WIRD has Spoken, Here’s my Impression

There was a welcome sight in my feed this morning, an official statement from West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD). Although seeing the statement on WIRD letterhead was welcome, it disappointed me because I’ve heard virtually all of the words from the text of the announcement spoken by Alexandre Gabriel. I had hoped for more, for something new. I even hoped to hear something that might be conciliatory, I had certainly hoped for less hubris, and more willingness to listen, maybe even negotiate. Oh well, maybe next time.

Two related hubristic comments tainted the entire tone of the statement for me. Firstly, by referring to ALL of the other distilleries in Barbados as, “A GI solely defined by what a few producers are doing,” WIRD marginalizes all other rum producers on the island. Secondly, by trumpeting their 82% volume of rum production, they devalue the huge majority of entire aged rum production from Barbados. That almost insulting tone pervades the document and the attitude of Maison Ferrand’s (MF’s) defenders. But what about the specific points of their argument?

Definition of GI

This early paragraph may illustrate the heart of the specific differences between the two sides. Maison Ferrand (MF) does not give much weight to those characteristics which define what I recognize as Barbados Rum. MF… or WIRD, quotes a reasonable definition of the GI: “An indication that identifies goods as originating in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.” The issue arises when WIRD argues that the “good” is year old Barbados Rum. When I think of Barbados Rum, I think of aged rum.

One year old rum becomes the commodity that MF wants to age outside of Barbados while being allowed to dilute with any water and be granted the ability to add up to 20 grams per liter of sugar after distillation/before bottling. In other words they want to take year old Barbados Rum… change it significantly yet still claim the Barbados provenance. That’s completely dishonest in my mind. Clearly, MF doesn’t have much respect for the aged rum being produced at ALL the other distilleries.

Today WIRD sells mostly unaged rum, so this change in the rules would be a competitive advantage to them. It appears that WIRD/ MF does not want to wait for their inventory of aged rum to grow, and wants to immediately start counting the foreign aged stocks as Barbados Rum. Again, that seems deceptive to me. On one hand they appear to not think much of the aged Barbados Rum sitting in others’ warehouses, yet they still want to claim the Barbados reputation as their own.

In my mind, the REAL “good” is aged Barbados Rum. MF apparently wants me to believe that the value gained through aging in Barbados warehouses is meaningless. But the opposite is true… that ageing is unique and special.

The Roots of Barbados Rum making

According to MF, “We truly believe that a GI must be inclusive and faithful to the roots of ALL Barbados rum-making…” but there’s a major problem with that. MF would like us to ignore the fact that for most of the 350 year history MF alludes to, Colonial powers took raw materials from their colonies and created wealth for themselves far removed from the colonies they exploited. That’s one part of the history (tradition) the GI is meant to prevent. MF is the outlier here, openly advocating for removing the basic commodity (year old rum) from its place of origin and depriving the Caribbean producers of the added value that ageing provides. I will give MF one thing: their actions and deisires are faithful to one aspect of the roots of Barbados rum making, albeit an ugly one.

Sugar

The WIRD statement says, “We know from research that historically, purchased E150a caramel was not used in rum. Rather, the caramel was made with burnt sugar, which left a small amount of residual sugar when added to the rum[7].” I have to delay the examination of the footnoted references as I’m away from home and am writing this on my phone. Still I’ll step out on a limb and accept the small chance that MF agrees with my interpretation.

Maison Ferrand places special status into burnt sugar while wanting us to believe that E150a is something other than burnt sugar. I find that a bit disingenuous, if not downright deceptive. Then, by telling us about the residual sugars in burnt sugar, he wants us to take a leap of understanding to think that residual sugar equals sweetener. Here’s where MF’s position is either ignorant or deceptive. (OK, ignorant is too harsh? How about naive?)

Burnt caramel, whether E150a, or a Stove-top version meant for coloring, is extremely bitter. Ever burned caramel accidentally? There’s a reason you throw it out, wash the pan, and start over. It. Tastes. Awful. But for coloring it’s pretty effective. A very small amount goes a very long way. Even less than a gram per liter has a noticeable effect. This is where some of the chemists and engineers working for MF could contribute? If the burnt sugar caramel coloring has 25% residual sugars by weight (btw, E150a also has residual sugars), then the small amount added for coloring would amount to fractions of a gram per liter of sugar in the colored rum. The amount would be almost negligible compared to the 20 g/l MF wants allowed. MF wants me to believe that added caramel color is equivalent to added sweetener. It is not.

In the spirits world, coloring is permitted provided it does not affect taste. It’s been that way for quite a while, but not a hundred years. Undoubtedly MF will speak of some brand in the last century using coloring to affect flavor. Well, we’ve had a couple of food safety and consumer education laws passed in the last century in response to shenanigans in times past. Those shenanigans should not be codified in a GI. Neither should the GI allow the addition of anything other than Barbados Water and coloring… and it would be fine with me if coloring were prohibited in ALL spirits. But that ship has sailed, I hope the 20g sugar ship doesn’t.

**Also permitted by EU Regulations is the sweetening of Spirits drinks. Specifically, ”

[Spirit Drinks] shall not be sweetened, except to round off the final taste of the product; the maximum content of sweetening products, expressed as invert sugar, shall not exceed the thresholds set out for each category in Annex I.” 

“Rounding” is not defined. Additionally, Annex I, Paragraph 1.(f) says:

Rum may be sweetened in order to round off the final taste. However, the final product may not contain more than 20 grams of sweetening products per litre, expressed as invert sugar.

Again, “rounding is not defined,” though the regulation still maintains the paragraphs:

(d) Rum shall not be flavoured.  and (e) Rum may only contain added caramel as a means of adjusting the colour.”

Maybe a future revision of the regulation will define the difference between rounding and flavouring. I’m not smart enough to differentiate the two. Neither should be permitted without declaring it on the label.

**[Note: I was wrong in the earlier version of this post about Dosage being permitted. This section has been edited to reflect that addition of sweetener for rounding was/is permitted]

Water

WIRD: “Rather than limiting water use to water from the aquifer, we think that all kinds of Barbados water should be used for fermentation (aquifer/spring, rain, sea water).” While a seemingly reasonable position, I take issue with it since I attach a great deal of importance to the water source for a variety of uses.

I’m one of those who thinks that Brooklyn has the best water for bagels and pizza dough. I know of a pizza place in Florida who trucked in water from Brooklyn for his dough. Those pizzas are the closest to real Brooklyn pizza anywhere outside that neighborhood. Whether it’s pizza, bagels, beer or spirits, the water makes a huge difference.

Aquifer water also makes a difference. When rain water finds its way through the myriad of filtering mechanisms it bears only a resemblance to what fell from the clouds. MF make a strange argument about using rain water to save the aquifer, strange to me since it is rain water that supplies the aquifer, but I’ll applaud their conservation mindset even if it seems a stretch to use it here. The Barbados geography and geology allows the storage of something uniquely wonderful in the island’s underground aquifer. I’m convinced it’s a large part of what makes Barbados Rum special, unique, and identifiable. MF doesn’t think it’s special at all.

The Rest

WIRD mentions a couple of other problems they have with the proposal agreed to by all of the other producers in Barbados: Barrels, Yeast, and Stills.

On the topic of yeast, I yield to Maggie Campbell of Privateer. I doubt she supports the MF explanation, but I certainly don’t understand the complexities and the WIRD statement doesn’t clear anything up for me.

As to the type of barrels used in ageing, I tend to support the use of oak in order to earn the Barbados GI compliance. That oak imparts characteristics to the rum that is part and parcel to what I perceive as Barbados Rum. Oak plays a big role in making the recognizable flavor profile of Barbados Rum that is in need of protection.

Look… there is a product… Barbados Rum… made by Mount Gay, St Nicholas Abbey, and Foursquare that is identifiable. It has a unique flavor, identifiable characteristics, and a particular geographic provenance that deserve protection through the GI. MF doesn’t think so.

MF wants to take Barbados rum, after ageing for a year in Barbados, and take it elsewhere to improve it… to change it… to alter its identifiable characteristics… yet he also wants to label it as if it’s the same? It makes no sense except as a tool to gain a competitive advantage over the Barbados Distilleries that do everything at home.

But wait… doesn’t the WIRD statement say, “By no means, must the GI be used as a competitive tool by one interested party over another.”

Yes, Maison Ferrand does appear tone deaf on that.

Wrapping it Up

On the whole the WIRD statement seems disingenuous. There are misleading statements, unclear assertions, hazy references, and shallow explanations. I was hoping for better from the technical experts at WIRD. It’s not clear that any technical experts at WIRD contributed.

The author of the document doesn’t have a lot of respect for the other producers, their methods, nor their products. That’s unfortunate.

MF and Plantation have done much good and have gained a loyal base of bartenders over the years. But MFs recent actions have started to erode the trust and admiration of that base. As the light shines brighter on those shenanigans, the trickle of disappointed supporters will grow. Still Plantation/MF could rebuild that trust.

By respecting the other Barbados producers and joining them in ratifying the GI, they’d be taking a big step.

By living up to their words and advocating for and demonstrating transparency in labeling… 15 g/l of sugar should be on the bottle….so should 1g/l as well as any other additives. The sneaky change to the EU regulations will take a lot for me to get over.

They should support, not undermine the Jamaican GI which strongly defends the Jamaican  No Added Sugar tradition.

Neither the Jamaican GI nor the proposed GI does ANYTHING to restrict any experimentation MF/Planation/WIRD can dream up. Please, go experiment… make more fabulous rum like OFTD. But please don’t confuse me by calling something by a name that doesn’t fit. Rum fermented, distilled, and aged for a year in Barbados then aged for 5, 8, 15… more in France is no longer the same Barbados Rum it would have been had it never left the Island.

WIRD has a brand that would be ideal to show off Barbados Rum. Give us a Cockspur made and aged in accordance with the GI proposed by the other distilleries. Use the Plantation brand to experiment in all the ways you lament you’ll be prohibited from doing.  I’d like to see Plantation make something fabulous and take the credit for it. I’d love to see a fabulous Barbados Rum with the Cockspur label and have WIRD take credit for it. I just want MF to stop undermining the long standing effort in Barbados to define a GI, and I want them to stop undermining the Jamaican GI.

Until MF shows me a little more transparency and honesty, they’ve lost me as a customer. I doubt I’m alone.

[note: This post has been edited after originally pecking it out on my phone. One substantive change is noted above.]