 
In simple terms the batch still is an indispensable component of premium rum. Or rather put another way, without true small batch distillation what exactly are you paying a premium for? It is unquestionably the most traditional method of distillation. 
 
It will likely be suggested that “heavy” or “full bodied” spirits can be distilled from a column still. Indeed they can but they are inferior to the batch still. That is a subject for an entire article (or two) but a couple of quotes from Distillation scholars (from both rum and whisky) should hopefully convince the reader that it is not a spurious claim. 
 
“Obviously, a carelessly distilled light rum is not a first-class, genuine, heavy rum"……..In preparing heavy rums, distillation of the fermented mash is best conducted in a discontinuous or batch still ” – Rafael Arroyo in Production of Heavy Rums (1945)
 
Arroyo likens making heavy rums from a continuous still as equivalent to carelessly distilling light rum. 
 
 “In order to obtain whisky of high quality, concentration of the spirit must be not less than 94.17 abv  - M Pyke in Journal of Brewing (1965)
 
Pyke’s comment reminds me of another common misconception. Whisky (or rum) distilled at high proof of 94% in a traditional ‘coffey’ still is a galaxy away from the distillate at 96% of industrial multi-column plants with extractive distillation. Flavour is not a simple function of proof and you cannot directly compare the proof from a continuous system with what is the average proof of the output of a batch system. 
 
But I digress unnecessarily. It is enough that the batch still is the only truly artisanal distillation to place it in the highest category. This might be a novel concept in rum but it is orthodoxy in whisky and brandy
 
Luis poses the following as a challenge to the classification:
 
“Those who assume that all pot stills produce heavy, congener-rich distillates, forget (or conveniently ignore) the fact that many small (“craft”) distilleries actually use pot stills to produce vodka and other light/neutral spirits.”
 
This is entirely irrelevant!
 
What idiosyncratic craft distillers do with their pot stills is irrelevant to the classification. The batch still affords the distiller the opportunity to “capture the soul” of his flavourful wine. If he chooses through successive distillations to destroy the flavour that is his prerogative. Stupidity is everyone’s prerogative. 
 
I would caution against the belief that “neutral spirits” do arrive from the pot still. While it is not theoretically impossible to make neutral spirits from batch distillation it is completely impractical. I know of no batch distillation making neutral spirit in practice. To meet the modern specification of neutral spirits a continuous technique known as extractive distillation is necessary. I have visited some of these so called “craft” distillers and observed the purchase of neutral spirits to be distilled again in the pot. Well vodka in, vodka out. Except its now called “craft vodka”. There is a pending court case alleging the same against a certain “craft vodka”.  In other cases the product is simply not neutral spirit. 
 
Distilled from low wines and call “pot stilled”? Perhaps more likely distilled from diluted neutral spirit. To meet the classification of “pure single rum”, the spirit must be distilled from the wine. I reiterate no one has proposed the vapid twin classification of pot and column. This is a serious classification. Silly games do not threaten it. 
 
Luis apparently believes we are interested in the following question:
 
“How then, is one to differentiate the rich, congener-laden distillate from its lighter counterpart?”
 
Again this is irrelevant and not germane to the purpose of the classification. The classification is not about putting the “same” rums in a category and neither is it about separating “light” from “heavy”. 
 
Luis’s answer to his own question is a tautology. Indeed, if we were interested in classifying rums by congener counts, we would, wait for it, count congeners! But congener counts are a banal way to classify rums. It is inane to believe that a spirit containing hundreds of flavour inducing compounds should be classified by a handful of trite readily identifiable congeners. A poorly rectified column spirit even blended with neutral spirit will have ‘impressive’ congener counts. Does that make it artisanal? Can we tell from the lab test if the flavour profile is authentic? Does it capture the soul of the wine? Only an organoleptic test will suffice. These abridged lab results cannot even distinguish rum from whisky. A congener count of a few select congeners is just plain silly. 
 
It is often said that Rum is a “global spirit” but it is far from the truth. Rum distillation as a 19th century distiller would recognise is today sadly uncommon. We have lost so many distilleries in the 20th century. There were 110 distilleries in Jamaica in 1901. Today there are 4. It is important to distinguish between traditional and modern distillation. Much “rum” today is absurdly neutral in character and not even produced by Rum Distilleries but rather by Industrial scale alcohol plants located to take advantage of cheap labour in some parts of the Caribbean. Traditional rum distillation in these territories has long disappeared. So-called “rum” is a tiny part of their output. They are the antithesis of artisanal. Consumers, bloggers, enthusiasts need to know the difference. 
 
Rum is a spirit in the best of traditions but the category is facing two alternate paths. Is premium rum to have real value (as for whisky and cognac) or perceived value (as for vodka)? With rum’s renaissance too many ersatz products are arriving on the market to take advantage of consumers. Industrial scale production (from distilleries unknown or unseen), murky (or downright false) age statements, wine or other flavourings, sweetened by sugar and coloured like coca cola with caramel.  At the same time, we have truly artisanal pure batch still rums with transparent age statements, from a named distillery, free of added colour, flavourings and sugar. Pure rum as it should be. We need a framework that allows enthusiasts (and ultimately consumers) to distinguish between the two. Some will argue that typical consumers will care little about distillation and they would be right. But those same consumers know they must pay more for Cognac over Brandy and for Single Malt over Blended. These premium spirit buyers also know an age statement means, wait for it, its actual age! Not some ‘solera’ nonsense that is nothing less than a shameless attempt to obfuscate. When a brand asks for premium pricing, they must tick the boxes: artisanal production and transparent age statements. The new framework will help guide enthusiasts to understand if the rum meets the demanded value.   
 
It is little wonder then that Rum does so poorly at the highest level. According to the IWSR only 16% of rum sales are at the premium/super premium level in contrast to 66% for Whisky (it is even 48% for Tequila). Our most expensive actively available rums can only barely make the top 50 list of the most expensive actively available whiskies. Why? We have to get our communication right and white/gold/dark for categories is pathetic. 
 
Enthusiasts need to ask themselves what do they want from the category? Real value and authenticity or seduction with sugar and nice packaging for Industrial scale products. If the latter is sufficient to attract premium pricing, then traditional rum production may go extinct. It is already an endangered species. The large corporate brands will fight this classification. They prefer to sell perceived value, as it is far more profitable. We need opinion leaders like Luis on our side. Don’t dismiss a much-needed classification as merely pot v column or light v heavy. The new classification is also not intended to create an order of preference. Just the same way you are entitled to prefer a blended whisky over a single malt, you are still free to love your Bacardi mojito or Captain and Coke (if you really insist!).  
 
The new framework does not tell you what to enjoy but rather how to value what you enjoy. 

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