Celebrate Black Tot Day with a Quality Sipping Spirit
Rum is a staple that has been around for centuries, featuring in mixed drinks and cocktails. More recently, you'll see it offered as a sipping spirit, with bottles sitting on the back bar nestled between the scotch and cognac. But unlike either scotch or cognac, the age statement on some bottles is a little woolly.
Produced in over 80 countries, rum is a spirit that is both global and local, meaning there's no regional legislation that controls the quality of production. Since Black Tot Day is on 31st July 2021, we thought we'd attempt to explain the ageing process that affects the numbers on the bottles, which in turn affects the taste and price of the liquid.
Different colonial influences in the past have meant that there is a wide variety of rums available nowadays. All rum-producing countries use different methods and materials, making for uniquely defined distilled spirit from sugar cane. Broadly, there are French, Spanish, Portuguese, and British influences on early rum production that have all resulted in different styles, tastes, and production methods. These seafaring nations have also influenced the global rum markets due to the colonial and hyper-local use of the product.
French-style rums are typically produced from sugar cane juice and use the column distillation process, creating lighter style rums called Rhum Agricole. They include brands like Clement, Trois Rivieres and Rhum J.M. Because the producers use sugar cane juice rather than molasses to make their blends, they have a dry, grassy flavour followed by punchy, fruity tones. You will find them sold as either white rums or golden rums. The agricoles of Martinique and Guadeloupe follow the V.S./V.S.O.P./X.O. age conventions of French spirits.
Any good rum could be sipping rum. Some people enjoy young flavourful spirit and like to sip on Clairin or, others like to sip on elegant and light Spanish style rum aged for not too long and others prefer longer ageing — Georgi Radev, author and founder of Laki Kane
Spanish influenced countries also tend to use column distillation, but they usually make their rum from molasses, a thick, tarry syrup, like treacle. Column stills strip a lot more flavour from a product, creating a brighter spirit. They will age product, though. For example, Cuban made Havana 3-year-old rum has a pale, straw colour from barrel ageing, and Puerto Rican Bacardi Blanco is aged for a year and then charcoal filtered to get that distinctive, clean white rum look.
If you have rum from countries with long rum heritage like Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Puerto Rico or Cuba the age statement on the bottle is the minimum age.
In some countries the age statement is average. The rum is blend of around the number on the bottle. — Georgi Radev
Some Central and Southern American countries use solera ageing, a process borrowed from the sherry industry. This means that barrelled rums are mixed over time to prevent evaporation of the product and introduce older rum flavours to the younger product. If a solar aged rum says it is 25 years old, that is the oldest rum in the bottle, but by no means the most prevalent, as that older rum will have been watered down by younger ones over the ageing process.
British influenced rums are made in a broader variety of ways, using both column and pot stills. Different English speaking Caribbean nations have each developed a distinctive local style. Jamaican rums are widely varied, with Appleton Estate rums tasting completely different to Wray and Nephew Overproof. Then Barbados has a very distinctive style, with only four producers on the island. One that solely makes Mount Gay and another that produces hundreds of different types; their leading brand in the UK is Four Square Rum. British rums tend to be aged like whisky, one barrelfull at a time with no blending during the ageing process. And their age statements must, by law, apply to the youngest blend in the bottle. So an 8-year-old rum may have older rums too, but it'll contain nothing lower.
The categories of White, Gold and Dark are very misleading.
Some rums could be aged for over 20 years and definitely will be lighter in colour then any dark rum, that is full of caramel. — Georgi Radev
However, the Brits meddled with rums after they were aged much more than the other colonials, using blending techniques to mix styles and adding additional flavouring agents before bottling. Therefore, they are responsible for dark Navy style rums like Lambs and Captain Morgan and spiced rums like Sailor Jerry's. These are blends of many different island spirits shipped to be aged and blended anywhere in the world. Producers add spices or dark caramel to create a flavour profile. Navy rum gets its name from its use by the British naval forces.
The alcohol ration for sailors in the 17th century was a gallon of beer, but it became difficult to store such large quantities on board. In 1655, a half-pint of rum was made as the equivalent volume but cheaper choice. Of course, this amount of alcohol lead to the crew becoming merry, so to keep up the hard work instead of getting so drunk every day, Admiral Edwards Vernon ordered the rum to be mixed with water in a 4:1 ratio and split it into two servings.
Over time, attitudes towards alcohol in the navy changed, as its impact on the quality of sailor's work, even with less alcohol, was still negative. So, in 1969, the Admiralty Board stated that rum was not compatible with the efficiency required from individuals on board, and on 31st July 1970, the final rum ration was given. This became known as Black Tot Day.
You may want to purchase yourself an excellent sipping rum to celebrate Black Tot Day in style, but take some time to research what you think you might like. General clues are on the label: what's the language? Is it Rhum (French) or Rum (British)? Does it have the word solera on the label (Spanish)?
Does the age statement get fully explained on the back of the label? Is the colour very dark, like burnt toffee? If so, then it's likely had caramel or spices added. And remember, these are not hard and fast rules, its more important that the rum producer has used a range of methods to produce a quality spirit. As Georgi says: At the end of the day, sipping rum is what you like to sip. Just don’t get fooled by the number on the bottle and pay premium price.
The problem isn't so much with a lack of rules; it is more about the sheer diversity of regulations that make it hard for drinkers to check the age statement of their rum reliably. One way to learn about rums is to go to the experts. Learn how to mix rums in cocktails , or even blend your own rum at London’s Laki Kane, with author and Tiki bar legend Georgi Radev.
So if you're really not sure, countries with firm age statements for rum include Barbados, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. On these islands, ages stated adhere to similar rules governing scotch and bourbon. Guyana also has strict ageing laws in place, and their demerara sugar produces a rich spirit that ages well. We have a range of spirit gift sets and tasting flights available, so you can get to know what you like, and maybe even why you like it.