During the 2nd edition of the Hong Kong Rum Festival I made a presentation named “From Cognac to Rhum: A Tale of Two Spirits”. I wanted the visitors to better understand the similarities and differences between three French spirits: cognac (and to some extent armagnac) and rhum (rhum = French rum).
I may be a rum expert but I am far from being a cognac expert, however while preparing the above presentation I had to take a closer look at cognac and armagnac I can therefore say that I am more than able to offer my view on the subject.
So let us take a closer look at the article.
I agree that cognac is made from grapes. In fact, 98% is made from Ugni grapes.
95% of rums are made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. The other rums are made from pure cane juice (e.g. rhum agricole) or pure cane juice syrup (none of these last two are byproducts by the way).
According to the author(s), it is more difficult to grow grapes than sugarcane. This is very subjective. For example, I could argue that you need a machete to harvest sugarcane and a crusher to extract the juice. Grapes on the other hand are fairly easy to harvest and press.
The score: Whichever way you want to look at it, I do not believe that this is relevant.
First, let me say that I strongly disagree with the approach of this article. I can go with the scoring system providing your method is sound and objective. However comparing cognac (A.O.C. by definition) with the myriad of English, Spanish and French rums made all over the world is like trying to compare apples and oranges.
I would have preferred if the author(s) had chosen to take a look at cognac and say Rhum Agricole A.O.C. Martinique. That way we would know both products have to follow European and French regulations in addition to strict production methods required to meet their respective A.O.C. standards.
To add insult to injury, in this section the author(s) is/are comparing cognac that as you may know cannot be sold un-aged with all the rums aged and un-aged. A white rum can be un-aged or it can be filtered after being aged. It can be also be darkened with additive like caramel.
I would say, if you are trying to compare the appearance of a cognac and a rum (or better rhum) it would be best to pick two spirits with enough similarities (e.g. by nomenclature: V.S.O.P., X.O.).
In any case, if you are in France, you should have no problem finding an aged rhum with “a beautiful amber hue.”
In this section the author(s) added a picture of four rums:
- Captain Morgan Silver Spiced Rum
- Appleton Estate VX (Jamaica)
- Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum
- Flor De Cana 7 years Old Grand Reserve (Nicaragua)
The two spiced rums should not even be here (obviously).
We are left with an English rum and a Spanish ron.
The VX rum is a blend of 15 rums aged between 5 and 10 years. I also know for a fact that there is no added sugar in the Appleton VX. It would be interesting to compare the VX with a cognac blended in a similar fashion. The alternative would be to consider an oak aged Damoiseau (Guadeloupe), Neisson (Martinique) or perhaps Riviere du Mât (Reunion).
The Score: Not relevant unless you compare products with enough similarities (e.g. cognac X.O. vs rhum A.O.C. X.O.)
“it’s generally known that rum is produced in the islands of the Caribbean”. This is a common misconception. True a lot of rums are produced in the West Indies which is also where rum originated. But rums are made all over the planet, not only in the Americas but in Africa, Asia-Pacific and in a myriad of tropical islands all over the globe.
“However, most of the sugar cane and byproducts are actually grown elsewhere, and imported prior to distillation.” Some producers are indeed importing molasses, most? No it is not the case. But feel free to provide any evidence you may have.
By the way we have visited a number of sugarcane estates and distillers in the West Indies and the Indian Ocean. The estates were growing their own crop or getting their sugarcanes or molasses) from nearby estates.
The Score: Despite illustrating this paragraph with a gorgeous photo of a white sand beach the author(s) gave yet another point to Cognac.
Again since cognac is never sold un-aged, let us ignore the un-aged rums.
“cognac can take anything from a couple of years to centuries to come of age.“
Cognacs are often aged in 300-400 litre oak casks from the Limousin region. The quality of a cognac is likely to peak between 30 and 40 years and decline after 50 years. A commercial cognac is almost always a blend of various vintages therefore bottles of vintage cognacs are extremely rare. In my opinion there is no point aging a cognac beyond 50 years even with an angel share as low as 1%-2% per year. On the other hand, I would not recommend drinking a cognac aged less than 10 years. Both cognac and rhum are distilled at about 70°and cognac is always reduced (diluted with water) down to 40°. In fact, you can make a rhum the same way you make a cognac when it comes to (double pot) distillation, oak barrel aging, blending and reduction. However you can also find vintage rhums, full proof (e.g. cask strength) rhums and even single cask rhums.
“But rum doesn’t need to be aged anywhere near as long as cognac to become the end product.” Yes and no, if your spirit is aged under tropical conditions you will pay a hefty angel share of 10% per year or more but your spirit will age 3-4 times faster than in France.
“One of the reasons for this is that spirits produced from sugarcane don’t contain products that take time to become palatable.”
I disagree. But feel free to provide evidences. To me the answer to the question how long will it take to age my spirit is: It depends where and under what condition it will be aged (e.g. natural condition in a tropical cellar vs natural condition in a South of France cellar).
It is true however that a rhum aged only 3-4 years can be “as good as” a cognac aged 12-15 years (for a fraction of the price).
We may all agree that natural ageing of spirits may be what we expect, however readers should be aware that they are people who have created ways to age spirits much faster. One of them is Bryan Davis (Lost Spirits Distillery). For those interested you can find in this article named “This Guy Says He Can Make 20-Year-Old Rum in 6 Days” posted here: http://www.wired.com/2015/04/lost-spirits/
The score: I would rather give a point to rhum here but let us continue.
The author(s) concluded this section saying: “So if we’re going for affordability here, we probably have to say that rum wins this section by a whisker.”
This is true but my question is why? In my opinion whisky is overpriced compared to rhum but not as must as armagnac or cognac.
You will certainly pay more for Ugni Blanc grapes in the South West of France than sugarcane (in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion) and one could say that cognac does cost more to produce. But what about distillation and ageing cost? They should be quite similar. So, shall we pay more for cognac than say rhum agricole? To answer this question we must look at the angel's share once more. Age rhum 20 years in Martinique and a cognac 20 years in France. You will end up with over twice as much cognac than rhum. In other words, twice the number of bottles of cognac. Now I will let you compare the price of the bottles.
Perhaps it would be interesting to compare flavour profiles of some prominent cognacs and see if we can find rhums with similar desirable traits. I bet we can.
As conclusion I will simply share what I told the audience at the end of my presentation:
- Rhum inherited some traits from Cognac and sometimes uses similar technics
- Rhum making varies from island to island and from one distiller to another
- Rhum is a very versatile product often priced below face value
- Rhum is a very sophisticated spirit better in many ways than Armagnac/Cognac