On the Gargano Classification… Part I

I’m all in with the idea of the Gargano Classification of Rum or something similar. For those who are  somewhat knowledgeable, the system provides a decent description of what might be found in the bottle and describes the level of effort expended in making the rum. In other words it offers a basic and honest value proposition to all who are interested. Again… for those with a bit of knowledge.

As a purist, I like artisanal rums and the idea of being able to identify them by their packaging. I appreciate having enough information on the label to allow me to judge for myself whether or not the bottle has “premium” potential. And, by the way, I am willing to pay a premium price for rum made by artisans making authentic sugar cane spirits, by the batch, using traditional methods.

In those premium rums, the quality of the ingredients and their unique terroir combine with the skills of the master distillers and blenders to make high quality, memorable, and truly Premium expressions. Unfortunately, today’s labeling laws, coupled with non-existent enforcement, make that evaluation all but impossible for the vast majority of rum being sold. It is difficult to find good information about what is being bottled yet very easy for a producer to play loose with the existing rules and add sugar, flavoring, and other products to make a rum that is too easily passed off to unknowing consumers as a “smooth,” premium spirit.  And some of the “premium” offerings are legally liqueurs… not rum.  But deceptive marketers and lax enforcement leave us in the dark.

Our buying decisions are often reduced to a gamble as accurate information is absent. Of course, some trusted sources and reviews may help to inform our choices, but they don’t help anyone that is uninformed about the countless subtleties and differences in rum production.  Differences from one master distiller to another… from one master blender to another… from one still to another, from one producer to another, from one terroir to another, from one country to another… you get the picture. A common and simple vocabulary would help tremendously if required on labels. For most potential buyers who know nothing about rum, a simple description of what is in the bottle, in common, simple terms would help inform our decisions and help unmask the charlatans taking short cuts and bottling something that tastes “smooth,” while  charging us undeserved prices.

There are many obstacles to adopting the Gargano Classification System, more of which I’ll address in Part 2 of this string of thoughts, but let’s define what our desired end might be.  Why do  we need change? In my mind, the goal is universal availability of artisanal and premium rum in our bars, restaurants and spirits stores while the charlatans are identified and unmasked. Integral to that end is increased consumer awareness of the distinction between modern ultra-efficient rum production methods and the older, traditional ways. Of course that requires outreach, advertising and education that go beyond any specific classification system. The Gargano Classification describes the important distinctions, but even among rum lovers, familiarity with the system and what it means is rare. There just seems to be so much to learn!

With so much to learn, many consumers will decide it’s not worth it and will  simply go to something familiar. But if we can make that first educational step easy and meaningful, we can convince a customer or two to bypass the perceived value of that “handmade” vodka, and instead pick up a nice aged rum. Or at least we can pique their curiosity to figure out what the terms mean.

A lifetime ago I was seduced into a relationship with fine scotch by being teased to find out what single malt meant. There is something to be learned from the way I came to enjoy fine scotch which might help seduce new admirers to the wonders of Rum. How do we encourage that  interest?  How do we describe the truly unique and premium artisanal Rum, and more importantly distinguish it from the mass produced modern Rum?

I haven’t studied and researched the history of spirits the way David Wondrich and Fred Minnick have, but I do think my experience is representative of a significant segment of spirits lovers. But, before I compare my  specific history and impressions to Rum’s current situation, let’s look at a little of Rum’s past.   I think the years of US Prohibition as the opening scene in our history lesson is the  appropriate place to begin… but first a brief prologue…

If you haven’t already, please read Fred Minnick’s Rum Curious. His is a much more comprehensive telling of the story, and encyclopedia of rum, and my thoughts here are partially informed from his research.But, let’s get to it. As Prohibition descended on the US, rum was already much less popular than it had once been. . Originally the spirit of choice for Colonial America, by the time the Eighteenth Amendment became law, Rum’s popularity had dramatically declined. Immigration from Europe; taxes and limitations on sugar imports; and the country’s desire to bolster domestic grain farmers (not to mention the ease of making your own whiskey at home) all combined to increase whiskey consumption to the detriment of Rum. Also consider, that from the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, to the Civil War (except for a short time to repay the war debt from the War of 1812) American Whiskey distillers were not taxed at all while rum and other foreign spirits where heavily taxed.  As Minnick points out,

 <<Upon the end of the War of 1812, the United States required a 20 percent duty on rum, sugar, and molasses from the British islands, as well as a $20 port charge. By 1822, Jamaican rum paid 75% tariffs, West Indies rum 110%, and molasses received tariff rates up to 30 to 40%. The Americans were systematically creating an economic disadvantage for rum distillers and importers. Consumers paid upward of 300% more for rum than whiskey, and New England distillers were forced to pay heavy duties on imported molasses. Meanwhile, whiskey and its base grains — specifically corn — were distilled tax free…>>

I’ll argue that Rum was so superior to Whisky that it took such outrageous tariffs on Rum while subsidizing whisky, to make people choose whisky over Rum. It worked. By the time Prohibition was the law of the land it’s a wonder there was ANY demand for rum. Doubly disappointing to me is the fact that that demand has never returned to anything close to historic highs… and it has nothing to do with the quality of the spirit.

It doesn’t have to stay this way. Rum’s popularity can rise to the point that we have great selections of great rum in bars, restaurants, and stores.   Something like the Gargano Classification can help turn it  around, but it’s not a problem that will be solved by a single solution. From Prohibition until today, demand and knowledge of Rum has been low. In my lifetime other spirits have dominated the market while the glamour and demand for rum has lagged. I want that to change.  By looking at my experience with Scotch I see some first steps that are relatively simple to help make it happen.

So, what happened to me?…Stay tuned for part 2.