No, Rum is Not Vodka

When this pitch came across my desk, my blood started boiling.

Island Company Rum is a new ultra-premium liquor that was created to appeal to both rum lovers and vodka lovers alike. It is a blonde rum with virtually no burn and has even less calories than your favorite liquor. …”

Ugh. Vodka. Okay, who’s the target audience?

“I wanted to make a rum that women could drink straight and that appealed to the sailors and mariners I know throughout the Caribbean,” says founder of Island Company, Spencer Antle, in a press release.

Yeah, as whiskey learned, it’s never a good idea to say you’re making a drink for women. They don’t like that.

But still, the rum may be good. “Handcrafted in Trinidad and five times distilled for purity. …” Five times? New Amsterdam vodka is distilled five times.

Look, I’m sure Island Company Rum is well-intended. I’ve neither tasted this spirit nor talked to them, but its marketing hit a nerve and embodies rum’s identity crisis.

Is rum supposed to be like vodka?

The U.S. government defines vodka as “odorless” and “tasteless.” It’s coming off the still at 190 proof and above, and is typically distilled multiple times to purify the spirit and thus, strip out the flavor, which is the distiller’s intent. Vodka’s neutral and cannot be detected in mixers, such as cranberry, orange or tomato juices. (Note: Some vodkas do have flavor, but the majority do not.)

So, should rum be like vodka, stripped of flavor?

Every rum region has its own notes, such as Jamaica’s funk and Martinique’s grassy notes. In all real rums, you taste hints of its sugarcane base, whether it’s molasses, sugarcane juice or sugarcane syrup. However, if these are made neutral just like vodka, then, in my opinion, it’s not rum; it’s neutral spirit. Since the Island Company Rum claims it has hints of “vanilla and natural honey,” there’s hope for it yet, especially since they don’t add “sugar,” according to the company. With that said, this really is not about Island Company Rum. They’re new, and I’ll cut them some slack. And they probably don’t care what I think anyway.

The vodka inclusion is a far greater issue than this single brand. Rum has such an identity crisis that likely 90% of U.S. consumers would be happy to add an odorless and tasteless spirit labeled “rum” to a mojito and not think anything of it. And therein lies why this a problem: That same 90% tastes real rums layered in funk, earth, caramel, molasses and other charming notes, and they are put off by them, placing the likes of Appleton, Mount Gay and Richland Rum at a disadvantage in the marketplace to multicolumn distilled rums that are stripped of flavor.

There are those who say, “Oh, you’re being an old fuddy daddy. Let people drink what they like.” And they’re right. People should drink what they want. But if people want rum that tastes like vodka, how do they know what they like?

Learn more about rum in my new book, Rum Curious. Check out my event May 23.

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One Reply to “No, Rum is Not Vodka”

  1. Rum has kind of created its own identity crisis, by allowing producers to add almost whatever artificial flavoring they want and allowing any old number to count as an age statement.

    There are certainly some interesting rums out there, that aren’t artificially sweetened to death, but most stuff that’s widely available doesn’t really show rum for what it is, which, combined with the lack of label transparency, really holds it back, which is a shame.

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