Sometimes You Have to Choose a Side

Last year at this time, there was hope that the Barbados Geographic Indicator (GI) would be established by the end of the summer. Today I still wait for the news that Barbados rum will maintain its reputation as one of a small handful of countries which can be trusted for producing good honest rum… made with sugar cane, water and yeast, with nothing added after distillation… and with honest age statements that refer to the youngest rum in the blends and bottles.

I’ve heard said, and often repeated, that rum from Barbados, Jamaica, Martinique, and Guadeloupe can be trusted to have no sweeteners, flavoring or other ingredients added after distillation and age statements from these countries can also be trusted. Please note that because all of these producers allow the addition of some coloring, (along with the rest of the spirits world) I am deliberately ignoring any thoughts on the  adding of e150a or caramel coloring, as the rules allow it ONLY if there is no effect on the taste of the spirit. But there are plenty of other topics to discuss on the progress of Barbados publishing a GI.

Changes in European Regulations

To begin, I want to mention one issue that is integral to the Barbados GI. A lot has happened in the past year on the sugar in rum front in general. The first thing I want to comment on is the repeal of the Regulation (EC) 110/2008 and its replacement, Regulation (EU) 2019/787 of the European Parliament and the Council of 17 April 2019.

In short, the 2008 version of the regulation stated that any spirit made from sugar cane which has added sugar is not a rum but a liqueur or a sugarcane-based spirit. Until late last spring that was the law in Europe, and then it wasn’t. The regulatory environment  became a bit… obscured.

At some point prior to 17 April 2019, someone decided that “[…] in the light of recent experience and technological innovation, market developments and evolving consumer expectations, it is necessary to update the rules on the definition, description, presentation and labelling [sic] of spirit drinks and to review the ways in which geographical indications for spirit drinks are registered and protected.”

So the regulation has been updated.

The new regulation drastically changes the definition of rum, and the change is not for the better. Here is the relevant text in Annex 1 of the Regulation:

Paragraph 1.(f)  “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.” 

Compare that rule with the statement about sweetening in Paragraph 2 of the same Annex:

Paragraph 2.(d):  “Whisky or whiskey shall not be sweetened, even for rounding off the taste, or flavoured, or contain any additives other than plain caramel (E 150a) used for adjusting the colour.”

To this casual, but interested, observer there seems to be something nefarious afoot.  In an era of hyper health consciousness, where nutritional labels are being discussed for wine and spirits, and consumers are hyper aware of the make-up of what they ingest, why would the EU decide to allow 20 grams of sugar to be hidden from the label? It is doubly troubling for me, not only due to the health issues involved which will cause people to unknowingly consume a compound that they want to avoid/ or limit, but also by the dishonesty involved in bottling a spirit with extra flavoring that is not disclosed on the label.

I’ve heard the supposed justification that the added sweeteners are traditional, ancient, and part of the ancestral methods for making rum.  I’ve also heard how, after careful study of the ancient texts, a complicated process for re-introducing sugar cane sweetener to the distillate is essential for “rounding.” But I don’t buy it… it’s little more than smoke and mirrors.

When I try to understand exactly what “round off to the final taste” means within the very precise language of an EU Regulation, I can only come to the understanding that rounding is nothing more than a curtain, behind which sugar can be added to “improve” the flavor of the base spirit without the consumer’s knowledge. I call B.S. on that one too. I much prefer the simple, honest statement in the Whisky or Whiskey paragraph, “[it] shall not be sweetened.”  Alas, the water passed under that bridge a year ago, and there is nothing I can do to change it.  Meanwhile,there are pressing matters ahead which I can at least offer an opinion.

Geographic Indicators – Barbados and Jamaica

As we begin a new decade, Barbados is trying protect what is commonly understood as Barbados Rum by publishing its Geographic Indicator (GI), while Jamaica is in the position of defending its already published and recognized GI.  A new owner of an old Barbadian Distillery is challenging the definition of Barbados Rum agreed to by the other three distilleries on the island. As if that isn’t enough, in light of the new European regulation allowing 20g/l of sugars in rum, a minority partner in the National Rums of Jamaica… the same entity fighting the approval of the GI in Barbados… is seeking an update to the existing Jamaican GI to allow the addition of sugar as flavoring after distillation. Both of these efforts are troubling.

Let’s look for a moment at GI’s in general.  One of the objectives of the new Regulation (EU) 2019/787, is about “the protection of geographical indications for spirit drinks.” Evidently someone feels threatened by that protection and the underlying descriptions of the products worthy of GI protection.

According to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 1995 Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), GI’s are defined as “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin.” That seems to be a relatively straightforward concept.

My simple mind understands that definition of  a GI to be akin to a brand. The GI is the intellectual property that distinguishes one geographical brand from another. So, in the case of Barbados, three of the four distilleries (each their own distinct brands) have agreed on the description of the quality and characteristics, which have earned Barbados Rum the reputation it currently enjoys. They have agreed on a definition of Barbados Rum that accurately describes what most of  the world recognizes as honest rum from Barbados. The GI will help ensure that in the future when we buy Barbados Rum, we get the flavor, quality and honesty that we recognize. The kicker is that one of the four distilleries on the island doesn’t agree.

Today, three of the four distilleries in Barbados released a joint statement that has inspired me to chime in with my meager two cents.

A year ago, I was hopeful that the Barbados GI would be published before the July Tales of the Cocktail gathering. That didn’t happen, and it appears there is a stalemate caused by the dissenting voice(s) at West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD). What are WIRD’s concerns? Generally, WIRD argues against “standardization;” they prefer the GI to be more “flexible,” in a variety of ways.

One specific point of difference is in where the rum is aged. WIRD argues that one year of tropical aging in Barbados is enough to give the spirit its essential character.  They argue that “the “historical practice” of ‘double-ageing’ – which involves a secondary maturation period in another country – “must also be preserved”, as long as brands are transparent about it.”

The trouble with demanding that continental ageing be acceptable is that it runs counter to the goal of establishing a GI.  Since we know that the value of rum almost always increases as it ages, the GI is aiming to keep that increased value in Barbados. I don’t want to get into a history lesson about colonial mercantilism, but it’s easy to understand that Barbadians would like to see the maximum benefit from the products they produce. The other major issue I have with WIRD’s position is that the GI doesn’t prohibit producers from shipping year old rum to the Continent for ageing. In short nothing would need to change for WIRD nor Plantation under the GI. If the added continental ageing is so great, then the Barbados Rum is CHANGED by doing it, it makes no sense to retain the Barbadian provenance when the rum is different from what it would be had the ageing been done at home.

MF's Idea of a Geographic Indicator

Another issue WIRD expresses with the GI is its prescription of using Oak barrels for ageing.  They argue that through, history, other woods have been used to make the barrels. They would like the freedom to experiment with a variety of woods to re-discover” fascinating taste profiles” which have been lost to history.  Again, this appears to be a misunderstanding of what the GI is meant to do.

First of all, as with continental ageing, WIRD is absolutely free to experiment with whatever barrels they desire.  Nothing in the GI prohibits the practice. If they want to make something different or better than what we know as Barbados Rum they are free to do so… it just would be labeled as something other than Barbados Rum. Another question I have about their intransigence is why they seemingly insist on calling whatever they make, Barbados Rum?

Today, I can taste Mount Gay’s rum and recognize a familiarity compared with those from St. Nicholas Abbey and from Foursquare. It’s my preferred flavor profile, and those flavors are obtained partly by ageing in oak barrels; of course I would like to see it maintained. Whether it’s Mount Gay, Doorly’s, R.L. Seale’s, or any other Bajan rum, I have a good idea of what I’m going to taste.  Just as I prefer certain brands over others, I prefer the Barbados style of Rum and I am appreciative of the labeling that identifies those profiles. Barbados Rum, means something special to me, even without the GI.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other profiles.  In fact I’ve enjoyed a few of Plantation’s offerings. Their OFTD is truly FD. And certainly  I’m not alone among rum lovers to be excited about some of the fantastic products Plantation might produce through trying old methods. Now, granted many old methods are extinct for good reason, but adding modern methods to old ideas might produce something fantastic.  I hope they do.  But, I hope they do it transparently. I hope they tell us where it was distilled, where it was aged, and equally important, tell us when and how much sugar is added! Whatever the experimentation, one thing they will not produce is what I know today as Barbados Rum… and that’s OK!  In fact it’s preferred.

Plantation as a brand can use all of their special techniques to make whatever they can imagine. But please don’t insist on calling these different rums Barbados Rum or Jamaican Rum. It angers me to have them insist that is  the only way.

The WIRD opposition to the GI as proposed, which is defined largely by the owners of Plantation Rum, is puzzling to me for this one major reason.  If someone (Plantation) takes Barbados Rum and “improves” it through additional aging in a French cave and using special skills to expertly add just the perfect amount of unique sugar to the rum, then why don’t they want to brag about that on their label?  The characteristics they are selling belong to Plantation. They’ve taken Barbados Rum and CHANGED it, yet insist it should still be Barbados Rum… I can’t get my head around that. It seems to me that the only reason anyone would want to do that is because they see significant intrinsic value in the geographic provenance of Barbados… in fact they likely see actual cash value in that provenance.

It  probably makes sense for Plantation to blur the line between the brand “Plantation” and the GI (brand) of Barbados, but it would be a mistake for the government of Barbados to grant that benefit to Plantation under the guise of accommodating WIRD. This is especially true since the GI does absolutely nothing to limit anything WIRD or Plantation does or may do in the future.

They can make as much Malibu and Blue Chair Bay as they want, and Plantation can experiment with any type barrel they want with as much sugar as they want and continue to sell it under the Plantation brand, or whatever label they want. Why, they can even make rum in accordance with the GI! Wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment!?!

WIRD’s stubborn refusal to agree to the existence of Barbados Rum is maddening. Why continue to deny the existence of rum of an identifiable quality, reputation, and characteristics which are essentially attributable to its geographic origin… Barbados. Once again, NOTHING in the proposed GI as agreed to by the three other distilleries puts ANY restrictions on WIRD or its owners. It looks to me like the only beneficiary of WIRD’s position is Plantation Rum and its owners. Absent that ownership, I imagine that WIRD would not be an outlier, but that’s pure speculation.

So here I am, casual but interested observer, watching this controversy create animus among fellow rum lovers. That saddens me, but the issues are important. It’s too late for my voice to affect the European decision to allow about two tablespoons of sugar per liter of rum without being disclosed, but it’s not to late for it to be heard in the effort to have a Geographic Indicator published in Barbados and to keep the sugar out of Jamaican Rum. I have  chosen my side!

As much as I like to use OFTD in my Jet Pilot’s and as much as I appreciate the presence of Plantation Rum as the only option to Captain Morgan and Malibu in a a great many bars, I have stopped using it and have made it a point to ask for something other than Plantation products in any cocktail I order. It may be virtually insignificant in the big scheme of things, but maybe an aggregation of these small acts can make a difference.  The dishonesty of Plantation’s actions has broken the respect I had for the man and the brand.

Leave the Jamaican Brand alone and allow the Barbados GI as agreed to by all of the indigenous distilleries to be published and recognized.
Save Barbados Rum!

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Reynold Cottle
Reynold Cottle
1 year ago

Wonderful article. I too refuse to have any Plantation products.

1 year ago

I completely agree that the sugar addition should be much more transparent as it is. Many people think they are rum lovers but in fact they drink liqueur. However I disagree that to be qualified as a rum under the Barbados GI rum should be solely aged in Barbados. My first reason is some great continentally aged rums. If those would be not allowed to be called rum then screw it lets add more sugar, caramel etc. Many of those gems would be ruined. Another reason is higher liquidity. Distilleries get the money immediately after selling barrels to a broker.… Read more »