I came of age in the seventies in way upstate New York, somewhere between the civilization of NYC and the wilds of Canada; far from the other big cities in the east, and even farther from the warm salty tropical islands. At the time, my parents ran a tavern where, just as in most of America, the choice of rum was limited… Light or dark. With the possible exception of the many Tiki Bars scattered across the country, not much was known about rum anywhere, and upstate New York was no exception. The shelves in our bar were typical; they contained some unknown well brand light rum while Bacardi sat on the top shelf. Myers and Bacardi 151 were the dark options That was it. The state of affairs for Whisky was a little better.
Considering the times, our whiskey/whisky selection was much better than most. We carried 5 or 6 Canadian Whiskies and the same number of bourbon brands. As for scotch, as determined from some old photos, our selection was something like this: Ballantines, Dewars, Johnny Walker Red, J & B, and Cutty Sark. If my memory is working, which is always in question, Teacher’s was our well brand and the top shelf had Chivas and Johnny Walker Black. I now know it was unique for the time, but we also had two single-malts, Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich that Dad carried at the request of a friend who was from England.
It was about that time that widespread marketing for single malt scotch was just beginning. I had no idea that Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich were single malts, or what that meant and the customers in our little “shot-and-a-beer tavern” had no idea either. So when I saw my first ad, I was curious. Working as a bartender, I thought I should be a bit more knowledgeable, so I paid attention to the distributors and advertisers. For instance, here’s a blurb from a Glenfiddich magazine ad from 1976:
“Unlike blended whisky, Glenfiddich has a full bodied smoothness all its own.
It is 100% pure malt.
And from the fact that it’s still made in the same traditional way by the fourth generation of the Grant family.
So when you discover the distinctive taste of Glenfiddich for yourself, you’ll soon appreciate why it’s the world’s finest Scotch whisky. Glenfiddich Pure Malt Scotch Whisky.”
My curiosity had been aroused. I was seduced into trying to learn what I could, about Pure Malt Scotch, by asking whomever I thought might be able to help. Young and inexperienced, I eventually arrived at the interpretation that single malt was the ‘pure’ scotch. Because it was harder to make, of much higher quality, and because the stuff was pretty rare, it deserved the “premium” label. I learned they used some of it to blend with the cheaper whisky to make the cheap stuff taste better. My reasoning was that the more good stuff… that is, the higher percentage of good, single malt in the blend the better the quality of ‘regular scotch.’ So, the Teacher’s brand in the well had less ‘single malt,’ making it cheaper, while the Johnny Walker Black had a lot more of the good stuff in their blend. The more good single malt in the blend and the higher price and higher shelf placement it commanded.
That naive and rudimentary understanding, not entirely accurate, is ripe for correction and a much more complete explanation, but the essentials are as true as they are easy to understand. The more great spirits in the blend, the better the finished product will be. Gradually, more and more people came to similar understanding and increasing numbers of people began to look for those fine single malts.
I knew nothing and cared nothing about Scotland’s labeling laws, nor the laws about how scotch must be made. But I did grasp the special qualities of a unique artisinal whisky. That distinction was revealed through a small bit of advertising. There were special, pure malts and then all the rest of scotch whisky. Having made the distinction I wanted to know more.
With absolutely no understanding of the subtleties of the distillers’ craft, with no knowledge of the types of stills being used, nor even the essential components of the whiskey, I had become aware of a distinct division of quality and value within the world of Scotch. The entirety of my “knowledge” came from advertising, labels, and word of mouth. I knew nothing about the spirit, but because I was teased, because I became aware of something special yet accessible and of high quality. I was seduced to learn and experiment. I wanted something special, and I wanted to know what made it unique and desireable.
My curiosity led to tasting, which led to more tasting, which led to more conversations, and sharing experiences with a widening circle of friends. Not long after, I found myself living in England and able to take weekend trips to Scotland for more extensive tasting and better conversation as I rode this rising tide of popularity and growth in demand for high quality single malt Scotch. We could trace a similar line with Bourbon, but with Rum, there is little demand. Rum is a small portion of the US spirits market… half of whisky’s share and a third of vodka’s But, there may be signs that it’s changing.
It’s not far-fetched to say that the state of the Rum market and consumer knowledge today is practically non-existent. Like single malts in the 70’s, there is a small but growing number of premium of rums available for the tiny percentage of consumers who have the knowledge and interest to find them. Most consumers know nothing about it. There are only a handful of places in the whole country that offer large selections of fine Rum, and most places haven’t advanced beyond the basic choice of white/dark; few have any idea what aged rum is. Bartenders aren’t conversant about rum, and wholesalers push the big brands and high volume products on us. We few rum geeks are left chasing the world for those elusive bottles of truly exceptional spirits. So how do we change that? How can we boost Rum’s popularity? How can we generate the buzz necessary to encourage the importers and distributors to sell something more than Captain Morgan, Bacardi and Malibu? Whether or not anyone has the money for a huge advertising campaign…and we know that money is scarce… there are some things that have to happen and education is at the top of the list.
Step one, in educating the uninformed, is to make a simple distinction between fine artisanal Rum and the mass-produced modern rums. People must realize that there are special things out there, if they would just look. A simple statement that is short, sweet, simple, easy to remember, and if at all possible, cool, can make people react and think. The distinction needs to be much simpler than the Gargano classification. Absorbing the flow chart is beyond the comprehension of most consumers. Although valuable, it needs to be explained and understood. We need something impactful and memorable…Maybe one Gargano category would do the trick… Pure Single Rum… or Single Blended Rum. The important issue is making the distinction between modern mass produced alcohol and these special spirits that are…rare…unique…and more difficult to make. Once the distinction is made, some people will want to understand the differences and experience them for themselves.
Since being introduced to Luca Gargano’s Classification system, I’ve thought about how to make that distinction. Is Pure Single Rum, impactful enough? Pure leads me to ask, “What’s impure?” and Single is a nice nod to single malt, and it leads me to ask what is singular about it? It gives enough information to begin a conversation, but the trick is getting it in front of enough eyes. For a long time I hesitated because I can’t describe it in sentence. I’ve thought about other terms like Single Estate, Single Batch or Pot Still, but nothing adequately described my favorite sippers. I suppose I was struggling with what it is I’m trying to distinguish. What describes these special rums while simultaneously drawing a sharp distinction with mass market products made in enormous, modern, automatically run, continuously operating stills?
I tend to use “artisanal” to describe those special expressions that we rum geeks covet. But, on its own, artisinal doesn’t raise the questions that Pure Single Rum does. Plus the fact that Pure Single Rum has already become the most commonly used and discussed term of art. But, for whatever reason, I couldn’t settle on one single term. One of the issues holding me back was the use of “blended.” Most of my favorite Rums in the Rum Locker are Single Blends, but, leftover from my scotch days, blended seemed a step down in quality. And so I kept the internal debate going.
My personal debate ended while following the UK Rum Fest from afar. “Someone” got a brilliant idea over dinner in London before the RumFest and posted photos to show it off… I saw the photos and my mind was made up. The Gargano terms work.
I had been set on a single term, even a single word to distinguish special Rum from its mass-produced siblings. But I had an immediate heartfelt reaction to seeing the photos… I want one of those! And right away the wheels in my mind started spinning.
When put together, the hats were inspiring; the statements, simple, short, distinctive, easy to remember. The terms are straightforward and enlightening while inviting us to learn more. I’d even say the hats are seductive, and likely to tease someone into looking at rum a bit more seriously… maybe to “swipe right” and learn a little bit about what makes Pure Single Rum and Single Blended Rum unique.
As a conversation starter the hats seem brilliant, though we’d have to ask the masterminds, Gayle Marshall-Seale and Zan Kong what sort of reactions they got. I imagine, people familiar with the terms wanted to know where they could find the hats. How about other attendees, were they curious? They look like great conversation starters to me, an ideal introduction to a more detailed conversation about what the terms mean and the Gargano system that defines them. And do that we will…we’ll use it as a segue into Part 3.