What Makes a Rum Premium?
I recently had the good fortune of visiting Barbados to see how Tommy Bahama Rum is made. I found myself immersed in a sugar-fueled economy. Sugar cane cultivation began on the limestone-coral island around 1640 after the arrival of the British, and as the making of rum has been going on for millennia, it's safe to guess that the Barbados rum industry is over 350 years old. There are a number of Barbados rums available, and countless more are created on neighboring islands and throughout the Caribbean. Yet strangely, there is little-to-no quantifiable information about what makes one rum better than another. Anyone can make a list of tasting notes, but there are no international appellations for type and quality.
The region in which the cane is grown and the island on which the rum is made don't seem to affect taste -- just the age, what it's aged in, whether it's made from molasses or directly from the cane, and whether anything has been added to it. Rum has long been the common drink of the common people in the Caribbean, and so the concept of a "premium" rum has been somewhat slow to form. So, what exactly makes a rum premium?
I visited the famous Foursquare Distillery where Tommy Bahama and a number of other premium rums are made and had a tour, a tasting and a long chat with Richard Lawrence Seale, a fourth generation distiller whose great-grandfather, Reginald Leon, is the man for which R.L. Seale's rum is named. Foursquare has been in the Seale family since 1995; prior to that, it was a sugar factory. Parts of Foursquare date back as far as the mid 18th century. Needless to say, a tour is good fun -- and it's one of the only places in the world where you can see the process of making rum from molasses to bottle. The tour is free and open to tourists.
As I mentioned, the source of the molasses doesn't really have an effect on the taste. Foursquare gets theirs partly from Guyana, as there isn't enough sugar on Barbados to support the rum industry. The first step of making a premium rum comes from monitoring the fermentation.
Foursquare uses traditional pot stills (below, with Seale) to distill their rum. While many spirits companies think their process is perfect and take pride in the fact that they never change, "Our approach here is to try and marry the best of what we do with constantly trying to innovate," Seale said. Still, no pun intended, he doesn't want a process like on, say, Puerto Rico (home to Bacardi and Don Q, among others), where he claims they've eliminated the traditional pot still. "They've created a very light, specific spirit. This is practically a different spirit."
So, already, there are two things you won't see designated on rum bottles: the care of the fermentation and the use of a pot still. The unspecified variances go even further. Foursquare makes three distillates from the molasses wine, which they blend before and after distillation, then they age it in seven different types of barrels (old and new American oak, sherry, port, madeira, bourbon and cognac). The temperature is important; Tommy Bahama Rum is distilled at 178 degrees, lower than most, to create its particular flavor.
Sixty to seventy percent of a rum's flavor comes from the maturation process (if it's aged at least two years), as the charcoal absorbs the unwanted flavors, the wood adds flavor and character and air oxidizes. Additionally, aging for two years in the Caribbean is akin to four years in Europe, because it's so much hotter. Still, older isn't necessarily better, and it's hard to say what makes a rum "best." Seale attributes the lack of a standard international appellation system to the fact that the raw material, sugar, is already so good. You can make a white spirit from sugar without aging it at all, and while it might not be the best, it's drinkable, and it's rum.
At this point, it's interesting to note that Tommy Bahama White Sand, while clear and light-bodied, is actually an aged rum stripped of its color. "You can't put fresh white rum in a bottle and claim it's premium. That's just not right," said Seale. "I'd been working on an aged white for awhile." Tommy Bahama White Sand is one of Seale's favorite rums to make, as it's a challenge. He ages it two years in bourbon oak barrels, each of which are a minimum of six years old, then removes the color with a three-step charcoal filtration process. "It's still light," said Seale. "We know people want to make a mojito with it."
Tommy Bahama Golden Sun is three to ten years old, older than the brand itself. "I do a lot [of experimenting with aging] where I have absolutely no idea where it's going to go." Apparently, the access to aged product and Foursquare's attention to detail was exactly what Sidney Frank wanted when they were looking for the right distillery for Tommy Bahama Rum.
Foursquare also happens to be a green facility, "and proud of it!" says the sign on one of their buildings. They collect the CO2 from their fermentation process and sell it to companies like Coca-Cola, they make their molasses waste into animal feed, and they use their molasses water to irrigate their fields.
So, to answer the question "what makes a rum premium," one has to consider a number of factors. Firstly, it can't be just the fresh white rum, even if the fermentation is well-monitored, as that flavor is just molasses or cane, and the flavor may well be luck-of-the-draw. Secondly, there's age -- but older isn't necessarily better. Up to 2.5 percent of a bottle of rum can be additives like sugar or caramel color or other heinous ingredients, so any rum calling itself "premium" had better be 100 percent molasses or sugar cane. Most important is the type of aging, and the care taken.
"Rum is the drink of the masses, so there's a lack of self-belief," said Seale. "You'll hear rum makers say things like 'this rum is almost as good as a scotch.'"
Rum is not scotch. Rum is its own spirit, and spirits like those made at Foursquare deserve proper respect.
My trip to Barbados was sponsored by Tommy Bahama Rum, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.