This is an English translation of my original article. Please forgive the clumsy, stilted style – I just corrected the most glaring flaws of an automated Google translation.
In one of my early rum reviews I wrote that good quality rum could well be one of the tastiest spirits there is. In fact, it’s probably not just me: Sweet rums, like El Dorado, Zacapa, Botucal or Plantation, receive consistently positive reviews, especially from people who otherwise don’t really like spirits – and also from me. A small dram of El Dorado 12 after dinner is so fine, and can replace a dessert.
Hardly anyone thinks about where this sweetness in rums comes from. Basically, this should work similar as in other spirits: The aging in wood produces the sweetness and gentleness, at least in whiskey, tequila – and rum as well?
The fact that rum is made from sugar cane, either molasses or fresh juice, is no advantage regarding the sweetness: The sugar in the raw source is converted by yeast into alcohol and later on, during the distillation, the sugar doesn’t transport to the final product. Freshly distilled rum is probably not sweeter than freshly distilled whiskey, although the one is made of sugar cane and the other is produced from grain.
So let’s imagine this rum that has been stored for 4 years in a cask. It is aromatic, tastes good, but something is missing. It’s still a bit too rough, somewhat scratchy, has only little body, and is not sweet enough for today’s requirements of fans of sweet rums. What do you do as a producer? A Straight Bourbon producer in this situation would have to sell off his Bourbon either as a blend of Bourbon, or of necessity leave it a few more years in the barrel, as flavor enhancers are prohibited by US law in Straight Bourbon. The situation is similar for Scotch whisky. Not so with rum. For rum, there is a simple way out of your misery: Drop a bit sugar in the rum, and the world already looks a bit nicer.
In fact, a producer of rum is free in what he is doing with his product; as long as it is made from sugar cane or sugar cane products, and adheres more or less to the very often very lax legal requirements of the country of production (and every country has its own regulations, there are no standards – except for French AOC rhums which are controlled), the word „rum“ may be written on the label – and no additives have to be declared. The usage of caramel for coloring is probably the least of the evils arising therefrom.
For several years now Scandinavian authorities, in Sweden and Finland mainly, measure the proportion of sugar added after distillation for spirits, and state this share for all products available on official websites. This has led to some confusion among rum pros who, like me, always thought that high-quality rums are just naturally aged, ripened and sweetened. A natural product, so to speak. The truth is unfortunately somewhat different.
Many manufacturers, including almost all of the „big names“ of the rum business, add sugar in order to tune the taste, and don’t declare the sugar, as one would expect for a flavor enhancer. The amount varies by product; in some rum nothing or only natural quantities, which may also result from barrel aging, showed up; in others up to 60g of sugar per liter. Especially popular brands, which are often praised for their „softness“ and „sweetness“ and their „mildness“, were shown to have between 20 and 40 grams of sugar per bottle. 20g sugar is about 4 lumps of sugar. Some people think that this is not much – personally I feel it’s a stupendous amount, mainly because it is hidden from me.
Adding sugar not only creates the superficial sweetness of rum. In fact, even small sugar additions result in a different taste experience with regard to the perceived quality of the spirit. Some sugar in the rum tank, and even to professional rum tasters the adultered rum seems significantly more mature, older, nobler, with a fuller body. A large part of what the natural barrel aging should do over the years is usually achieved by prosaic sugar addition in minutes; some inferior rum can be changed easily into a superior product which can comply with highest taste criteria. An experiment has shown that already 5g sugar lead to an extremely improved taste experience and turn a simple standard rum such as Havana Club Añejo Blanco into one which you think had been stored 5 years in a cask.
Capn Jimbo’s Rum Project has compiled a list of more than 550 types of rum with their respective sugar content, where you can look up your favorite rum. An interesting trend is observable: Jamaica appears to be a laudable exception when it comes to this practice; a majority of Jamaican rum contains only sugar in the natural range of fluctuations. Others, however, such as El Dorado, Botucal or Plantation, put sugar into virtually all of their products, and that to a considerable extent.
Most manufacturers keep silent regarding this issue. Plantation is relatively proactive now and offers a thesis that can at least serve as a basis for discussion. They describe the sugar addition as dosage, comparing it to the traditional approach of Champagne. The added sugar is therefore declared as technically correct gimmick, that has been used for centuries, and which should be acceptable to friends of artisanal products. Sugar in rum is like salt in a dish – you can leave it out, but it just tastes better with it.
That it improves taste is unquestionable. The main problem I have with this argument is that in Champagne, dosage is applied without secrecy (except in terms of the quantity and composition of the dosage). Anyone with only passing knowledge about Champagne knows that in Champagne sugar is added to achieve the well-known taste. With rum, this is completely different – no one would dream of asking about dosage in rum; and the producers have, for decades, done their best to hide this seemingly self-evident dosage in rum. That customers feel cheated now should not surprise the manufacturers.
What does all this mean for us as consumers, and especially for us as friends of high-quality spirits? We spend quite large sums of money for top-quality products, and now we can’t feel comfortable with rum anymore: is that what you get in the bottle actually worth the price, or did you get some really mediocre rum which is just pimped with flavor enhancers? Ultimately, I might as well do the dosage myself, and just drop a teaspoon of sugar in cheap rum – this way I have the flavor of an aged rum for the fraction of the price. A horrible thought – and I hope that this is not what is happening behind the scenes of the major manufacturers, but that they’re actually interested just to add the finishing touches with sugar. Doubts about their motives are quite reasonable when considering the amount of sugar they’re adding: polishing taste with spoonfuls of sugar per bottle? Come on.
Personally, I’ll floor my bottles of rum of the manufacturers that add sugar, but won’t buy new ones. A lot of products of Plantation and El Dorado are affected by this new policy in my home bar. Instead, I’m going to try the rums of producers that don’t use a sugar as flavor enhancer, according to the rum list mentioned above.
My personal love for rum has been taken down a peg or two, and therefore I focus again on other spirits that work more honestly regarding ingredients and manufacturing processes. It would be desirable that the rum producers get a grip on themselves and realize that they’re destroying the reputation and credibility of their product, especially in our times where food transparency has become so important. I hope many consumers don’t let themselves be bluffed by opulent packaging and advertisements, despite the knowledge on sugar additions – at least until the sugar is declared on the label, or some legal regulation is in place.
Maybe, if you are a real friend of rum, you might even participate in the EU petition that demands the mandatory declaration of sugar in rum.
…and, if you own a bottle of rare rum, and want to measure its sugar contents: I put together, from different sources, a introduction to easy sugar testing, that enables you to check your rum for yourself – is it sugar soup or pure rum?