Is identity important for cane based spirits?

While Rum may be the result of a blend of spirit from different islands or even countries (see for example 5 Island Rum by Banks Rum originates in Trinidad Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Indonesia), there are trends in style and customs in production underlining that geographical origin plays a role in the making of this distillate.


Different styles in different places

In the case of Martinique the law itself sanctions geographical origin: AOC Rhum Martinique has a strict set of rules stating in what delimited areas of the island the sugarcane must be grown, how cultivation must be made (yields and irrigation limits, harvest time definition, forbidding of fertilizers) and how the spirit itself must be produced. The juice (no molasses allowed) used for fermentation needs to have adequate levels of sugar content (minimum 14° brix) and PH (minimum 4.7); the rhum is made in a continuous column still and the spirit can be distilled only once.
According to the ageing the result will be labelled differently: “blanc” if only rested three months, “elevé sous bois” if aged in oak for 12 months inside the production area, “vieux” if aged at least three years in 650L oak casks or smaller inside the production area. The alcoholic strength must be over 40%.
This is the most evident case of the link between rum and region of origin.

All these rules have an impact on style: rhum agricole, being made from the juice of the plant and not the processed molasses, has a grassy, earthy profile, it is pungent and reminds of cane, green leaf, grass, unripe banana, anise, violet with dry fruits and vanilla coming from the ageing process.
Every year’s crop will have a slightly different flavour character.

Generalizations may also be made on the rum style of different countries.
Jamaican rums are very aromatic and their classification sanctions this character by grouping them in four different categories according to the ester content of pot still rums: “Common cleans”, delicate and the least aromatics (between 80 and 150 esters), “Plummers”, with a light tropical character (150-200 esters), “Wedderburn”, fuller and more pungent (over 200 esters) and “Continental flavoured” also known as “high esters”, showing when diluted pineapple and banana character (500-1700 esters).

Guyana is associated with Demerara rum, produced from sugar canes grown along the bank of the omonimous river by the last rum producing company, Demerara Distillers Ltd.
Demerara rums are complex and vary according to the type of still used during production and the selected marks, but they tend to be rich and have a smoky, earthy, savoury character.
The flavour is influenced by the greenheart wooden stills where part of the material is distilled: the wooden staves are gradually changed over the course of 20 years and they will absorb some of the distillate and giving back some character to the next batch.

On the contrary Puerto Rico, Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago rums are commonly made in column stills, highly rectified and tend to have a light, clean flavour, with flavours complexity reached through ageing and blending.

Disputes over rum identity

No other country regulate the production of rum as France in Martinique, however there have been in the past disputes over the use of geographical terms on labels, stressing the importance of origin at least in the marketing of the product.

One of these took place in Italy, where the Milan court judged the use of “Spirit of Cuba” by Dominican rum producer Mathusalem as false advertising: the defendants would have illegitimately exploited the mental associations made by the public with the rum of Cuba to sell their product.
An even fiercer battle is being fought between Bacardi and Pernod Ricard over the use of “Havana Club” brand for their rum, though here the importance lies maybe more on the use of a well known trademark than on the reference to a geographical indication.

Another example of geographical based marketing is Pampero rum.
Years ago there was a very successful series of commercials in Italy that advertised it as “The most drunk rum in the worst bars of Caracas” where the term “worst” indicating not the quality of the service or the food, but the spirit genuinity: Pampero thus becomes the true rum consumed by the true people of Venezuela and who better then them can know what a good rum is?
Clearly the association between the rum and its origin was considered important enough to become the center of an advertising campaign.

Finally there is Cachaca: here the Country of origin is, at least for the Brazilians, so important that the government is fighting to make it recognized as a different spirit category than rum.
The move is guided by marketing reasons to differentiate the product from other countries rums, but Cachaca has some peculiarities: first it is made from sugar cane, not molasses, and it is bottled between 38% and 48% abv. It is generally unaged, but some will partly (50% of the blend minimum) spend at least one year in 700L barrels or smaller and gain to right to be labelled “aged”. Wood is both local or American/European oak and it is used to give a smoother profile. Another mean of doing this is by adding sugar (up to 6 g/L is legally permitted, while between 6 and 30g/L we have “sweetened cachaca”).
Given the huge volumes involved (output is higher than the total world production of vodka), cachaca is much varied in terms of used stills, type of fermenters, final strength, yeast strains, but the Brazilians are very careful in stressing the difference between their cachaca and foreign rum (sugar cane origin, as opposed to molasses, is one of the most highlighted aspects): a decree from 2001 define cachaca as the only possible name for Brazil made cane alcohol and negotiations are still open with the EU to make the name a geographical indication of origin. At present however only the US have recognized cachaca has a Brazilian drink and defined it as Brazilian rum, in exchange of the recognition and legal protection of “Tennessee Whisky” and “Bourbon Whisky”.

Ad maiora

And thus it ends. I finally am a proud holder of the WSET Diploma, after two long years of studying (since January 2015). It has been a hell of a ride, even life changing. At least it made me understand the value of time.

Would I recommend it to someone interested in learning wine? Of course, but only if very motivated. At first (the first two or three exams) you have enthusiasm, you have energy, but as you proceed patience, perseverance and pacing become crucial. Someone with a day job and a family (like me) really needs to believe there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to keep fighting.

I took my lessons at the online classroom, while sitting the exams in Tokyo. I learned a lot, but inevitably I missed the warmth of a true class and the interaction with other people, especially during tastings. On the other hand I was there every day, motivated to keep the pace of the lessons. The teachers were good, but some were better, and followed the students more closely.

What I would really love from the WSET would be a proper textbook for each Diploma Unit. I know, the extent of the topics covered makes it quite difficult, but for example instead of guessing the major spirit or sparkling wine producers that could come up at the exam I would have really liked to have a list for reference. I mean they can’t be changing so fast.

My strongest memory of an exam is the question about Smirnoff for Unit 4. Well more than a question it was just a word: “Smirnoff”. And know write about it for ten minutes like there is no tomorrow!
When I saw it my first reaction was probably the same of many other: “Oh shit!”
But then I remembered that I had read a book about the story of this company. It was for personal pleasure (the book is really entertaining), but it also served me well.


Fantastic book, much recommended.

So did I receive some superpower after passing the last exam? Do I know everything about wine, its production, its regions, its business? Sadly no. However something remains, a base on which starting to build again, to deepen my knowledge of the topic. Better things wait for me, I hope.

Rome was not built in a day.