In the past 10 years, measurements taken by the Finnish & Swedish governments and rum enthusiasts have shown that many rums have a lot of sugar. A lot. Since sugar can’t make it through distillation, this means that producers add sugar to the rum after distilling. The levels of added sugar in rum have generated debates on how to regulate additives in rum and ensure honest labeling. Rum is made in such a diversity of places and styles that regulation is more complicated than liquors made in only one country, like Scotch or cognac.
Isn’t Rum Made From Sugar?
Well, yes and no. All spirits are “made” from sugar, whether you use sugarcane, barley, corn, potato or agave … it’s what yeast like to eat. During fermentation, humans are basically just the maids at the yeast resort while the yeast gorge themselves on sugar and shit out alcohol.
Then we distill the the fermented liquid. The resulting spirit is a higher alcohol mix of volatile aromatic compounds, booze and water. No residual sugar or color. So rum begins with sugarcane, but has no sugar after it’s distilled.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
I wanted to see exactly how much sugar was in each bottle of rum. So I took a few common rums here in Bogotá and calculated the amount of sugar per 700 or 750ml bottle, using the grams per L measurements given in the Rum Project forum. I then took pictures of the measured sugar next to the rum in question. Some rums have more than one calculated sugar level. In that case, I used the number that was popping up most often.
Is Added Sugar a Problem?
For me as a bartender, the revelation of sugar levels in rum is a way to quantify something I suspected in tastings – namely, that the sweetness and intense flavors in certain rums probably did not come from fermentation, distillation and aging.
Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation Rum argues that adding sugar in rum is like adding salt to a dish – if you do it correctly, it enhances existing flavors without being perceptibly sweet. Makes sense. I use a dash or two of salt, not the whole shaker. Why not set sugar limits?
Then there’s the additives. Some rums use prune extract, vanilla extract, glycerol, sweet wines, and sherry, to name a few. And additives and sugar tend to go hand in hand, though obviously it’s not mandatory.
Imagine tasting a rum that has 20-30 grams of sugar per liter and sherry and vanilla extracts alongside a rum that has less than 5 grams of sugar per liter and no additives. It’s like tasting Coca Cola and fresh-squeezed orange juice side by side and evaluating them as if they’re the same thing.
Adding sugar to liquors is an old practice and not necessarily a bad thing. But should rums with high levels of additives and sugar be sold with the same labelling (and often for more money) than rums that have little to no additives?
How Other Spirits Regulate Additives
Many spirits permit limited additives to enhance taste or deepen color. Sugar and caramel are the most common.
- Scotch whisky allows caramel for color, usually around 1-5% of the total volume.
- Cognac allows up to 2% sugar syrup, caramel for color and a wood-based flavoring additive called boise.
- Cachaça allows up to 6 grams of sugar per liter.
- Tequila allows up to 1% by weight of sugar syrup, oak-based flavorings, caramel and glycerin (except in blanco tequila, assuming it is being enforced).
- Some American whiskies can use up to 2.5% caramel, BUT bourbon and whiskies marked “straight” must be free of additives.
These kinds of regulations began in the early 1900’s with a few different goals: 1) Regulate common practices to ensure reliable and quality products; 2) Protect local spirits from outside “unfair” competition; 3) Prevent the sale of fake Scotch, cognacs, bourbon, etc created by mixing sugar, color, and flavoring into a unaged neutral base.
Fake liquors were big business in the 1800s. Enterprising “businessmen” wrote whole books on how to make liquors “without the aid of distillation“. Want bourbon? Try adding vanilla bean, sugar, tea, mint, and caramel to cheap unaged distillates, no aging needed. Need to sell more gin … without making more gin? Why not water down a batch and then add cayenne pepper so it burns like it has more alcohol? And really you were lucky if the additives in your “bourbon” or “gin” were so benign – some dealers added turpentine or lead.
And the Age Statements
If you look at the old recipes of how to make fake liquors, you see that sugar and coloring were a popular way to fake aging. Which is the other reason that seeing so much sugar in rum makes us wonder.
When you age rum, you lose 2-7% per year to evaporation, depending on temperature, humidity, and elevation. When Wray & Nephew released their 50 Year Old Appleton Reserve, they had lost almost 50% of the rum that was put in barrel. This is one of the main reasons that longer-aged rums cost more.
BUUUUUUUTTTTT many of the rums marketed as “premium” or marked with long age statements also happen to be the rums with a lot of sugar. In the words of rum enthusiast Capn Jimbo:
It’s a simple matter of honesty in labeling. When an expensively produced rum that is pure and free of additives and of an honest age stands side by side with a cheaply made imitation whose flavor is added and age misstated, yet both are labeled “Fine 12 year old Rum”, Houston we have a problem.