The language of rum

23 July, 2020

Some super-premium players have also turned to the concept of terroir to emphasise their stylistic differences. For Plantation’s Gabriel, terroir can be “imprinted at different levels”, from the substrate through to fermentation, distillation and maturation. In particular, he says, the use of local yeast and water in fermentation can imbue the final spirit with a unique local character. Gabriel adds that for the past four years, Plantation’s Barbadian rums have been distilled from local molasses. His team in Jamaica has also started to experiment with blending local sugarcane juice with molasses before distillation.

Agricole rhum producers (who distill juice from pressed sugarcane, as opposed to molasses, a byproduct of sugar production) have long touted the message of sugarcane terroir, but molasses-based rum brands are increasingly doing so too.


Venezuela’s Santa Teresa, for instance, distills molasses derived from single estate cane. Based in the valleys of Aragua, the distillery claims that the local climate and rich soil allow it to produce quality cane with high sugar content. “The techniques we use to age and mix these rums are also an expression of the terroir – of the people who for more than two centuries have made possible the production of rum at the Hacienda Santa Teresa,” says Humberto Sanchez, director of Santa Teresa’s international unit.

However, there are some who claim that most molasses-based rums cannot truly express terroir due to the level of processing of the raw material. “Once you centrifuge the shit out of something, you’re removing any original flavour and creating something with a mass flavour,” says Davies. “Unless you’re taking the top level molasses that’s barely been touched, I just can’t see how you could blind taste-test where that product is from. Cane juice, on the other hand, I very much feel has more of an opportunity to express terroir… you’re enhancing the original flavour.”

This is precisely what Mark Reynier, former chief executive of Bruichladdich, is endeavouring to achieve at his Renegade Rum Distillery in Grenada (see box). For Reynier, it’s important to interpret terroir in a more literal way. “The clue is in the name – terre. It’s as simple as that,” he says. As such he believes terroir is only evident as an expression of raw material – how the impact of soil, microclimate and place on the sugarcane itself comes through in the final spirit – and not in distillation or maturation techniques. “What it shows is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of terroir on the one hand, and on the other a hijacking of a term by people who don’t really understand.”

The debate around terroir, like other topics in rum, seems to be one of semantics. While some, like Reynier, have a purist view, others have a broader understanding of terroir, and take it to mean the materials, techniques and cultures that together offer an expression of rum unique to a particular distillery or region.

Reynier, however, believes there could be a more sinister motive for big brands looking to mislead consumers, circling back to the issue of transparency. “I think ‘terroir’ is going to be terribly corrupted,” he says. “It’s open to abuse, it’s open to misinterpretation, it’s open to deliberate disingenuousness. It’s uncontrollable.”

As with any spirit category, there’s little to stop arguably woolly terms from being used as marketing fodder, but there is a broad movement to establish more regulation in the industry. Official classifications such as geographical indications (GI), appellation of origins (AOC) or denomination of origins (DOC) enforce criteria that hold brands to account and create a level of transparency. Jamaica recently approved a GI for its rum, while distillers in Barbados are working towards one of their own, but are at loggerheads over the specific terms.

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