This leads to the question, “is Rum really sweet” or does it suffer from a bad reputation and poor information? Well, keep reading and discover the facts about this historic spirit.
Yeast destroys sweet
Because Rum is made from a byproduct of sugarcane production, there is a misperception that it is inherently, sweeter than other spirits.
The fact is all alcohol spirits involve fermentation, which means mixing the core fermentable material, be it, for example, grain for Whiskey, potatoes for Vodka, or molasses for Rum with water and yeast and letting the yeast go to work, consuming the natural sugar in the fermentable material.
In the case of Rum that involves the yeast eating the sugar, creating the liquid that will later be distilled into Rum. So, thinking that Rum is inherently sweet because of its source (molasses or sugarcane juice) is a myth because, in fact, anything that would have been defined as “sweet” would have been destroyed during fermentation.
Experimentation leads to the discovery
When visiting a distillery occasionally, you may get the opportunity to taste Rum straight from the still.
Each distillery’s unaged Rum has core flavors that the distiller is counting on coming from that still. This experience is difficult to duplicate out of the bottle because the proof has been blended down and the Rum goes through a resting or minimum aging period that, in most cases, adds some flavors to the profile.
A possible exception is Richland Rum Virgin Coastal Georgia Rum. This Spirit is taken straight from the still, rested in new white oak barrels for 60 days, and bottled at 86 proof. The taste of the spirit is as close to the flavors I discovered straight off the still as the wood does adds a small amount of flavor, but the core notes of cane, grass, ethanol and honey are present.
Color can be deceptive
So now you may be asking why some Rums are notably sweeter than others? It is a fair question, and the answer is complex. First, you cannot always trust the color of the liquid. Just because it is clear as water, does not mean it has not been barrel-aged for years and then had all the color filtered out of it.
Never assume clear Rum means unaged.
The additional barrel aging will add flavors from the char or toast level of the barrel, adding wood tannins that can add or bring out the sweetness to the taste of the spirit, with notes of vanilla, caramel, minerals, spices, and even tropical fruit.
Another common practice is for Rum companies to add a small amount of caramel coloring to their products to give them a consistent look. It is visually strange to see a Rum or any other spirit that has the same bottle, label, and aging statement but looks different. It makes the consumer believe something is off with the product.
The matter of Dosage
The second and most prevalent reason that a Rum may be sweeter is that the distiller or company behind the brand has added flavor agents to create the desired taste for their brand.
One of the most prolific examples of this is Plantation Rum which produces Rum in Barbados but also sources products from around the world either from brokers like E.A. Scheer, or directly from the distilleries. They then take the spirit that has been aged tropically or continentally and ship it to France for an additional aging period where the spirit is augmented with dosage. The company is not just adding refined sugar by the cup full to the product it is a bit more complex.
Maison Ferrand, the company that owns the Plantation Rum line, was Cognac producer first, and the practice of using dosage with Cognac is a common one.
In their case the dosage is created by toasting unrefined brown sugar, blending it with their Rum, and aging the spirit for a varying amount of time depending on the product in used Cognac barrels. This form of dosage adds the additional aging period flavors that make the spirit unique to the Plantation line and differentiates them from other brands.
If you do a side-by-side comparison of a Rum from the original distillery that has been aged roughly the same amount of time, the difference is obviously sweeter and different than the original Rum.
Additives, Chemistry, and Red Flags
While Maison Ferrand is transparent about the use of dosage, other brands in the market do not share their practices concerning additives, and you will not find any details about the companies using them on their website, label, or marketing material. However, there are ways to detect the use of additives and red flags to look for when reading product reviews.
The word “Smooth” or detecting a “silky mouthfeel” can be a big indicator that either sugar or glycerol also known as glycerin has been added to round out or soften the harsh notes that can come from the alcohol, wood notes, or other additive used in the spirit.
Sometimes sugar is added to provide that sweetness that consumers are looking for along with chemical agents that add a variety of fruit flavors, fake spice notes, and even simulate desired wood flavors to give the consumer the impression that the product is far older than it really is. These agents often leave a residue behind on the teeth and tongue, indicating additives were used.
A good rule of thumb is the older the Rum, the more the wood notes should dominate the flavor. An overly sweet 12-year-old Rum has had sugar or other additives added to help counter the heavy taste of the wood and other naturally occurring flavors in the spirit.
One final note to pay attention to when it comes to sweetness and Rums. It is important to note how Rum is finished. For example, a Rum finished in Sherry Casks, will have a sweeter profile than a Rum that has only been aged in used Bourbon barrels.
Luckily, the way a Rum is finished is a popular selling point and rarely if ever hidden from the consumer.
As you can see, there are quite a few reasons a Rum may be perceived as sweet, from the natural occurring factors of how the spirit was created, to how it was finished, or the chemicals added during blending. It never hurts to also consider what goes into your favorite Rum cocktails. The quantity of sugar or other ingredients in the fruit juice, syrups, or mixers being used can create an over-the-top sweet drink that is a turn-off for imbibers who will later complain about Rum being too sweet.
The next time you are looking at a new Rum to purchase, hopefully, some of these tips will help you make an educated purchase finding other Rums you will enjoy.
What are some of the things you look for when deciding to purchase a new Rum?