The “premium” rum segment has, for some time, been subject to some troubling trends.
As a craft beer enthusiast and writer, it’s not hard to see some parallels forming here, in terms of consumer taste and what drinkers are being sold on. In a word, it’s all about sugar.
Drinkers are being sold on sweetness, up and down the alcohol industry. In beer, sugar is being delivered these days via fruited, vanilla-infused milkshake IPAs, adjunct-laden hazy IPAs and kettle sours, and the much sought-after “pastry stouts” with 10-item adjunct lists that are as likely to include breakfast cereals or candy bars as anything else. Subtlety and restraint have been pushed out the window, and in many corners, absolute hedonism (with no sense of refinement) is currently reigning.
The same is increasingly true of rum, or at least the “premium” rum segment typified by the Ron Zacapas and Diplomaticos of the world. And although there isn’t anything inherently wrong with selling very sweet, very rich drams of a spirit like rum—there’s always going to be a customer out there who wants that—it’s the fact that the marketing tends to be so inherently deceptive that gets our hackles up. Whether it’s implying your liquid to be older than it really is, or modifying it with added sugars and colors, the “premium” segment has blurred the lines between what aged rums are “supposed” to taste like and what customers now expect. And along the way, the industry has normalized some practices that seem a little on the shady side when accurately explained to the consumer.
Enter, Papa’s Pilar, an Ernest Hemingway-inspired rum company (his fishing boat and second wife were named “Pilar”) based in Key West that has been producing fairly complicated blended rum products on the periphery of the “premium” category since 2013. Their bottles, sold under the Papa’s Pilar banner, blend both their own U.S. produced rum and a bevy of Caribbean rums of various ages into a solera system, in which rums are eventually aged in used bourbon, port and sherry casks. Available in two expressions, a “Blonde” and a “Dark”—confusing as always, given that “dark rum” has essentially no legal definition within the U.S.—these products hang out on the edge of the boundaries between “premium” and more affordable product. In execution, though, we can’t help but find that they echo several of the currently problematic aspects of the industry.
First of all, there’s the fact that each of the two prominently bears a number on the front label—a “7” on the Blonde and a “24” on the Dark. Although the company will happily tell you (if you choose to look into it, which most never will do) that these numbers don’t imply 7 or 24-year-old age statement, that is of course the implication they’re hoping customers will arrive at anyway. You can thank Ron Zacapa 23 for normalizing this particular method of marketing a product—because Papa’s Pilar is solera-aged, like Ron Zacapa, they can technically claim that some very small trace of rum “up to” 23 or 24 years of age exists in either bottle. In reality, the majority is much younger. And once again, that’s okay—the age is what it is. It’s the deceptive nature of the advertising we take umbrage with, because the company can’t claim to be unaware that the average person in the liquor aisle will associate that number with age. It’s the reason why the number is there.
Then, there’s the issue of added sweeteners and coloring agents, which is a hot-button issue all throughout the rum world these days. They too have been normalized in the premium category, used to add intense (and artificial) sweetness, caramelization and vanillans to rums in the pursuit of producing particularly decadent drams. Once again: That’s a valid way to make a product. The problem comes up from the fact that the rum producers rarely, if ever, disclose when any kind of additional sugars have been added.
But enough talk about generalities. Let’s taste each of these Papa’s Pilar bottles.
The composition of each of these bottles is complicated enough that I should repeat exactly what this product is: Papa’s Pilar Blonde Rum is a blend of U.S., Central American and Caribbean rums, apparently ranging from 3-7 years in age, that were “Solera-aged in used bourbon and port barrels,” and then “finished in Spanish sherry casks before bottling.” That is a lot of different styles of barrels involved, especially for something that is on the “white rum” spectrum. MSRP is $34.99, which puts it above the range of the majority of non-rhum agricole white rums, but below the range of most well-aged gold rums. “Blonde” is an interesting choice of distinction, hinting at the fact that this is white-ish, but not entirely.
On the nose, it’s immediately clear you’re not dealing with a classic-style white rum here. Whereas those are usually fairly neutral and maybe just slightly sweet, the plethora of barrels involved in Papa’s Pilar Blonde have all left their mark significantly, giving it healthy notes of vanilla and roasted nuts. Even if you didn’t know that sherry barrels had been involved, the nuttiness and vinous character would be a dead giveaway. In general, though, the nose is fairly appealing—significantly sweeter and richer than you expect in any kind of white rum, but in good moderation.
On the palate, suspicions are confirmed—this is much sweeter than you expect from white rum, although it’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case. Big vanilla notes are prevalent, and something like marshmallow fluff/marzipan, along with fruit impressions of super ripe banana, brown sugar and coconut candy. It does taste distinctly “sugary” and slightly artificial, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still pleasant to drink neat—it is, in its own way. Also: I firmly believe that if you blindfolded someone who knows spirits well and had them taste this, they’d guess that it was dark rum. In general, I like it more than anything in our recent blind tasting of bottom-shelf white rums.
The irony, of course, is that this wouldn’t be an ideal rum in any universe for making a proper Hemingway Daiquiri—the version of the drink that calls for grapefruit juice and sweet maraschino liqueur in addition to the expected lime and simple syrup. Papa’s Pilar Blonde is far too sweet for that, and would no doubt produce a cloying Hemingway Daiquiri. With that said, I think this could actually produce a very tasty classic daiquiri, provided you cut down the simple syrup, or perhaps cut it out altogether. Ultimately, this Blonde rum feels like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s an undeniably tasty one. It also proves to be the better of the two from Papa’s Pilar.
The “dark” version of Papa’s Pilar Rum is likewise a blend of rums from all over, although its provenance seems even more nebulous. It bears a prominent “24,” but once again that refers only to the oldest rum that has ever entered the solera, even if it makes up .001% of what remains in it. Like other rums that are simply labeled as “dark” rather than simply “aged” with an age statement, it is entirely possible that some kind of added caramel coloring helps it achieve its appearance in the bottle or the glass. It carries an MSRP of $44.99.
Certainly, it smells and tastes like there are added sugars involved. On the nose, this is very rich, redolent of toffee and dark fruit jam. Where the Blonde Rum feels more sherry-like on the nose, this one is definitely more of a port bomb.
On the palate, Papa’s Pilar Dark is very, very sweet, but oddly hot as well—for whatever reason, the ethanol seems a bit more abrasive here than in the Blonde, which I certainly didn’t expect. Molasses richness explodes on the palate with syrupy intensity, nearly covering up some interesting, biscuit-like maltiness and dark fruitiness, before a long, intense finish of vanilla extract. All in all, there are some interesting flavors in the wings here, but they’re all overtaken and ultimately carried away by residual sugar.
In the end, both of these rums are trying to capture a currently popular profile, but the easier hand works significantly better within the confines of the Blonde than it does in the Dark.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.