The Rum Industry And The Alcohol School

What did I learn at the Lallemand Alcohol School? Well for starters it is an incredible program I encourage any commercial distiller to consider. It was very clear that everyone in attendance left with something greater than the cost of attending. The senior educators are incredible with expertise and experience I thought I’d never see assembled in such a format.

The quality of the participants enrich and add so much value to the experience. This was a special class because more than 2/3 of everyone was WIRSPA affiliated (West Indies Rum Spirit Producers’ Association). The programs is set up around a lot of networking and talking shop between the lectures. Often the greatest value is gathered in the discussions that happen between lectures at all the coffee breaks.

I spoke on Friday, the last day of the School, about the Grand Arôme rum tradition. Being asked to present at the very last minute, I went into things a little blind. I definitely did not understand how sophisticated the audience would be and the pace of the lectures. My regrets are that I burned time talking agro tourism and a philosophical approach to fine rums when I could have done that all during the breaks. The audience wanted the technical and was ready for anything I threw at them! Quite a few people in the audience make the rums I described on the day to day while other less senior people described places at their plant where these rums are made that they’ve never been allowed to see…

Truly the most important thing I learned was that before you can make rum, you have to have a sustainable plan to get rid of the effluent. Many productions are limited by this challenge and cannot expand. Jamaica also takes this very seriously because of problems in the past. Appleton is making significant investments to better process effluent and faces some unique challenges because of their micro climate in the center of the island.

Among the most senior industry figures, Lloyd Forbes and Steve Salmon gave a sobering lecture on effluent. The two have broad industry experience across all the productions of Jamaica, but have graduated to being full on regional agronomists doing the hard work planning for the future so that the young members of the industry can focus on making rum. This is very easy to take for granted, but everything we are able to enjoy comes from these big picture thinkers and some day others will have to graduate to these roles.

Their talking points were interesting. Rum production is integrated into more than just sugar production. For rum to continue in Jamaica, it needs to align itself with symbiotic agricultural industries like pineapple or banana production to absorb the effluent (mainly potash). Rum also has a season tied to it’s effluent. You have to finish before the end of the season so rains do not create runoff that washes into rivers.

Finishing on time before the end of the rum season drives most of the character of modern rum. Compare this this to historic drivers such as excises taxes that created styles whose value was driven by aroma rather than ethanol. Seasonal pressures push modern rum style in the light direction. Fast ferments help you finish on time. Continuous stills help you finish on time.

Appleton possibly feels seasonal pressure more than others. That is why they have an incredible pot still capacity. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such ambitious capital investment. Ferments designed for pot stills often last three to fives times longer than anything run through a continuous still so they require significantly more vat capacity. Some have it, some don’t. Dunder process ferments, luckily, produce less effluent than modern fast ferments aim at continuous stills.

What does this mean in terms of authenticity? That is hard to say. Anyone grappling with a local problem is acting authentically, but rum has a foot in the door to the arts. In the wine industry, many Spanish estates send their children to UC Davis for oenology school and they of course return to Spain and start making wine. This wine however, is not Spanish wine, it is California wine made in Spain and you can taste it straight away. The fine wine industry gets really excited when someone young makes a wine that tastes like where it comes from and not like where they went to oenology school. That is really stretching what words can say, but it may be where we often are. Is low risk, clean, fast fermenting continuous column still rum authentic Caribbean rum?

The short answer is yes. Rum producers have tremendous responsibility we need to start appreciating, especially as molasses in the region goes extinct. Rum has always soaked up every influence it could like a sponge so it is pretty much always true that there is nothing finer than rum as we make it. Rum is always the most progressive adaptive spirit.

At the same time, we all want more of those elaborate long fermenting double retort pot still rums. What if we raised their value so the industry could make more capital investments so they can still finish the season on time? Shift column A to column B. What would we have to do?

I think raising the value of rum has to do with story line. The finest rums should be the most valuable spirits of the world, more than Cognac, more than single malt Scotch. One thing we resolved at the conference is that many distilleries may use a traditional Schizosaccharomyces Pombe yeast, but they have lost the ability to differentiate it. They certainly know how to harness it. There is so much marketing energy ready to be unleashed by this detail. Rum has a finicky hero yeast no one else has. Writers will only be free to write about it when we do the scientific leg work and confirm it. Then we can move on to hunting it down and celebrating it in the great productions of the world.

The next thing that came out at the conference is that rum oil was no longer recognized by anyone but myself and the literature. The Appleton foreman had heard of it, but pretty much no one else had. Everyone recognized the scent in my isolated examples, but everyone had lost the ability to differentiate it from fusel oil because of overlapping volatility. Again, many productions have it gloriously, but you cannot market it and tap its value until you do the leg work and single it out. There are very strong leads on its precursors. Rum oil is inextricably tied to the value of rum.

Another thing I learned is that most distillers wanted to do more organoleptic analysis and were excited about the birectifier because there was much their pricey GCMS could not quantify. You cannot seek rum oil unless you have tools and techniques aimed at rum oil. One of the microbiologists was hoping to get an olfactometry attachment for their chromatography column. Fine spirits may not be possible without well developed organoleptic technique.

Something that ended up being an open question at the conference was the role of the Jackfruit. This was only discussed in hushed conversations so we won’t name anyone. One producer confessed to some special projects where they were trying to re-explore heritage ideas. They brought up Jackfruit use. I of course asked if it was like dragon fruit which often has an epiphyllic yeast, Saprochaete Suaveolens, that metabolizes proteins and creates the valuable congener, ethyl tiglate, which smells like apples. This was explored by Arroyo in Studies On Rum. I got a serious grin. I was either right on the money or this person just got the lead they needed to help figure out whatever they were trying to explore.

I brought this up with another producer who knew of the tradition. They had a Jackfruit starter, but over the years they had forgotten why exactly they had it. Another producer described adding Jackfruit to muck which either implies they use it in a way that does not parallel Saprochaete Suaveolens or they forgot what exactly it does and possibly use it incorrectly.

To my knowledge Jackfruit never appears in the literature connected to rum production, but there are some tiny hints out there:

Ripe fruits are used for the production of the wine. The skin of the ripe fruit is peeled and the seeds are removed, and the pulp is soaked in water (Sekar and Mariappan, 2007). The pulp is ground to extract the juice, which is collected in earthen ware/pots. A little water is added to the pots along with fermented wine inoculum from a previous batch. The pots are covered with banana leaves and allowed to ferment at 18–30°C for about a week (Figure 9.10). The liquid is then, decanted and drunk as a wine. During fermentation, the pH of the wine reaches a value of 3.5–3.8, suggesting that an acidic fermentation has also taken place at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation. Finally, the alcohol content reaches up to 7%–8% (v/v) within a fortnight (Steinkraus, 1996; Ward and Ray, 2006; Anonymous, FAO). The yeasts involved in the fermentation resemble Endomycopsis (Steinkraus, 1996).

This excerpt is from a beautiful chapter in Indigenous Alcoholic Beverages Of Southeast Asia. The thing to note here is the “resemble Endomycopsis”. The yeast is not described conclusively, but is likely a film yeast that resembles a mold. Arroyo believed Suaveolens was a mold, but it was later reclassified by others as an alt-yeast. In any case, it represents remarkable ingenuity in rum heritage we should be learning more about and celebrating.

I learned a lot more, but I need to stop there.

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