I like rum quite a bit.
I didn’t always know that. In fact, for a long time I associated rum almost entirely with hyper-sweet brain-freeze inducing cocktails that might be served to you in New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with a good daiquiri. But seriously – how much brain-freeze can one guy take?
So discovering that I actually enjoyed rum came as a bit of a surprise. And finding that I absolutely loved well-aged dark rum served neat didn’t happen until very late one evening – or perhaps very early one morning – in Havana. That’s a story for another day – but suffice it to say that I’m still wishing I’d purchased and brought back a bottle of Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo. Seriously good stuff, that. It is available (in limited supply) on the Internet from shops in Europe and the UK – but of course my government prevents me from purchasing it.
So what is rum, exactly? According to the TTB’s standards of identity, rum is:
An alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum, and bottled at not less than 80° proof; and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.
What’s to notice about this definition? Well, for starters you might quibble with the fact that it demonstrates the classic circular logic found in much of the standards of identity; rum is a distillate that possesses the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to….. rum. Pretty silly definition, really.
But as a secondary matter, you might notice that you can’t make rum without starting with sugar cane or a sugar cane byproduct. This is significant – particularly if you’re a locavore living in North America.
Here in the U.S., we don’t actually produce that much sugar cane. In fact, only four states (Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii) produce cane in any meaningful amount. Of those four, Florida produces about half of the U.S. supply. That is quite a lot of cane. But the reality is that cane isn’t the biggest deal in town when it comes to sugar.
While sugar cane grows in significant quantities in those four states, sugar beets (which can tolerate a colder climate) grow in quite a few more. The economics of the crops bear this out – in the 2015/2016 crop year sugar cane cash receipts were $1.075 billion, but sugar beets cash receipts were $2.956 billion. Put another way, there’s simply a lot more beet-based sugar available than cane-based sugar. Which means that, all things being equal, you would expect cane sugar to be more expensive than beet sugar.
So what’s a would-be rum producer to do? Either buy and use the more expensive cane sugar or don’t call it rum, right? Well, maybe.
While the standards of identity are clear that cane sugar is required, there is at least one rum in the market today that has received COLA approval from the TTB while advertising their product as being derived from sugar beets. Specifically, Stoneyard Distillery is marketing their Colorado Rum as being made from the sugar of Colorado beets. How does this happen?
While it is pure speculation on my part, I suspect that this situation arises from the facts that (i) pre-COLA formula approval is not required for domestically produced rums unless they contain added colors or flavors; and (ii) the word “beet” never appears on the bottle – and therefore never appeared on the COLA application. Still, a Hoochlawyer (and lover of rum) is forced to wonder about this. It is possible that Stoneyard has exploited a loophole or received some form of special dispensation from TTB. It is perhaps more likely that the TTB was unaware that Stoneyard was (is) using beet sugar in the production of its rum and that their COLA is in danger of revocation. So if you’re wanting to try “beet rum”, you might want to do it soon – I have a sneaking suspicion that it may not be around much longer.