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A recent string of correspondence and an article in Vinepair; Hogo: Rum’s Most Potent Flavor Profile, Explained (among quite a few other articles) has got me thinking about the superiority of the term radiance over the popular term hogo applied to heavy rum styles. Hogo closes some doors for rum while radiance, which has a different focus, opens them and I’ll get into that. My ideas are also based on extensive case studies of role model rums with the birectifier.
Hogo and/or funk appears in popular writing to be the most common sensory terms to describe heavy rum, but its aesthetic can only ever be niche and not help rum compete in global markets for fine spirits like single malt Scotch. Hogo in historical use may have also been applied to a few different situations. At its best, it may have referred to the radiance I want to introduce. At its worst, it may have been connected to the non-culinary funk of excessive ethyl acetate, sweaty free volatile acids, or excessive TDN/TNN which can create a noxious menthe-peanut like aroma. TDN is responsible for the famous petrol character of German reislings. At modest levels it is a varietal feature, while excessive levels quickly become a flaw.
Another sensory expression to untangle from hogo is that of vesouté which is the character of fresh sugar cane juice that is best expressed in undefecated fresh juice rums like those of Cape Verde. Vesouté is derived from the French word for sugar cane juice, vesou. Historically, the character is locally prized but was derided in France as unrefined and too country. The character has an instantaneous temporal freshness, but lacks persistence by itself. It is likely derived from many of the same precursors that give tequila its character. Little of those precursors end up in molasses and instead are removed in a press mud called “cachaza” that is the modern form of skimmings. Besides being a powerful fertilizer, cachaza is largely ignored by the industry and no research papers investigate it as nitrogen source or aroma booster for ferments.
Many people are also hung up on esters, which are no doubt important, but what we are adding to the discourse is that there are important compounds that illuminate the esters. If your esters are not illuminated, they are not showing their best. Some producers are pursuing esters while ignoring radiance. Be wary of ester focused claims that do not acknowledge radiance; you may just be buying a bottle of common ethyl acetate. That can thrill you for a hot second then quickly become fatiguing.
Fine rum is in a weird spot, because it is the spirit category that has the most chemical potential. Ordinary sugar cane, the world’s number one crop, can be transformed into something finer than any whiskey or Cognac if the rare character is unlocked. However, at the moment this cannot be done on command and rum is the last major spirit where the idiosyncrasies of production and its microbiological mechanisms are not fully understood. There is a nice amount of truly exemplary radiance on the market, but producers cannot tell you exactly how it got there. Did they unlock their carotene derived radiant congeners from their molasses like Arroyo, or did it come from the skin of the cane via trash usage? Did any of it get unlocked under acidic conditions, or was it at high pH in a dirty cistern that was constantly fed alkaline lime which was eventually pumped back into the main ferment? This is not spelled out anywhere.
Rafael Arroyo, who famously pursued rum oil in the 1940’s first introduced us to the term suavity representing his heavy rum aesthetic, while radiance is a term borrowed from perfumers like Arcadi Boix Camps that describes the effect of rose ketones like damascenone on other chemical compounds like esters. Arcadi describes an entire category of radiants:
The family of the radiants is composed of products that strengthen, blend with, enhance, amplify, and have an influence over the other elements in a composition. Let us mention here the products we have already discussed: Muscone®, Exaltone®, Exaltolide®, Civetone®, Ambretolide®, Timberol®, and Hedione®. We are going to dwell on the following products, which, in my opinion, are brand new and thoroughly interesting—isodamasconel, alpha-damascone, beta-damascone, beta damascenone and the irones.
Most of these products have intense, fruity rose odors, but beta-damascenone, with its chemical formula 2,6,6 trimethyl-trans-crotonylcyclohexadiene 1,3, is perhaps the most revolutionary of this family of products. Present in the essential oil of Bulgarian rose as a minor component, its effects are of the greatest importance in determining the final odor of the natural product. Even in minimal closes, its effects are impressive. It imparts a freshness, naturalness, radiance, intensity, broadness, uniformity, and character to any perfume. We could almost say that it imparts the very subjective feeling of a perfume, wherever it is used. I am completely convinced that beta-damascenone will be one of the greatest aromatic compounds of the 1980s, and its incorporation into the great perfumes is assured.
[bold emphasis mine.]
This is well worth reading a few times. Rum, at its best, has mysterious radiants and more than any other spirits category.
If esters are the major “other elements” in a rum composition, damascenone—rum oil strengthens, blends with, enhances, amplifies, and has influence over the rum. This is not a generic clumsy funkiness, this is articulate, universal, seductive beauty and an aesthetic that should guide our pursuits. These are also compounds that have only been identified recently in the grand scheme of history so its no wonder they aren’t perfectly described in the old rum literature, though there are many hints and speculation.
Damascenone, implicated in rum oil by the French in the 1970’s, is important to the heavy rum conversation because it is not in all rums. Light rums featuring quick ferments don’t have it while many, but not all, long ferments do produce it. Damascenone is in other spirits like single malt Scotch or Cognac, and many heavy rums have just as much, but some heavy rums have exuberant, appreciable quantities that are many multiples beyond anyone else making them uniquely suited for blending (This was investigated by Suntory in the early 1980’s). Hampden, the world’s most important distillery, has the most. An employee at Hampden once told me, “if it doesn’t have that rose petal, its not a Hampden.”
This stuff is the highest value pinnacle of all congeners and perfumers hypothesize that your immune system bends around it in a state of repose. Rose ketones like damascenone may give you an altered immune response to alcohol with less dehydration and possibly less of a hangover. That all seems far fetched until you hear perfumers that have seen everything going ga-ga for it.
Arcadi gives us a little more:
From my point of view, beta damascenone, isodamascone and trans delta damascone constituted an odor group in which beta damascenone is clearly the superior because of its unequaled beauty, its evanescent, sophisticated and difficult-to-catalogue note, and its radiance. Its effects will be more important, but only the good perfumers will know how to use this exciting aromatic as it should be used.
It should be remembered that the perfume industry is dramatically larger than the rum industry and conducts extensive research so it is no surprise that we learn the most there. The perfume industry also had a history of buying heavy rum as a natural source of damascenone. There is a perfume industry research paper from the 1980’s where they purchased multiple barrels worth of heavy Jamaican rum (very likely from Hampden) and used exotic extraction methods to separate the congeners from the ethanol and water. What they were after was positive identification of all the radiant congeners and it took that large a volume to be sure. The expense was obviously worth the information they wanted.
To return to our key sensory terms for praising rum, hogo creates an awkward go big or go home aesthetic with a Malört style “can you handle it?” vibe. The VinePair author calls hogo “potent” and notes it can “sound more off-putting than appealing”. How can that scale to a savvy global market? Radiance allows a spectrum of precision, power, and elegance. Hogo grunts and hopes for the best while radiance acknowledges that it knows one congener category has a relationship to another; radiants to esters.
Radiance sets us up for the next phase of fine rum which is moving beyond unrefined high ester pursuits and entering a celebration of production complications where the final exquisite rum may simply have the realistic weight of what was historically called a Plummer or Wedderburn. You can trade these for a Glen Fiddich without fatigue.
Complications, a word borrowed from horology, are the rare circumstance, hard to pull off, often historical, esoteric production methods that add distinctness to the rum. Muck usage or simultaneous cultures of bacteria and yeast are complications and they should be prized because they are hard to do. Cane trash usage represents a complication. Aroma producing alt yeasts like Saprochaete Suaveolens are complications. To be celebrated, they do not have to produce a massive hard to drink result, all they need to bring to the table is distinctiveness and beautiful rare character.
Rum is getting nearer to a renaissance and golden era with fine rum getting more investment than commodity rum. Both demand and supply are also evolving. Consumers need to be introduced to their options for a more sophisticated aesthetic, one that rivals the other fine spirits of the world, and hogo does not help. At the same time producers need more science to support making their products radiant on command. Collective research, like a new Rum Pilot Plant, could require less than a million dollars a year while contributing a foundation for adding $100 million annually to the global fine rum market. Hogo likely will not be a part of that while radiance no doubt will.
Something that should be noted is that rums featuring true radiance reach maturity much earlier than typical spirits and are much more interesting to consume unaged. Radiant rum must emphasize the fact that it does not need age statements to compete with Bourbon or single malts. Maturity is more important than age.
This means any scientific investment in developing radiant character pays off in savings during maturation to produce industry leading products.
Both Bourbon and Scotch have created aging mythologies to compete with each other for consumers that correlate an age number with quality. They have both pushed it so far that many products are over aged not worth the expense. It is a fool’s errand and rum should never fall for that game. Rum should join tequila and preach the virtues of minimal aging; rare character is built in from the beginning.