In the firmament of cigar-pairing spirits, rum holds a place in the top triad of choices (along with whisk(e)y and brandy). Its taste profile (resolutely sweet, owing to a sugarcane base) and its shared origin with cigar-producing areas (at least a lot of the time) can put it hand-in-glove with a great smoke. A marque system, recently developed and now coming to the United States, attempts to make that logic even more useful to consumers who are formulating their own pairings.
The problem with the notion of rum in a cigar partnership is that inconsistency keeps the drink from being a universal donor. While so many of the great rums come from the Caribbean, it can be made anywhere. Furthermore, no worldwide regulatory body guarantees production methods or standards of aging. Flavoring additives can be freely used. It needn't be aged at all, and when it is the age statement on the label could be an average or simply refer to the oldest rum in a blend-no matter how miniscule.
So unlike with the straight whiskeys (e.g., Bourbon and rye) of the U.S., Scotch malts and blends, Cognac and Armagnac, you can't simply say "Give me a rum" and assume you'll get a reasonable cigar match. The rum could be too light or flavored in way that makes no sense. Take a flier by ordering rum generically and a spectrum of things could happen. If you're served a quality aged rum, you'll have a happy marriage for your cigar. Get some raw, Ron Stinko, and you'll want an annulment.
This is where the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) marque comes in. Developed by the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association, it's been put on the label of rums sold in Europe since 2008 and is now entering America. The seal guarantees certain levels of quality, while still allowing for rums of diverse charms. The circular symbol (see picture) indicates that:
- The rum is fermented and distilled in one of WIRSPA's 15-member Caribbean countries: Antiqua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
- It is a product of sugarcane origin (molasses or sugarcane juice).
- It is matured in wood for at least a year.
- Any age statement (although one is not required) reflects the age of the oldest rum in the blend (the same standard that applies to Scotch and Bourbon).
- No flavoring has been added (although caramel coloring, which is allowed in brandy and whisk(e)y except Bourbon, can be used.)
While the one-year aging standard may seem young, keep in mind that Caribbean heat accelerates maturation and that most the rums in this group are older. An additional stamp ACR, named "Deluxe," indicates a rum of at least five years in age. No wood types are specified, but ex-Bourbon barrels are in the majority, while other cask types (Cognac, wine, Sherry, etc.) are becoming more common.
So why do I bring this up? Not to imply that the rums using the ACR marques (see list below) are the only ones worth drinking. Many of my favorites aren't in this group as they are not within the 15-member countries. I say it because I applaud this positive move toward elevating the status of rum. Because so few standards govern the spirit, the truly bad ones disparage the cream of the crop. While you can't wrestle the entire category into submission after centuries of no rules, you can create a subset that indicates a certain level of quality. Consider brandy. If you just ordered brandy, quality could be all over the place (it doesn't even have to made from grapes). But if you order Armagnac or Cognac, you know where the grapes came from (sometimes very specifically) and how it was made. If you see the bottle, you'll also have an idea of age.
The ACR marque does the same for rums. You walk into a store, see the seal and think, "Well, it's got that going for it." The global ambassador for WIRSPA, Neil Morris says, "It's not just about putting a marque on a label. It's about creating some space in the minds of opinion leaders about Caribbean rum. To us it's a pinnacle, the equivalent of Scotch, Cognac or Armagnac."
Dr. Frank Ward, the association chairman, sees the marque as "a vehicle to recognize what is authentic, what is true, what is quality" in countries where rum is often the most important export. Understandably, a lot of pride goes into that. The member company Appleton, for instance, abides by the standard that blends (which most rums are) have an age statement based on the youngest rum in the bottle. While Joy Spence, the master blender, has pridefully pointed this out to me in the past, it's not a concept that necessarily gets through to consumers. Labeling like this-in conjunction with education-will slam the point home that not all rums are the same.
Some are meant for sipping. Some are meant for cocktails. And some are seemingly meant for taking stains out of your rug. But the point is you'll have a better chance of finding the right one to go with your cigar, if there's some way to identify rum quality. (Hint: don't choose the last category.)
(The currently licensed companies of the WIRSPA are: Angostura Limited, Antigua Distilling Co., Barceló, Brugal, Demerara Distillers, Grenada Distillers, J. Wray and Nephew, Mount Gay Distilleries, National Rums of Jamaica, R.L. Seale, Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, St. Lucia Distillers, St. Nicholas Abbey, St. Vincent Distillery and West Indies Rum Distillery.)