Can Bourbon Be Made from Sugarcane?
Can Rum Be Made from Sorghum? A Twisted Tale of Cane and Grain
The US Standard of Identity for whiskey (bourbon being a sub-type of whiskey) specifies “Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain….” Furthermore, it’s (almost) universally recognized that whiskey is made from grain regardless of where made.
When the TTB reviews labels, it considers several requirements, one being whether the product meets the requirements for the claimed spirit category, e.g., whiskey, bourbon, gin, vodka, etc.
Yet when it comes to rum, the TTB seems to forget rum’s standard of identity, which starts out like this:
Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products ….
The key phrase here is sugar cane. It’s stated four times.
In the past, the TTB has come under fire for approving a “sugar beet rum.” And just last year the TTB approved a “Sorghum Rum” made by Grandaddy Mimm’s Distillery in Georgia.
Sorghum is a grain, and Grandaddy Mimm’s web page implies it knows this: “uses sorghum grain and molasses rather than sugar to produce a spirit….”
In short, this product shouldn’t be called rum, despite what any consumer might surmise from the label. RUM is the largest word, after all.
Grass, Grain, Sorghum, and Sugarcane
Generally speaking, grains are a type of grass. So is sugarcane. However, grain grasses like corn, oat, and wheat are grown for the kernels that grow at the top. These kernels are essentially edible berries. When dried and milled, they can become flour – or whiskey!
In contrast, sugarcane doesn’t have kernels. Instead, it’s grown for the sugary liquid contained within the stalk.
The twist here is that sorghum has a sort of dual identity, as there are different types of sorghum. Grain sorghum has kernels just like wheat and oat do. However, sweet sorghum is processed similarly to sugarcane. The stalk is crushed, and the resulting juice is reduced down to sorghum syrup. Part of the confusion arises because this syrup is sometimes labeled and sold as sorghum molasses.
The word molasses doesn’t imply a sugarcane base. By itself, molasses just means a syrup made from reducing a sugar-containing liquid. Sugarcane molasses, beet molasses, and sorghum molasses are all types of molasses, but they are not the same thing.
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If we go back to 2012, the TTB seemed to understand that mashes that aren’t 100% sugarcane-based cannot make a rum:
In some instances, products identified by importers as Cachaça have been manufactured using a small quantity of corn or corn syrup in the fermentation process. Since these products do not meet the standard for rum as described at § 5.22(f), TTB has required the labeling of these products as distilled spirit specialty products in accordance with § 5.35.
Nonetheless, the TTB seems confused about sorghum. It’s alternately approved and rejected sorghum rum labels over time. Circa 2013, it approved Wilderness Trail’s Harvest Rum, which Wayne Curtis wrote about for Distiller. Interestingly, this article quotes a TTB spokesperson, “There’s a standard of identity for rum, and sorghum will not get you there.”
Huh? Which is it?
Further confusing matters, there are several sorghum whiskies on the market.
To be clear, I take no issue with anyone making a spirit with whatever they desire. But the resulting spirit should be labeled with the appropriate category as defined by local regulations. For sorghum, the appropriate category would seem to be whiskey, or perhaps “Other Specialties & Proprietaries.” The Wilderness Trail product is specified as such, whereas the Grandaddy Mimm’s is noted as a “Rum Specialty.” Go figure.
What can we rum enthusiasts do about this sorghum rum’s labeling? Sadly, very little. The TTB has no defined way for consumers to bring mislabeled products to its attention. (Update: This page offers some small glimmer of hope.)
Why Does This Matter?
Some people may dismiss the above as much ado about nothing. “Why does it matter?”
The simple answer is that geographical indications and standards of identity are intended to protect and inform consumers by letting them know what they’re buying. Many spirits aficionados sleep better at night knowing that if the label says bourbon, it’s made in the US from at least 51% corn and distilled to less than 80% ABV. Likewise, if a label says single malt Scotch whisky, we know it was made from 100% malted barley in Scotland and distilled in pot stills.
Furthermore, these labeling rules also protect the reputation and intellectual property of spirits makers who make products in the tradition associated with the category name, e.g., cognac or pisco.
If we accept that these category labeling regulations are important for protecting the reputation of bourbon, single malt Scotch, tequila, and cognac, then we must do the same for rum. When we don’t — I’m looking at you, US TTB — it relegates rum to second-class status. That’s not right.