Rum—Distinction of Genuine and Artificial (1909)

[10/24/16] Yes, I found Micko’s original papers and they had a lot offer even though they were somewhat expanded upon by Arroyo. No, I will not share them yet because they hold all the secrets to the future of the new distilling scene.]

Jamaica Rum—Distinction of Genuine and Artificial.—Real Jamaica rum contains certain aromatic bodies which do not occur in European potable spirits nor in fictitious rum. R. Micko finds that if 200 Cc. of the spirit and 30 Cc. of water are distilled into seven fractions, each of 25 Cc, the first two or three fractions will contain alcohol and the esters of formic and acetic acids. The fractions following will have a characteristic odor when the rum is artificial. With genuine Jamaica rum the typical aroma occurs in the fifth and sixth fractions. Not only can a trained sense of smell and taste differentiate between genuine and spurious rum by this test, but can even detect a mixture of one with the other.—Pharm. Journ., Feb. 13, 1909, 188; from Chem. Techn. Beport, J2 (1908), 675.

This little blurb proved popular back in the day and was published in many other places. R. Micko who the passage mentions was a well cited fermentation chemist working for the French islands.

I chose to highlight this small fragment of the rum history because it parallels some ideas that are in my Distiller’s Workbook. Basically, we can learn a lot about spirits by chopping them up. If we suspect a rum of containing significant amounts of sugar, we can simply dehydrate a few ounces of that rum and weigh the non-volatile fraction to see what’s left over. It can often be a $2 experiment. If we suspect there are non-sugar cane (or barrel) derived flavoring additives, simple distillation and separation into fractions could add weight to the argument. The sophistication of rums back then may not have been as complex as it is today, but if a rum was finished in a barrel that formerly held something like orange liqueur, the test might make that very apparent relative to the same test performed and compared fraction to fraction on genuine rums.

Cutting up and comparing spirits fraction by fraction should become standard practice in new distilleries. If we know where the congeners lie and how to manipulate their values we may be able to sculpt or blend spirits in ways people do not think possible without GCMS or being a savant.

Last year I looked at a set of papers, The Flavor Components of Whiskey, which used an off the shelf, but sort of complicated, fractional vacuum distillation technique to cut up a whiskey along various lines of its volatility (then they analyzed the fractions). This was an extremely high fidelity way to do it, but the above 1909 method employing simple atmospheric distillation in glass with no (specified) reflux column is likely to tell enough to the low involvement low budget explorer.

The Flavor Components of Whiskey confirmed my earlier hypothesis that the salient characteristics of barrel aging was the least volatile, if barely volatile, and could justify weird renderings like my DIY barrel proof Overholt or the infamous Fernet 151.

Aficionados have accused many rums on the market today, like the Pyrat rums, of fooling around and have requested stricter labels to create transparency. I’m against that. What I would love to see is some old school competitor analysis that raises flags and is published in popular forums. I feel such published questions of authenticity backed up by scholarly work are enough to be bound to that label and negate any need for overly strict legal transparencies. I see it as the connoisseurial way.

Drinking is safe enough and governments do an amazing job of protecting us from toxic congeners like lead, methanol, and ethyl carbamate. We don’t need governments to protect us from bad art and the many GRAS spirit additives that obfuscate any sense of place. We can do it ourselves. I’m completely for the pursuit of a sense of place and other ideas like authenticity, but I want to go on a journey, confer with others, sort experiences, and find it myself.

I could say more about the finer points of this technique and maybe give anecdotes of performing it brand for brand. Maybe I will in the not so distant future.

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