Rhianna, Ashley Cole and Curtly Ambrose. Just a few examples of Barbados’ most famous exports (depending on your taste in music or sport!). And, as the birthplace of rum, with the oldest rum distillery in the world, this other famous island export is coming under a bit of scrutiny as we enter 2020.
It’s been a stellar strategy for both champagne and cognac, and now the island’s rum producers have agreed on a Geographic Indication (GI) for Barbados Rum. With over 1500 rum shops on the island and four major rum distilleries, it makes perfect sense. For such a economically critical export to global markets, the GI offers to safeguard the history, quality and reputation of rum produced in Barbados as well as ensuring that as much of the income generated as possible stays on the island.
Only, as is often the way in the world of spirits, turns out it’s not that simple after all. The devil is in the detail of what’s included in the GI around sourcing of ingredients and what these are, how the rum is matured, what it’s stored in and how long for. And there in lies the difficulty when passionate and talented distillery owners – Mount Gay, Foursquare, Saint Nicholas Abbey and the West Indies Rum Distillery – each with its own unique history, each with its own concerns for innovation and future consumer trends, all need to nail down and agree some principles.
So, what’s at the heart of the GI?
- Climate – this hot, tropical climate is believed to have a defining effect on the maturation process, so rum needs to be matured on Barbados. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.
- Water – Barbados has some stonking great underground aquifers due to the coral limestone which makes the island, in contrast to its volcanic neighbours. I can see why that’s important.
- The ageing process -here’s where things start to unravel as the GI advocates that ageing process must take place on the island; in contrast, the contribution the traditional sea voyage in a barrel has made to creating some of the great navy rums suggests an alternative approach
- Ingredients – again, there are different schools of thought here, making a consensus tricky: fresh cane juice, syrup or molasses can be used and the type of yeast isn’t dictated either. So far so good. But some want to continue to use sugar syrup to sweeten the rum or flavourings and that’s currently not in the draft GI, although you can get away with adding a caramel colour providing you follow the guidelines
And so it goes on – types of wood casks, types of still, length of maturing, fermentation techniques.
Regardless of what the distilleries eventually agree on and my personal opinion, the ambition of the idea has to be universally applauded. Rum is such an exciting and creative category but has few rules, and, those that do exist, are not universally applied around the world. Take a relatively simple concept as ageing for a start. Maybe it is the lack of rules that makes this category such a hotbed of innovation, but in the same way I think Gin was a word applied to a large number of products who were no such thing, I fear rum spirit, some flavoured rum , rum liqueurs and so forth maybe doing a disservice to the category and ultimately the consumer. Until the global players agree to a set of standards and apply them to their own portfolios, it is left to groups of producers or regions to blaze the trail itself. If they can communicate the benefits to the ultimate consumer and the trade gets behind them, then perhaps others will follow.
So to the great island of Barbados and its rum producers I raise a glass or four to your ambition and wish you every success.