Older Rum Is Better!
Here, we’ll discuss why a prominently featured number (perceived as the “age”) is often a misleading indicator of quality.
It’s all so confusing. You’re standing before a wall of rum at the liquor store, trying to pick a good bottle that’s not too expensive. You’re barraged by numbers—Ron Zacapa 23, Zaya 12, Flor de Caña 18, Doorly’s 8—and all less than $50. Surely the older ones, those with the larger numbers on the label, must be better, right? By this point in the series, you can probably surmise that the answer is a resounding “no.”
In fact, given their pick of the above bottles, many hardcore rum drinkers wouldn’t blink an eye before choosing the “youngest” rum in the lot, the Doorly’s 8-year. You see, they know that age is just one part of a rum’s quality. Equally important, they know that the “age statement” isn’t consistently used, and may not even reflect the rum’s actual age.
The Real Age of Rums!
Let’s start with the sunniest possible interpretation of the number on a bottle before we lower ourselves into the shenanigans. In an ideal world, a rum bottle that says “8 years” on the label holds not a drop of rum aged for fewer than eight years. That is, the age statement is a guaranteed minimum age for the entire content of the bottle. In many countries, including the United States, this interpretation is the law.
This sounds great, except that eight years isn’t always eight years when it comes to the aging process. All barrels are different, and new barrels impart a lot of flavor from the wood itself. We see this in bourbon, where using new barrels is a requirement, with the resulting bourbon acquiring a very vanilla-forward profile from the wood. At the other end of the spectrum, many producers seek out previously used casks because they’re more “neutral.” For example, Cuban producers want the oldest barrels they can get their hands on—they want as little flavor extraction from the wood as possible, preferring all the flavor to come from oxidation.
In addition to the barrel’s past history, the location where the aging occurs has a huge impact on how quickly the aging process happens. In warmer climates like the Caribbean, the chemical process referred to as “aging” occurs faster than in cooler climates like Scotland. Many independent bottlers ship casks of rum from the Caribbean to northern Europe (and Scotland in particular) for extended aging. In the cool, damp climate, the flavor of the barrel’s contents transforms more slowly, bringing out different flavor characteristics.
In short, even with consistently enforced regulations around age statements, the value of the declared age is much less than you might think. There are just too many other variables to realistically represent aging as a single number.