Defining what it means to be an ‘authentic’ Caribbean rum

So many rums - but so few, such as Rhum Barbancourt, will show off the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.

So many rums – but so few, such as Rhum Barbancourt, will show off the Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.

When countries have a food product that they feel is particularly special, they will often implement an appellation system to define and protect this product from others who may try to copy it. This system ensures that when you buy Modena Balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or even a Melton Mowbray pork pie, you know you are getting the real thing. Wine and distilled spirits are also protected with these regulations. Champagne, Scotch whisky, Kentucky bourbon and tequila are some of the more well known examples.

Rum, especially Caribbean rum, is one glaring omission from this list. Although rum is made throughout the world, most people think of the Caribbean when they think of rum. Even rums produced outside of the Caribbean use Caribbean-themed imagery on their products. But there are no standards applied to Caribbean rum. So a product labeled as Caribbean rum could actually be made outside the Caribbean. It could also be made out of something other than sugar cane and still call itself rum.

The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association (WIRSPA) is trying to do something about this issue. The 16 ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States; all but Cuba have signed the Cotonou Agreement with the European Union) countries that belong to the WIRSPA are working to develop a Caribbean Rum category brand of spirits. They are doing this through the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) Marque program. This marque on a label will let the consumer know that the product is authentic Caribbean rum and the distiller has followed industry standards while making this rum.

It's official: We're certified at spotting Authentic Caribbean Rum.

It’s official: We’re certified at spotting Authentic Caribbean Rum.

Brian Minkel and the folks at The Woods in downtown Orlando recently hosted representatives from WISPRA and bartenders from the Orlando area and as far away as New Smyrna Beach for a bartender certification program. Attendees were put through a grueling four-hour program tasting rum from all 14 of the ACR participating brands with a short break for food catered by the folks at Cask and Larder in Winter Park. After completing the course, attendees are also eligible to be selected for the full Certification Programme, which involves a week of training at selected distilleries in the Caribbean.

The main presenter, noted Miami-based spirits expert John Lermayer, started the program by giving a quick history of rum in the Caribbean and the techniques used to make rum. He then proceeded to guide everyone through the tasting of the rums from the various distillers.
Besides the obvious pleasure of tasting rums that you can’t usually get in Florida, John brought up an interesting philosophical question. He put forth the opinion that rather than categorizing rums in the usual way – white, gold, dark – we should really be categorizing rums by style: English, Spanish/Latin, and French. He also opined that we should also include the process used to make the rum – pot or column stilled – when categorizing a rum.

So what differentiates the three styles of rum? English style is the oldest style of rum and is characterized by a rich, dark taste and aroma. Most English-style rums are pot still rums and are aged in wood. Pot stills are large round containers that capture the evaporated alcohol as it rises through the top. The stereotypical moonshine rig is a pot still. Spanish/Latin style rums are lighter and smoother than English style rums and are usually column still rums. Column stills, as their name implies, are large columns that have plates inside that capture the alcohol as it rises through the column. The same process is used to refine crude oil into its various components. French-style rums, also called rhum agricoles, are made from cane juice rather than molasses and are drier and have a stronger taste of fruit than English- and Spanish-style rums. They are usually made in column stills.

Will this categorization catch on with the general public? Probably not. Most people still look no further than the bat (Bacardi) or pirate (Captain Morgan) when buying rum. But learning the various styles of rum can improve your ability to select and enjoy the many rums available today.

And speaking of the Captain, where does spiced rum fit into this equation? One of the regulations of the ACR marque is that distillers are not allowed to add any external flavorings to their rum. So where does this leave the producer of a quality spiced rum, like The Lash from Trinidad or Bayou from Louisiana? The ACR folks admit that there is work to be done defining what can be added to a rum after distilling and still maintain their high standards.

So the next time you are lost in the rum aisle of your local liquor store, be sure to look for the ACR marque if you wish to be certain you are buying a quality Caribbean rum.

– George Jenkins

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