For Rum’s Sake, An Open Letter to Bourbon Drinkers

Dear Bourbon Drinker:

Lend me your angst, palate and general disgust toward brand marketing. Take this age statement-dropping hate boiling deep within and apply it to rum. Yes, rum. It needs you.

For the past decade, I’ve watched you, the bourbon geek, complain about sourced whiskey, phony back stories, weak transparency, master distiller titles, craft whiskey, flavoring added to non-straight rye (What?!!!), barrel finishes (how can you call it bourbon?!), flavored whiskey, and allocations. I’ve witnessed educated men spin conspiracy theories about why there’s not enough Pappy Van Winkle. I’ve read (and written a few) blog posts about the arrogance of a brand raising the price, dropping an age statement or lowering a proof.

These, every single story, are mere corporate shenanigans, at best.

Bourbon production has not killed dozens at a time since the 1800s distillery fires. The United States is not subsidizing bourbon, which, on average, pays 60% per bottle to Uncle Sam in taxes. And the most-common American whiskey scandal is somebody made up a story about their grandpa being a moonshiner. Yeah, it can get under my skin, but the worst thing that can happen is I spent $40 on a whiskey because I liked a story about a grandpa.

But in rum, alleged corrupt governing, subsidized distilleries, sugarcane-related deaths, fake age statements, undisclosed sugar content and awful categorical characterization are impacting lives and keeping the truly beautiful spirit from your liquor cabinet.

Mainstream story after story improperly characterizes rum the “wild west” of spirits, saying it’s not regulated. Not true. It’s regulated, but the regulations are not as strictly enforced as they are in whiskey, especially here in the United States, where our government permitted a sugar beet rum.

“But rum is too sweet,” 7 out of 10 bourbon drinkers tell me. Well, that’s because prior to bottling or while in the barrel many rum makers add wine, port, sugar, honey, or many other sweetening agents. Why do rum makers do this? Some say tradition, some say it makes up for bad rum. (FYI, sugaring is rum’s drama equivalent to bourbon’s sourced talks pre-2014: Opinions are mixed and everybody has one.)

Nonetheless, rum needs you, because corporate interests and questionable government will push their agendas onto your liquor store shelves. Cuban rum’s return to the United States gives the category a needed boost, but it will only be a fad if you simply chase Havana Club. Like you did with bourbon, you can impact the flavor profiles rum distillers enter into market.

Before you, wheated bourbon was Maker’s Mark’s and Weller’s territory. Now look at all the distilleries making that sweet nectar. Before you, bourbon geek, distillers didn’t market mashbills. Look no further than Bourbon Curious to see genuine transparency in a once secret world.

You can do the same for rum.

The world’s best rum is typically less than $100 and great taste is in the $30 range, but nobody can find these gems because U.S. liquor stores load the aisles with Bacardi and Captain Morgan flavored stuff. Cover-over taxes are killing once great Caribbean distilleries, while new American distilleries quickly discover the harsh realities of the rum business—it’s an uphill battle to compete for the well, the liquor store shelf and convincing consumers rum isn’t supposed to taste like a sugar packet.

That’s why I wrote Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit, to start a new conversation about rum, a spirit often ripe with caramel—perfect for the bourbon palate—and more cocktail friendly than whiskey. I’m not asking you to leave bourbon; we both know neither of us could leave if we wanted to. But it’s okay to like other spirits.

And hey, your bunker bourbon needs bunkmates. But more importantly, you, the bourbon consumer, have the loudest and most-listened to voice in spirits. Some brands fear your social media outrage and letters to federal authorities. That’s why rum needs you.

Your consumer-centric passion evokes change.


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3 Replies to “For Rum’s Sake, An Open Letter to Bourbon Drinkers”

  1. For some of us bourbon enthusiasts, we’ve already started seeking out great rums. As you point out, the US stores are chalk full of stuff I won’t drink since it’s a sugary mess. I’ve been fortunate to come across and bunker (bunkmate) EU release rums like Velier, Caroni and Hampden. And in some cases, these are now showing up in some markets (e.g. Kill Devil or Golden Devil). Unadulterated rum is great and I’ll continue to seek out expressions as they come to market.

  2. Sugar and spice are not the only additives that ruin rum. Glycerin is sometimes added as well for mouth-feel and
    who knows what else. If only there was a legally defined
    term for pure rum that would let drinkers know that they
    were getting unadulterated rum. It would also force rum
    distillers to lift their game and make rum that didn’t need
    to be adulterated in order to make it “drinkable”. Such a
    legal definition could never be defined consistently in all
    the rum-making nations of the world but if the USA and
    the EU could agree on a definition, things would change
    for the better.

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