Dosage: In Rum, a Euphemism for Added Sugar

Liqueur tirage…    Dégorgement…    Dosage …    Liqueurs d’Expedition…    

Brut…,   Extra Brut…   Sec…   Extra sec…   Demi-sec…

are all terms describing the process and products of adding sugar to wine, most notably to Champagne.  It’s worthwhile when we aim to discuss the issue as it applies to rum to understand the history of adding sugar to alcohol, and in understanding the rationale for the suggestions I am making.Liqueur tirage is a mixture of wine and sugar which, combined with yeast, gives Champagne its bubbles through a second, in bottle, fermentation.  Dosage, (which rhymes with Corsage), is the process of adding sugar, in the form of Liqueurs d’Expedition, to balance the acidity of the Champagne and to give the wine its desired sweetness.  That sweetness is described by the terms Extra Brut (0-6 g/l), Brut (0-15 g/l), Extra sec (12-17 g/l), Sec (17-35 g/l), and Demi-sec (35-50 g/l).  So it is with the production of Champagne, but Rum is not Champagne.

Dosage, as practiced in Champagne production, serves both to replace some sugars that are consumed during the in-bottle fermentation AND to produce a desired sweetness.  Some of us prefer extra dry Champagne while others have a preference for sweeter wine, and the producers want to make what will sell.  Preferences have changed over time  and as the centuries passed the trend has been toward drier Champagne.

(According to Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine, in the 19th Century the Russians preferred as much as 250-300 g/l of sugar added to their wine, while the French and Germans preferred wine with around 165 g/l… We crass Americans liked it slightly drier at 110-165 g/l).

It’s my speculation that the trend toward drier preferences goes along with improved processes and greater quality and consistency in the wines.  Dosage was originally used to improve the flavor in the bottled wine by covering up the taste of poorer quality wines. Subsequent improvements in process and quality meant a reduced demand for adding sugar to make bad wine drinkable and increasing numbers of people preferring drier wine. Today the added sugar is used to suit a variety of tastes.  Whatever the original reasons for the added sugar, It’s worth pointing out that since 1936 these processes and definitions have been carefully defined in regulations put in place by the Institut National de L’Origine et de Qualité (INAO) or The National Institute of Origin and Quality.  Abiding by these rules grants the producers an Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC).

AOC Regulations include not only the terroir and geographical borders but the entire production process.  These rules were fought for and put into place in order to protect the special and unique product we call Champagne, and are periodically reviewed and revised to adjust to modern circumstances.  Although Champagne had been produced for centuries, it wasn’t until 1936, almost a hundred years after the first attempt at protecting the appellation, that the region and the wine received its official designation as an AOC.  The rules, requested by the winegrowers, are meant to protect the genuine producers of a unique wine and to keep cheaper, lower quality products from usurping the reputation and heritage of Champagne.  We rum enthusiasts can see much that is familiar, although the terms might be new to some.

Whether or not the circumstances and controversies about added sugar in Champagne and Rum are comparable, I wanted to introduce some common terms and provide a brief historical framework to set a common reference for a dialog about adding sugar to rum.  And since that’s done, we’re ready to talk about the problem with sugar in the Rum world.

As a rule, most purists look upon adding sugar after distillation as a deception.  Others point to the long history of producers adding sugar to alcohol to improve their products.  We’ve even heard that adding sugar to enhance the flavor of alcohol is no different than adding salt while cooking,  But for me, the issue is not which point of view is most valid, but how those two perspectives can be reconciled.  More importantly is the question of how added sugar affects the intrinsic value of the spirit.

For the record, I’m much more of a purist and a traditionalist than I am accepting of modern, even experimental methods.  It’s not just rum that brings the purist out in me.  I abhor the designated hitter, turn my nose at beans in chili, and can’t for the life of me understand what “White Sangria” is.  In Rum, it’s much the same way.  And with Rum, as with many other enthusiasts, the more I learn the more I appreciate the old, traditional methods and the artisanship that goes into crafting unique and beautiful spirits.  To me an old pot still has a genuine beauty that is completely lacking in a towering industrial column.  Just take a look at this monstrosity, a 600,000 liters per day Absolut Vodka still which uses a continuous process that “purifies” the vodka 10 times without interruption…

Who sees beauty in that?  Where is the artistry in distilling with this equipment when all that must be done is add wash to the machine and turn it on.  Now, compare that ogre to this work of art at Hampden Estates in Jamaica.  The lovely copper and graceful curves are a fitting backdrop for artisanal distillation of my favorite spirit.

Just from the looks of the stills, which do you think would produce the more unique and flavorful drink?…

I digress, let’s return to the topic at hand… adding sugar to rum.

As a son of the South, I have experience with adding sugar to beverages… you likely have an opinion on the iced tea in the Southern US.  The south’s preference for loads of sugar in our iced tea is well-known, well- loved, and widely scorned.  In the same vein, there are those who have nothing but contempt for any sort of iced tea, sweetened or not.  And, as to the more traditional hot tea, after living for 3 years in England I never quite understood the attraction of putting milk or cream in one’s cuppa tea.  The point is, I’m ready to acknowledge the differences in preferences in tea, largely characterized by geography. Likewise I have to acknowledge the same spectrum of preferences for rum. There is definitely a regional component to the taste and sweetness of Rum.

Notice there that I referred to the “Sweetness of Rum.”  Sweetness in Rum is very different from sugared rum.  A skilled artisan, like those working in Jamaica and Barbados, who are prohibited by law from adding sugar to their spirits, make some wonderfully sweet and complex Rums.  The question we must ask is: “Is the craftsmanship and artistry in making these unsugared but sweet Rums something to value?”  I certainly believe it is and would like to preserve and promote these distillers of artisanal Rums.  [Here, I believe, there is a strong parallel with Whisky/Whiskey, which is a topic for another time, today we’re talking only about adding sugar to Rum.]

Although I might be able to accept some small amount of added sweetener, as long as it is clearly communicated to the consumer, I can’t accept a rum producer adding as much as a quarter cup (36 grams) of sugar to a liter of rum, without telling the consumer it’s happening.  At best it is deceptive, and I’m not even sure half that amount should be tolerated.  Although there may be some amount that is acceptable for skillfully enhancing the flavor of the spirit, at some point the amount of added sweetener is nothing more than a cover-up of poor quality rum.  But what is that point?  How do we determine how much sugar is acceptable?

First, a little more background.  In current US Law (IRS Code Chapter 51, 27 USC Chapter 8,and Regulations of the TTB and ATF) there are 41 Types and Sub Types of Whisky, but only two for rum:  Rum and Flavored Rum.

Rum is generally defined as:

  • an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum, and bottled at not less than 80° proof; and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.” 

While  the definition of Flavored Rum is:

  • Rum flavored with natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, bottled at not less than 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof) ·
  • The name of the predominant flavor shall appear as part of the class and type designation, e.g., “Butterscotch Favored Rum” ·
  • Wine may be added but if the addition exceeds 2½% by volume of the finished product, the classes and/or types and percentages (by volume) of wine must be stated as part of the class and type designation

We’ll disregard the question of whether current US Law is adequate, and just look at the law as it is.   In short, after the math, the relevant numbers show that 2½% by volume is equivalent to just over .8 fluid ounces, or about a half a shot.  Over the last few years there has been much discussion about published results of hydrometer tests for added sugars in bottles of Rum. We see that with the added sugar in the amounts shown according to the many hydrometer tests of Rum, that the US TTB is, at best, inconsistent in following the law when approving labeling for rum sold in the US.  Using the measures discussed in the hydrometer testing, and given the following equivalencies:

1 fluid ounce = 1/8 Cup = 2 Tablespoons = 6 teaspoons = 24 grams.

We can make sense of the issue. If, by definition, any added flavoring over 2.5% by volume is not rum and should instead be labeled flavored rum,  it follows that any rum bottled with greater than 20 g/l  of added sugars should not lawfully be labeled “Rum.” . Again, that is under CURRENT law.  Correcting this deficiency might go a long way to easing some of the problems caused by mislabeling rum.  But it’s certainly much more of a problem when deceptive labeling is seemingly sanctioned by the regulating authority and worse still when the beneficiary of the lax enforcement happens to be the largest spirits producer in the world.  But, consistently following the law would only address one of the many issues that cause confusion and mistrust among producers and consumers.

Producers pretending that sugar is not added to their rum or outright denying the practice is one such problem for the world of rum.  Even though those who openly admit to enhancing flavor with sugar the question is still raised, “How much sugar is too much?” Regardless, whether there is openness or deception, the fundamental question remains, “Should we be told when sugar is added?”  Your response might depend on personal taste preferences, and looking at the iced tea example, I’ll admit I will tolerate a spectrum of answers here, but personally, I want to know when there are ANY additives in my rum.  (that includes coloring, but we’re just talking about sugar for now).  Because I also have an aversion to descriptions like “sugar-free” and “Hand-crafted” when applied to spirits, I don’t believe it should be incumbent on the producer to claim the absence of ANY specified component.  However, I am open to accepting the “dosage” of some limited amount of sugar as long as there is an accepted and followed convention that informs the buyer when it’s there.  How much is too much is a different matter.

I don’t suggest copying the convention used for Champagne, but some similar designation is sorely needed for indicating the presence of added sugars.  We’ve already distinguished between sweetness and added sugar, and it is only the added sugar that I am interested in knowing about.  The labeling convention should be short, simple, and easily understood.  As a starting point I’ll go with French, or Spanis words… (though I’d really like terms from Caribbean slang or Islands’ legend that mean the same things, but I don’t have that vocabulary)  and I’m suggesting three levels or categories of  designation… maybe:

The French:

  • Nettoyer (Clean) for no added sugar;
  • Nette (crisp/sharp) for small amounts; and
  • Flou (Blurry) for everything else…or  Foncé (Dark) for everything else

Or the Spanish:

  • Puro (well proportioned Clean)
  • Nitido(Crisp/ Sharp)
  • Borroso (Blurry)… or Oscuro (Dark)

This convention, in the US, using the current rules,  would mean the boundary between “Nette” and “Flou” would be 20 g/l of added sugar.  Because it may be relatively simple to objectively determine an acceptable amount, I think a lower number could be sufficiently agreeable to achieve a consensus on how much sugar   in the terms above would be the maximum “Nette” amount.  It’s probably more diplomatic and palatable to use Foncé over Flou, though I like the dig implied with the use of Blurry, but the terms are only my suggestion.

An objective evaluation of the effectiveness of sugar coiuld be derived from  a small  home experiment that has already been documented.  A couple of years ago, over at Capn Jimbos’ Rum Project Forum, user Guevara88 (Che), designed and conducted the experiment which gives us a little insight into how added sugar affects the rum.  Describing his experiment he said:

 “I decided to use Havana Club Anejo Blanco (don’t own Bacardi and am not going to change that) as an example for pure white rum. Seale’s 10 Years will have to stand fast in face of my terror as it’s the only rum I’m certainly sure has no relevant additives to begin with. 

The sugar syrup was produced by creating a 50/50 solution of sugar and water and heating things up. The resulting liquid was brought up to 86 proof with a rare vodka of my girlfriend’s parents (otherwise the addition of sugar would’ve meant the reduction of alcohol at the same time – which is rather problematic). The rums were poured into my tasting glasses until 4cl were reached. Then the syrup was added with a clinical injection. I used a labor scale sponsored by my girlfriend (she is biologist) to adjust the further addition of syrup after I took my sips… so from a scientific point of view we should be all clear:”

His reported results certainly give credence to the argument that a touch of sugar is akin to adding a touch of salt to food. the experiment hinted that small amounts of added sugar, in proper balance,  can enhance existing flavors without imposing itself on the finished product.  That makes sense to me.  But what else his results show is just how big a difference that even a very small amount of added sugar makes.  This is the kind of project that a budding Master Distiller or Master Blender could take on for a dissertation by greatly expanding the samples and the number of data points. From Che’s very limited data set, we can see the value that a broader and deeper study could provide.

So, where are we now?  First of all, we enjoy incredible diversity in Rum.  Distillers and Blenders are unencumbered with stifling rules and have produced a wide variety of delicious spirits.  We also recognize that there is a long history of producers adding sugar to alcohol of all types.  Because of the different national laws regulating Rum production we have the situation where some producers are prohibited from adding sugars to their Rum, some producers are using small amounts of sugar to enhance artisanal Rums, and others are adding prodigious amounts of sugar for questionable purposes.  Meanwhile, the consumer is left to guess what he is buying, and left wondering if the value of that Premium Rum is real or perceived.  We’ve also seen that even where regulations exist, the enforcement of the law is inconsistent at best.   It seems obvious to me that there is room for improvement and there is tremendous value in protecting artisanal distillers who distill by the batch and craft beautiful and unique rums.  There are steps we can take to make meaningful changes.

In regards to dosage, I’m convinced, at the very least, we need a designation for labels that indicate he absence/presence of added sugar in the bottle.  As most regulations are written to describe an existing process, there needs to be adoption of some simple descriptor regarding the use of dosage and to what degree.  This initial adoption is best placed into the hands of reviewers, influencers, publishers, writers, Brand Ambassadors, artisanal distillers and bloggers.  I suggest three simple words, three simple categories, used in a variety of fora which will begin to raise the questions among the naive about the purposes and value of adding sugars to or Rums.  Nettoyer… Nette… Flou…

Another step is for the same people, together with all Rum enthusiasts, to demand consistent application of existing rules.  We should not be left to suspect that a large spirits producer like Diageo is getting special treatment under the law, by seemingly being allowed to mislabel their product.  There is an official procedure for consumers to question approved labels, and letters to state and national representatives have surprising influence and we should  take advantage of  those methods.

One last thought about regulation.  Although there is great value in protecting artisanal producers, there is great hazard in dictating rules for everyone.  I only see positive consequences of a simple convention to identify the absence or presence of added sugar.  For those who prefer the added sweetness, and for those purists who want nothing added, there would be no more guessing. The only point of contention is the line between characterizations, and that can be objectively determined so that we should be able to achieve a real consensus.  At least it’s a start.

There is much more to the discussion on Rum Classification, but I  think agreement on identifying the  presence of sugar on labels might be a small, but achievable, step worth beginning with. Published results of hydrometer testing has already opened the curtain, and there is advantage to every producer for adopting a simple convention like  the one proposed here.

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Steve Maroma
Steve Maroma
3 years ago

Wow fantastic article. We have been very vocal in the UK about sugar in cocktails, wine, spirits. We import the highest quality organic agave syrup from Mexico and continue to work with manufactures to replace sugar from their productions and significantly drop the sugars being added. Beer is also a massive user of sugar.

Helena Tiare
3 years ago

Great post! and a good start…. we clearly need and want transparency towards the consumers in what goes into the rum we love! just one thing, the french word nettoyer has more to do with “clean” as in cleaning, like cleaning a house or a thing…I`m not french and only speak a “so so” french….but I think/suggest the word “pur” would be a better word for clean in this context but maybe a french speaking person would have an even better word. And thanks for the shout out/link!