I just conducted four profiles of some of the most exciting rums the market has to offer. First there was a Peruvian rum bottled by Plantation then a single Barbados rum from Foursquare. I examined and contextualized Velier’s WP 502 from Worthy Park in Jamaica which has confounded many reviewers. I was most excited to take a look at Hampden’s new seven year estate rum and it didn’t disappoint.
The big takeaway, which I will say more about, is that the rum community should spend time investigating rum oil as a marketing concept as well as a rallying point for the next leg of the rum renaissance. In all these examples, rum oil was the commonality, far more so than esters. It was absolutely the most extraordinary component when fractioned and enough scientific background has finally been built to do more with it. A few current investigations in whiskey grains (and technique) are working in this same territory (rose ketones).
At first taste, I thought my favorite of the rums would be the Peruvian and that proved to be true. It wasn’t clearly the best tasting in absolute terms though it is delicious. Almost as an underdog, it possessed something which sparks the imagination because it is so good, but so unknown. Epic like Fitzcarraldo! I found myself wanting to known more about it than the others which I already had a lot of background on.
I felt most privileged to experience the WP 502, though it is an academic rum bottling and not exactly designed for drinking. Carving away some of the noise with the birectifier, you see how special and singularly extraordinary it is. I will stretch the rest of it by blending with my go to daily drinker (Mezan XO).
The Foursquare bottling was legit, although slightly academic as a young (2 year old) high proof bottling. I find myself enjoying it more than Jamaican overproofs because it is less heady with a more balanced congener profile. It absolutely proves that Foursquare has the magic and that their mature bottles are well worth seeking out. They will no doubt continue to leapfrog many as a premier brand. The more time I spend with this rum, the more impressive it seems. There is a hard to believe mellowness despite its high proof.
Hampden was as exciting as I imagined. It had nuance and grace as well as power, intensity, and opulence. I buy six packs every now and then when something floors me or when I’m worried about the price ascending. This is one of those spirits. I want to drink it to celebrate a lot of things so I’m going to need to buy a case.
To restate the premise, the idea that can refresh the category’s reputation relative to the exploding fine spirits market is that what these exemplary rums have in common is not esters, but rum oil. I’ve doggedly pursued the subject through five languages to learn its historical and chemical origins. Birectifier analysis (careful fractioning) reveals it to be the most attractive part of all of these rums. Rum oil is nothing more than the various rose ketones, and in the perfume trade, they are everything with a reputation for being the most beautiful of all odorants.
The Peruvian rum and Barbados rum were not exactly high ester rums, but they didn’t skimp on the rum oil. Their fraction 5’s from the birectifier, where most all high value congeners are found, were glorious with remarkable persistence. As a unique strategy, the Hampden may have been a high ester pot still rum stretched with low ester pot. That strategy may have tamed the ethyl acetate headiness while maxing out its potential for rum oil.
Rum oil is the highest value component in rum, but esters shouldn’t be downplayed too much as illustrated by the radiant phenomenon. Perfumers call the rose ketones radiants and note their unique synergies when other things are blended with them. Rum oil valorizes esters and we get a glimpse of that with these four incredible but very different rums. Rum oil may even valorize some of the noble volatile acids that don’t form esters. It may also decrease the perception of ethanol making a rum feel smoother. Everything about rum always proves to be incredibly holistic.
Just like we have different types of the most noble esters, rum oil takes different forms as seen in these four spirits. This was also noted by Arroyo in the 1940’s. There is an unfocused lighter type that emerges early in fraction 5. Then there is a more sensual type that almost has a animalic aroma and is not present in all of these rums. There is finally a heavier type with a gamier smokiness, sort of like the Syrian Latakias. A few of the rums appeared to have multiple types. As fractioning progressed, the character tended to change subtly and that may have been the radiant phenomenon as other compounds were co-experienced (likely butyric acid).
There was a lot to nuance and the category of heavy rums opened right up with many avenues to claim a lot of space on anyone’s shelf. Bars with eight mezcals should have eight heavy, mostly pot still rums, all at similar to mezcal pricing. These four examples prove rum has more talking points than any other spirit. Rum oil and radiance are the ideas to focus on.
Esters may have dominated past discourse because it was an easily measurable concept whereas rum oil was not (and Arroyo died untimely). Luckily we now have the return of the birectifier fractioning still for practical inquiries which can even give visual confirmations of rum oil. Advanced techniques in chromatography can help back it up with numbers. This congener category exists in other spirits, but rum has been demonstrated to possess as much as four times the amount as premium single malts, bourbons, and Cognacs (1980’s Suntory research). Lately, whiskey is working on this congener category, but rum can easily claim ownership and dominance.
Another commonality between these brands is top notch contemporary label design. Visually, they looked wonderful sitting next to each other and cohesive sitting next to other categories’ labels such as again the trendy mezcals (a market role model for pot still rum). The same cannot be said for many of the legacy labels and the industry would be well served by investing in makeovers. Well known collectors are showing vintage bottles from rum’s past that are far more enticing than what is currently used.
Rafael Arroyo laid a great scientific foundation, but his legacy may be more about marketing than production. A chain of scientists over the course of the 20th century chased rum oil and tried to bring it to their productions, but today we see that many Caribbean producers already have it, they simply need to acknowledge it. As a defining feature of authentic and terroir driven rum, these producers also need to leverage the concept against producers that don’t have it, use spurious and questionable practices, all the while asking for premium prices (no need to name names!).
The future of rum is radiant!