The language of rum

23 July, 2020

Language has immense power. It can start wars and broker peace; it can convey truth and espouse lies; it can lead to both understanding and misunderstanding. For rum, semantics is a particularly sore subject.

Whether relating to disingenuous age claims, undisclosed sweetening agents or misrepresented countries of origin, rum has developed an unfortunate reputation as a category that lacks transparency. But as rum edges closer to glory, with analysts tipping it to become the next ‘big thing’, the appetite for change is growing, and conversations around authentic production, classifications and enforced regulation are becoming more commonplace.

An important step towards greater transparency, say critics, is to reshape how consumers understand rum, moving away from reductive colour categorisations – namely, ‘white’, ‘gold’ and ‘dark’. The term ‘dark rum’ is particularly problematic due to certain impressions it gives the consumer, says Dawn Davies MW, head buyer at The Whisky Exchange. “Consumers presume ‘dark rum’ is either sweeter or older. That’s what colour tells us, but that’s a misconception.”

Davies is referring to the fact that many ‘dark rums’ have spent little to no time in casks, instead deriving their colour from additives, while some ‘white rums’ have been aged and then filtered to become clear. “That’s why rum has been such a problem, and it’s an ongoing problem because there are these very nebulous terms that mean F-all,” she says. “They don’t give the consumer any indication of what’s going on in the bottle or what it tastes like.”

While there is a general propensity among people to simplify complex matters and neatly compartmentalise, oversimplification often negates truth and misses out important nuances. As such, colour descriptors not only have the potential to give consumers an incorrect impression of rum, but they also fail to convey the wide stylistic diversity the category has to offer. According to Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender at Plantation Rum: “Anybody who has tried to oversimplify rum is doing a disservice to the very nature of rum because rum, like wine, has many cultures.”

And it seems spirits connoisseurs today are ready for more information about these various cultures. “The perception of industry professionals and consumers about rum is definitely evolving,” says Edouard Beaslay, global marketing director for Venezuelan rum Diplomático. “The category is still in the early stages of premiumisation, but we are witnessing a growing interest in quality, authenticity and new tasting experiences.”


Retailers and bottlers are playing a key role in educating a broader market about the various rum regions and styles by curating laddered ranges of discovery. London-based merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, for one, has developed a three-tiered rum offering. The portfolio starts with the entry-level Classic Range, which consists of accessibly priced bottlings that showcase regional or island styles. Next comes the Single Cask range, which places greater emphasis on provenance by declaring the distillery name and cask number. The final tier is the Exceptional Cask collection, comprising older and rarer rums, sometimes from closed distilleries. “Rum is an expanding and evolving category and our aim as a bottler is to be the bridge between our producers and customers, just as we work with wine,” says Doug McIvor, spirits buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd. “It is an interesting and dynamic area and I foresee it continuing to grow as an important part of our offer.”

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