[If you are a distiller, make sure you know about the birectifier]
Grand Arôme rums certainly picked the right name. Adventurous imbibers lap up anything with a circumflex ô. Truth is, this mythic category of full bodied rum barely exist at the moment, but they are the future if we can figure them out. It is also fair game to redefine them for what we need today. In one dimension we could say they are the rums with the longest stories to tell because of how they were touched by a succession of scientists connected by a Republic of Letters. After soaking up general advances in science, they take on individuality by pressures from their own unique circumstances such as excise taxes, trade restrictions, and both resource scarcities and abundances. In another dimension, they are the profoundest and most meaningful spirits because of their reflection of both human achievement and limitation. These rums have a relationship with chaos. We cannot control the chaos of their myriad moving parts so much as carefully frame windows to express it. That production philosophy represents an evolution beyond the Hail Mary’s of the past as involvement has deepened.
These rums are a bit scarce if non existent because of a generation gap on the supply side. So many scientists that merely surveyed their productions are dead. I’ve written many letters asking around. It is safe to say the Grand Arôme rums are a bit of a tease because of all their unknowns. We do not have consensus if they were/are drinkable, whether they are still around, or to quote Fahrasmane, the “differences between the real and the so called”.
Rum is distinguished from other spirits because types were/are made that aren’t for drinking. These traditionally were for the perfume trade, confectioners, and the tobacco industry. If these rums were consumed as beverage, they were only small quotients of blends.
To my knowledge, there are no research papers that specifically look at Grand Arôme rums so we haven’t got much but snippets and conjecture. One thing we definitely know is that these rums tell a story that many people want to hear. They are especially archaic, roundabout, extravagant, and artful, if not mystical. They, like single malts, are no doubt acquired tastes so their pleasure would come with the slight feeling of exclusivity when you like what no one else likes or you know the inside story.
Rums are culture and we are singling out ore even recreating a category as high culture. Other thinkers are emerging in support of this stance on rum. Alexandre Vingtier tells us:
I do think spirits are cultural goods, connecting people, places, histories with others and so most of the rums are like ambassadors of their culture. Most of the time, spirits are the only products we know and even taste from some countries, even if we cannot name some significant persons from that country and anything else. It’s an invitation to discover, so we have to be respectful and not be judgmental, at least at first to keep an open mind.
As I like to say, there is nothing finer than rum as we make it. Vingtier goes on to be more concise:
Rum is part of the pinnacle of some cultures so it’s fantastic to use it as an introductory product to people, history, culture, gastronomy, art…
Rum can surpass wine in stitching together a history of the modern world. Vingtier helps reinforce the focus of our investigation at hand:
Like all industries, people know their distillery and products but most of the time have little knowledge of competitors, and even less on other spirit categories. When you focus on production, you usually don’t have enough time to discover what the others are doing, so if I can help in a better understanding of the competition, and perhaps connecting producers, that’s the best reward. Preconceived judgments are pointless, exchanging ideas is the key!
There are completely lost rums and then lost rums by degrees. Positive things will happen when we make the entire story more accessible. [please discover Alexandre Vingtier]
The stories these rums (we don’t know if we’ve ever had) tell, draws you in. Was the very start genius or empiricism? It was thought until recently that the Jamaican rums were the product of chance, neglect and then acute attention. Preconceived notions tell us, if the detailed history was not known, it would likely be produced by the trial and error of observant individuals without the benefit of science.
It turns out the technical history of Jamaican rums is quite well documented. They were touched by a succession of Victorian geniuses we now know by first name who followed Pasteur and Liebig’s science advances by the day. Steep excise taxes also exerted pressure on where Jamaica focused it’s advancements. Jamaica, and possibly Batavia (we have good leads, but much is to be revealed) created the first generation of Grand Arôme rums. The literature notes that the world watched, wanting their own pride and joy.
A lot of what I’m aiming to categorize are for rum concentrates not meant to be consumed as a straight spirit. To capture certain rare character, it was thought distillers would have to build a sort of brick house monster (if it helps, think of the Rat Fink) that would get diluted later to unlock subtlety. This idea evolved when Rafael Arroyo came along and re-engineered the Grand Arôme rum framework to have stand alone suavity. He pursued rare congener classes, like rum oil, but thought rum was unique, unlike new make Bourbon, and should be enjoyable straight from the still after cutting (always be buffering!).
Some formats I’m categorizing as Grand Arôme may have never existed in concentrate form such as a fresh sugarcane juice rum with a Pombe yeast and a symbiotic culture of Saprochaete suaveolens. No one is likely using that format today, but we don’t really know. Maybe we can spark a quest to revive it?
No contemporary rum enthusiasts know where all the Grand Arôme rums were/are. It would not be surprising if a surviving producer was not aware of where another was. Producers may not even hold a pride or fascination with these exotic productions that contemporary enthusiasts seem to have. The last people that could probably tell us what is where and what ever was is E. & A. Sheer who specializes in blending bulk rum and deal with producers that have no public face. With no applicable products, and barely anyone remembering they exist until some great recent reporting, they have no incentive to reveal anything.
I am aware of a few different quests to revive Grand Arôme rums as concentrates, and my own big questions about the style is whether there is a sensory science puzzle in their use we’d have to tackle if new ones are to spring up? How do we know we’re producing them correctly if we’ve got a monster on our hands we cannot even drink straight? Moving forward, should we only aspire to produce suave stand alone versions of the story line?
Many different compounds such as esters will be perceived different ways above certain thresholds than below. Some compounds will demand attention masking others until cut. Straight spirits are often marketed as superior and sadly one spirit is pressured by the customs of another. Grand Arôme rums may force enthusiasts to rethink that. I remember buying an odd Indian rum “dusty” from the 1990’s that claimed it was 70% neutral spirits and finding a stunning full bodied rum. No doubt part of that blend was a Grand Arôme.
Besides the promise of full bodied flavor, the enduring relevance of Grand Arôme rums is their story line. They have many moving parts and are hard to control. As earlier stated, all a producer can really do is frame windows around the chaos. Modern trained scientists are not used to such open endedness. They are also often thought of as a living creature that if stopped may never restart. Does anyone even know how to build up a kombucha SCOBY from scratch? They have been passed down from time immemorial. Symbiotic fermentations still challenge our state of the art. Grand Arômes literally permeate the architecture they inhabit. Those windows I hype, might actually be really big picture windows. I have to say this all at least twice. First, only with the responsibility of seducing you, and then again to tone it down and possibly be accurate. On one side of that telling we will call the Grand Arôme rums biochemical horology. They are like a chronometer with many complications.
The substrates can be molasses of various grades or fresh sugar cane juice. We could throw in skimmings which had fermentable sugars but also large amounts of sugarcane wax that break down into long chain fatty acids. Cane wax is now a significant commodity and it is hard to say if its purified form can be used in rum production. Long ago it was turned into wax records for gramophones or candles for the Russian Orthodox church. Producers getting a unique character from using panella sugars, may be getting it in part from the wax that is left intact.
Dunder is seen as a Grand Arôme rum requisite, but dunder, it must be noted, can be infected or not. The most classic concentrates used bacteria infected dunders while the suave products of Arroyo did not. Dunder can be relied upon for yeast nutrients while other approaches forgo it and carefully dose specific nutrients to hit calculated targets fully aware of how nutrients effect cell metabolism.
When we consider “the real and the so called” it is hard to say where muck and the high ester process developed in Jamaica fit in. Muck, if added after fermentation but before distillation, can almost be seen as a cheater. It likely bumps ester concentration, but not the rarer congener categories like rum oil. It may have been a commercially successful process, but it may have also reduced the demand for other higher risk, rarer circumstance formats of Grand Arôme rum. Hopefully I can introduce some other ideas that are more seductive story lines than muck.
Schizosaccharomyces Pombe as opposed to Sacharomyces Cerevisae is the hero of all Grand Arôme rums. Pombe yeasts have a lower frequency of occurrence and are harder to manage. They can be inoculated, but in wild fermentations they only take hold when there is enough osmotic pressure to snuff out more vigorous yeasts like Sacharomyces Cerevisae. No American producer has currently mastered the osmotolerance concept to create a wild pombe ferment. I can provide leads for anyone that wants to.
Not all yeasts of either type can be called rum yeasts. True rum yeasts are selected to enhance aromas that characterize rum, and within conditions typical of a rhumerie. Yeasts are tested in a sort of pentathlon of feats of strength to outline their properties and identify champions. The best Pombe rum yeasts can produce significant quantities of rum oil while minimizing fusel oil all the while having acceptable tolerance for ethanol levels and co-existing alongside symbiotic bacterial ferments. Libraries of proven champions exist in forgotten university yeast banks around the world that could probably be made available to commercial yeast houses.
We have just forked the road a few time, but where it really gets diverse is the symbiotic bacteria, alt yeast, and mold cultures that characterize the ferments of Grand Arôme rums. These adjuncts make it to the fermentation by what a micro biologist would call a vector. Vectors could be cane eaten by rodents or deposited by boring insects or through tainted water used for irrigation that spread it across the cane field. Aroma beneficial adjuncts that made their way to canes were often isolated as rum canes. When opportunity knocked, they threw it in a pile. The old recipes for Jamaica rums looked something like molasses + dunder + skimmings + fresh cane juice + cane trash. It is possible that either the fresh cane juice or the cane trash quotients were unique allotments of rum canes.
The most classic (who really knows if it was/is the most common) symbiotic fermentation is Clostridium acetobutyricum and the vector it initially reached rum fermentations was from rat eaten canes. This bacteria is most commonly associated with Jamaican rum concentrates that were exported to Europe. Arroyo gives this bacteria a lot of attention and uses it to create a full bodied, suave style rum.
Propionibacteria are known to exist in Grand Arôme rums, but possibly not as a dominant culture. Their vector is also not entirely clear, but is noted by Fahrasmane as potentially coming from both the sugar cane stalk and molasses. Certain species are associated with the skin biome such as ACNE, but that is likely not a vector infecting rum fermentations. Propionibacteria are named for producing propionic acid, but just like acetobutyricum, they produce a myriad of fatty acids.
Saprochaete suaveolens as a rum fermentation adjunct is an idea original to Arroyo as far as I can tell, though it was previously known to the flavouring industry. Arroyo classified Saprochaete suaveolens as a mold, but it was subsequently reclassified as an alt yeast. A new generation of basic research in the flavouring industry has revealed more about the working of this yeast.
Pineapple disease (Ceratocystis paradoxa) is a strange black mold producing an aroma reminiscent of pineapple and it is hard to say how widely it was used. It may even explain accounts of rum fermentations that resemble carbonic maceration. Pineapple disease may have been mostly eradicated by changes to cane field management techniques. It may re-emerge in Hawaii as plantings are being made for the artisan rum industry. Not all cane varieties respond to it the same.
Rum had been produced in Japan with a symbiotic film yeast. It is hard to say if what exactly is going on here is aroma beneficial or if this even has the potential to make a rum worthy of the Grand Arôme category. Flor yeast in sherry production are symbiotic and they take hold after primary fermentation is complete. A rum fermentation sits for very short durations before it is distilled. Did this fermentation take place after a wash was put into a barrel used for something else like soy sauce?
After the Jamaican rums, the most significant of the Grand Arôme rums is Batavia Arrack. They feature the addition of Chinese rice ragi (Amylomyces rouxii Calmette). The rice has long been thought of as a starter culture contributing yeast, however, 19th century investigations reveal the yeast at work was Schizosaccharomyces Pombe and the mold on the rice was an aroma beneficial adjunct. Details of the process reveal that it may be possible to produce one outside of Indonesia and we could see home grown versions.
Arroyo did a lot of work to investigate the timing of introducing symbiotic fermentations. There are quite a lot of options, just like the complications of a chronometer. One new one to consider is immobilized cell technology. Bacteria and yeast, when applicable, can be isolated in alginate beads that can be place in a ferment then removed using a basket. Activity can be monitored by titrating for Δ acidity to hit a target. Removal of the beads can arrest the process and prevent a runaway fermentation that cannot be synchronized with other distilling logistics. Cells immobilized in aglinate beads even experience changes in osmotolerance which is a feature harnessed in dessert wine production.
More details will emerge and other ideas will be refuted, but the future is bright. One hard truth is that Grand Arôme rums will always require analysis procedures far beyond what we are currently seeing in the new distilling scene (but that will change with the birectifier). Many producers will try to use the Grand Arôme name and that is their right whether they are French or not. It will be up to the connoisseur to investigate then differentiate between the real and the so called.
Here, we are defining the category for what we need today and that is rums of nuance, intensity, and persistence, characterized by complications within production such as symbiotic ferments or rare circumstances such as rum canes or odd varietals. These can be pot distilled, column, or continuous. Some will no doubt taste their best with a dosage of sugar. Diversity of philosophy should be prized. Multiple American Grand Arôme rums, recording our history and worthy of being at the pinnacle of our drinking culture, are quests we should give more attention to.