It’s often proclaimed that rum has no rules; that it can be made in whatever manner desired. In response, rum experts decry the absurdity of such proclamations, pointing to the pile of rum regulations from Jamaica, Martinique (France), Brazil, and Cuba, along with lesser known examples such as Guyana, Panama, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic as proof. It’s unfortunate, but many enthusiasts simply aren’t aware of these per-country regulations, which might consist of technical specifications and/or Geographical Indications, or GIs for short.
However, there’s another rum regulation that even most rum experts aren’t aware of: The CARICOM Regional Standard for Rum. It’s been in place since 1991 yet is rarely spoken of. However, it defines the baseline for what can be called “rum” in over a dozen Caribbean rum producing countries. Just as the European Union and United States have their definition of rum, so does CARICOM – the birthplace of rum. If anybody should have an opinion about what rum is, it’s the Caribbean countries.
While most standards are developed by individual countries, the Caricom standard is different, as it’s agreed amongst the 15 member states of Caricom and is the operative regulation in each of these countries.
Before jumping into the deep end of the CARICOM rum standard, it’s helpful to understand the two organizational bodies responsible for it: CARICOM and WIRSPA. Wikipedia’s entry for CARICOM says:
“The Caribbean Community (CARICOM or CC) is an organisation of fifteen Caribbean nations and dependencies having primary objectives to promote economic integration and cooperation among its members…”
Not all parts of the Caribbean belong to CARICOM. The fifteen full-member states are:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
Other significant rum-producing islands such as Puerto Rico and Martinique are not part of CARICOM because they aren’t independent countries, but part of a larger country, i.e. the U.S. and France, respectively.
One of CARICOM’s primary purposes is to collectively negotiate with other trading blocs and countries on behalf of its members. Three such are the European Union, the United States, and Canada.
WIRSPA is an acronym for the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association, a trade organization for rum producing countries, founded in 1971, that works on initiatives of shared interest to its member producers.
There’s a substantial overlap between CARICOM and WIRSPA member countries. The Dominican Republic is a full member of WIRSPA, though not part of CARICOM. It has its own rum standard.
Although WIRSPA is not formally part of CARICOM, the two organizations work closely together on matters relating to rum. The CARICOM rum standard was developed under the WIRSPA guidance.
What Is the CARICOM Rum Standard?
It may come as a surprise, but there’s nothing in CARICOM rum standard about where rum is made. It applies to all rums sold in CARICOM countries, not just rum made there. Thus, if a Jamaican company imported rum from Italy that didn’t meet the CARICOM rum standards, it could not be sold as rum in any CARICOM countries.
The Foreword of the 2008 CARICOM Rum Standard outlines its purpose:
This standard is … for use by manufacturers, distillers, bottlers and importers of rum to ensure that Caribbean consumers get a product of good quality and also to serve and protect CARICOM rum producers in the overseas market.
Put another way, it’s about ensuring Caribbean consumers get a proper rum product (from anywhere) as well as protecting the good name of rums made in CARICOM nations, no matter where they’re sold.
With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s turn to the details of what it defines. After examining key points of the standard, I’ll connect them to other topics such how they relate to other rums standards and Geographical Indications (GIs)
The 2008 CARICOM Rum Standard, in Brief
The original CARICOM rum standard dated to 1992, and was known by the arcane name of “CCS 0025: 1992”. This first rum standard was heavily influenced by two existing standards from Barbados and Jamaica, “BNS 140: 1998” and “JS 166: 1988”, respectively. Notably, the members of the Barbadian and Jamaican committees include regional rum icons such as Joy Spence, Lloyd Forbes, and Rhett Harris (None of this will be on the test.)
Starting in the early 2000’s, a WIRSPA working group began revising the original 1992 standard to take new market conditions into account. Exports to the EU and US were expected to rise substantially, so the standards committee kept a close eye on the US and EU standards, and in some case mimicking them so as to avoid conflicting definitions.
The revised version went through drafts in 2003 and 2005 before its 2008 ratification and is known as “CRS 25: 2008”, better known as the “CARICOM Regional Standard for Rum”.
Due to copyright restrictions, we can’t reproduce the entire CARICOM rum standard here. However, essential sections are excerpted below. If you wish to read the full text, you can find it here.
the length of time the rum has been placed in a wooden vat or barrel for continuous maturation.
colouring matter made by heating cane or other sugars under controlled conditions. It is a wholesome colouring matter widely used in the liquor and beverage industry
The definition of “age” is important because it explicitly allows for vatted rum in addition to barrels. Today, almost all premium rum is aged in barrels, frequently ex-bourbon. However, vatted rums have a long tradition, and the Martinique AOC allows for vat aging for certain types of rhum.
Note that any type of wood is allowed. Oak is not a requirement. (Presumably a manufacturer should only use food-grade wood.)
The caramel reference bears noting. Defined as a ‘wholesome colouring matter’ it recognizes the integral and historical role of caramel by the producers. Until the advent of commercial E150, producers would have made their own caramel from cane sugar. Some still do.
3 General requirements
3.1 Rum shall be a spirit drink:
a) obtained exclusively by alcoholic fermentation and distillation of sugar cane molasses, sugar cane syrups, sugar cane juices or cane sugar produced during the processing of sugar cane;
b) distilled at an alcohol content of less than 96.0 % alcohol by volume at 20 ºC;
c) produced in such a way that the product has the organoleptic characteristics derived from the natural volatile elements contained in the above raw materials or formed during the fermentation or distillation process of the named raw materials; and
d) which includes mixtures solely of the above distillate.
Here we have the base requirements of rum. Primarily, it must originate as sugar cane products which are fermented, then distilled. Molasses, cane juice, and sugar cane syrup (partially evaporated cane juice) are common source materials for rum makers. The inclusion of cane sugar (dry, sugar crystals) is intriguing as some interested parties say a spirit made from sugar cane crystals isn’t really rum.
The clauses about “organoleptic characteristics” and distilling under 96% effectively exclude flavoring neutral spirit with “rum flavor” and selling it as “rum”.
It’s generally accepted in the international distilled spirits community that 96% ABV is a reasonable upper threshold for discerning any of the organoleptic properties of the source material. The CARICOM standard is in line with that consensus (as are virtually all international rum standards except the US).
The final clause, “d)”, prevents mixing in any distillate that doesn’t meet the prior three requirements. Thus, you could not blend in pure ethanol, or spirits made grains or fruit or other materials.
There’s a subtle but very important point regarding this last clause: It was added at the behest of the US to ensure only cane-based distillates are present in the final product. Although some commentators have opined otherwise, this clause has nothing to do with prohibiting additives or flavours – all that comes next:
3.2 Flavoured rum is rum to which has been added natural flavouring materials. Flavours may be added up to a maximum of 2.5 % by volume of the finished product, with or without the addition of sugar, and bottled in accordance with the excise laws of the country in which it is sold.
3.3 The name of the predominant flavour shall appear as part of the product designation
The inclusion of this section creates two distinct spirit types: “rum” and “flavoured rum”. If the spirit has any added flavouring, e.g. banana, lemon, or vanilla, it’s flavoured rum, not rum. The original 1992 CARICOM rum standard didn’t reference “Flavoured rum”. With this addition in the 2008 version, the result is that CARICOM compliant rum cannot be flavored. Flavoured rum is, of course, flavoured.
The EU’s 2008 spirit regulations had also just for the first time prohibited the use of flavouring in rum. By all accounts this was the most substantial change to the Caricom 2008 standard, and while there is oddly no specific prohibition on flavouring, the intent was clear – to synchronize the Caricom regulation with that of the EU.
3.4 Ethyl alcohol content shall not be less than 40 % by volume, but may vary according to the excise legislation of the country of sale and shall be determined according to the method prescribed in Annex A or any other method deemed suitable by CROSQ. …
3.5 Rum shall be colourless except where the colour is derived from wood during maturation or from caramel produced from sugars.
3.6 All rums for sale and consumption within CARICOM Member States shall comply with the specification in item 3.1.1. (note: there is no 3.1.1, it should read 3.1.)
NOTE Rums for export outside CARICOM may have added to them such other blenders and flavours as are permitted by the standards of the importing country.
The minimum alcoholic strength is 40 percent ABV, in line with US regulations. In some countries, 37.5 percent ABV is the minimum.
The only color in a CARICOM flavored rum must come from the wood aging vessel, or from sugar-based caramels.
Flavouring of rums is allowed if exported to a country that allows flavouring. The term blender typically means materials used to “round off” a spirit, such as sugar and sweet wines. Many countries allow this, including the U.S., which allows up to 2.5 percent (by volume) of the spirit to be “coloring/flavoring/blending materials” (see TTB Ruling 2016–3).
5.2.8 The following additional statements shall appear on any part of the label:
a) the name and address of the manufacturer; and
b) the country of origin.
5.2.9 The name and address of the manufacturer shall be the name and address of the place of business of the distiller or bottler of the product. It shall be preceded by the words “Manufactured by….”, “Distilled by….”, “Bottled by….” as applicable.
5.2.10 The country of origin shall be prominently and clearly stated and it shall be immediately preceded by the words “Product of….”.
The name of the distiller or bottler and what country it was produced in must appear on the label in a prescribed format. Put another way, the country of origin must be made available to the consumer, and that origin must be the place where the rum was fermented and distilled.
5.3.1 The following are optional requirements for the labelling of rum:
a) a statement of age – where a statement of age is given, it shall be shall be that of the youngest distilled spirit in the product and shall be expressed in terms such as “___ years old”; and
b) a statement of maturity – where a statement of maturity is given, the rum shall have been suitably matured in wooden vats or barrels for not less than one year.
If the rum is labeled as aged rum, it must have aged for at least one year. There is no requirement about where it’s aged.
If an age statement (e.g. “5 years”) is given, the number must refer to the youngest aged rum in the blend. Minor note: interpreted literally, a rum aged for ten years could not be labeled as a five-year-old rum. In practice, any number less than or equal to the age of the youngest rum is compliant.
This regulation lines up with the main international spirits markets – the US, the UK and Europe – but is not always enforced in those markets. According to WIRSPA the use of solera terms to infer age is frowned on, as it causes consumer confusion.
A Note on Sweetening
The CARICOM rum standard has nothing to say about sweetening, e.g. the addition of sugar or sweet wines to rums. It is neither specifically allowed nor disallowed. Some interested parties say that sugar is a flavor and should be subject to the same restrictions on flavouring as exists for compounds like vanilla.
However, this was not the interpretations of the rum standard’s creators who working to align it as much as possible with the then equivalent definitions of the export markets, i.e. the EU 2008 spirit regulations, which permitted a wide range of sweetening options.
The 1988 Barbadian and Jamaican rum standards that CARICOM standard derived from did not address the topic of sweetening.
Of course, should a country decide to disallow sweetening in their geographical indication, they are free to do so.
Note: WIRSPA has previously issued a note on this and other topics as they relate to the CARICOM standard and discussions on social media. It can be read here.
Relationship to Other Standards
With our newfound acquaintance with the CARICOM rum definition, how does it compare to the EU and US definitions, the two biggest markets of Caribbean rum?
The recently updated EU standard (2019/787) for rum reads:
- Rum is a spirit drink produced exclusively by the distillation of the product obtained by the alcoholic fermentation of molasses or syrup produced in the manufacture of cane sugar or of sugar-cane juice itself, distilled at less than 96 % vol., so that the distillate has the discernible specific organoleptic characteristics of rum.
- The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of rum shall be 37,5 %.
- No addition of alcohol, diluted or not, shall take place.
- Rum shall not be flavoured.
- Rum may only contain added caramel as a means of adjusting the colour.
- Rum may be sweetened in order to round off the final taste. However, the final product may not contain more than 20 grams of sweetening products per litre, expressed as invert sugar.
- [Omitted for brevity. Concerns the use of the terms ‘traditionnel’ and ‘agricultural’]
The basic definition – distilled from the ferment of molasses, cane juice or cane syrup – are essentially the same. Ditto for a maximum distillation strength less than 96 percent ABV and the use of caramel. However, the minimum bottling strength in the EU is 37.5 percent ABV, rather than 40 percent ABV.
Like the CARICOM rum standard, the EU definition says that rum shall not be flavoured. However, it does allow sweetening (in the 2019 EU definition this is capped at 20 grams per liter). In the EU sweetening is distinct from flavouring.
You won’t see anything about age statements or origin statements in the rum definitions here. Rather, they’re covered elsewhere in the EU regulations in a section dealing with different spirits collectively.
As for the US Standard of Identify for rum, it reads:
“Rum” is an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses, or other sugar cane by-products, produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to rum, and bottled at not less than 80° proof; and also includes mixtures solely of such distillates.
The U.S. definition is a bit more… sparse. Rum must still derive from cane sugar. The maximum distillation ABV is a touch less at 95 percent ABV, rather than 96 percent ABV, and the minimum bottling strength is 40 percent ABV, matching the CARICOM requirement. Also, rum cannot be “cut” with neutral spirits or other types of spirits.
AS with the EU rum definition, much of the US rum definition is wrapped up in language that applies to multiple spirits like whiskey, brandy, gin, vodka, and rum. Caramel coloring and sweetening are not disallowed. Any age stated on a label must be the youngest spirit in the blend. Imported spirits must have a statement of origin on the label.
Relationship to Geographical Indications
While the CARICOM rum standard is jointly agreed upon by multiple counties, i.e. CARICOM member states, it’s fundamentally advisory in nature. Enforcement is up to individual countries. While there is no CARICOM-wide policy enforcement arm, an individual country might choose to enforce it.
However, when it comes to the topic of GIs, the CARICOM rum standard is very relevant. A country that defines a GI should ensure that the GI doesn’t allow something prohibited by the CARICOM rum standard.
Of course, a GI can be stricter than the rum standard, adding requirements about minimum aging, caramel, additives, or just about anything else desired. A GI compliant rum should be a complete subset of a CARICOM compliant rum.
Put another way, the CARICOM rum standard is a “least common denominator” framework that underlies any GIs of a CARICOM country. GIs may add on additional requirements beyond what the CARICOM standard includes.
What’s Next for the Rum Standard?
As we write this, the CARICOM rum standard is undergoing yet another revision process which will address some of the topical issues being debated around rum, but for sure it will seek to strengthen labelling and transparency, and to address the wide array of rum based products in the marketplace, in particular a definition for Spiced Rum. According to WIRSPA the revised standard should strengthen the requirement for authenticity and origin. For the first time it is also expected to have a technical annex on labeling that promotes responsible drinking in domestic markets – an area of key concern to Caribbean governments.