Friday, March 26, 2010

Rum Business

Last week, I judged at the International Rum Fest (results here,) an annual affair that often attracts entrants from countries not usually associated by Americans with rum making. Still, some have shown terrifically in the past, but not always. In this year's tasting, one of the aged rums reeked of a sulphury note, and we asked for a new pour of the spirit from the secondary bottle we always ask for in case of accident or if one of the judges believe the first bottle is off.

It happens - sometimes a bottle is corked with TCA, which gives off a moldy, damp newspaper aroma that's hard to forget. TCA is usually associated with wine, but it does appear in spirits and is most notable when the bottle holds vodka, since vodka has little natural aroma. Like with wine, though, the problem is that cork taint often isn't strong enough to be discernible, but can dumb down a bottle and leave consumers with the impression that the spirit smells and tastes the way the distiller and blender planned.

I don't know if it was guilt by aromatic association or if the second bottle still seemed too rotten eggy to the judges, but the rum which has scored extremely high in the past didn't do as well this year. Afterwards, Luis Ayala and I talked about the problem - according to Luis, who consults frequently with rum companies, it's not only inconsistent distillation methods or shoddy warehouse control or poor barrel management that can cause problems like the one we confronted.

He worked recently on a project for a company that had started seeing a light green tinge in their white rums. Turns out an efficient and industrious distillery worker found a leaky pipe and replaced it with a pipe that fit the size requirements perfectly, thereby saving the plant the added cost of ordering a new part and waiting for it to be shipped in. But the copper pipe was contributing an  unattractive green color as the rums ran through it at high proof, and it reacted with the copper.

What's the solution if you get a bad bottle? For consumers. it's hard enough to get retailers to take back flawed wine bottles. When it comes to spirits, I doubt many retailers would even believe your complaint. But earlier this year, the folks at Van Gogh vodka shared the tale of how the recipe of one of their flavored vodkas had been changed, as in the rum above, by a distillery tech. So it happens more than you'd think that spirits are different than you remember. So much for the idea of spirit production as an industrial monolith churning out endless streams of identical liquid.  

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