The TTB Wants Our Opinions on How It Regulates Rum. So Let’s Make Them Heard.

On November 28, 2018, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a 132-page proposal titled, “Modernization of the Labeling and Advertising Regulations for Wine, Distilled Spirits, and Malt Beverages.”

As an enjoyer of rum, I felt a glimmer of hope. For years, leaders in the global rum community have lamented the lack of standards and subcategories for rum in the Code of Federal Regulations that governs the labelling and advertising of distilled spirits in the United States. While the CFR establishes many subcategories (called “types”) for spirits like whiskey and brandy that protect geographical identity and also help consumers recognize quality, it does not do the same for rum.

To give you a sense of the disparity, here are what you could essentially call the TTB’s “rules” for rum next to the rules for whiskey and brandy:

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While the whiskey class is broken up into types that indicate certain standards of production or geographic origin (like bourbon whiskey, straight whiskey, light whiskey, blended whiskey, Scotch whiskey, etc.), the generic rum class covers all spirits distilled 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.”

There is only one type within the rum class in the CFR—cachaca, which it defines as “rum that is a distinctive product of Brazil, manufactured in Brazil in compliance with the laws of Brazil regulating the manufacture of Cachaça for consumption in that country.” The TTB added this type in 2013.

Imagine someone asking you, “What types of rum exist?” and responding with, “Well, you’ve got rum and then you’ve got cachaca.” We all know that would be a gross mischaracterization. And yet, that’s how the U.S. treats rum.

As Richard Seale, owner and master distiller at the revered Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados, said back at the 2018 London Rumfest, “This is why you can put the word ‘agricole’ on any shit you want in America.”

So I was hopeful that, within these proposed updates to the CFR, the TTB would finally offer at least some progress on the rum category. But that hope waned with every line I read in the 132-page proposal. Because even though the TTB went to the trouble to propose two new types of whiskey (“white whiskey” and “unaged whiskey”) to go along with the 50+ that already exist, it proposed to update next to nothing in the rum class.

Still, my hope was not entirely extinguished.

See, the TTB published the proposal publicly in part to seek comments from the public before the official amendments are made to the CFR. It doesn’t matter if you’re a distiller, investor, owner, or simply an imbiber like me—you can submit your comments on the proposal to the TTB. The best part? Once submitted and received, the TTB makes those comments viewable to everyone right here.

When I first scrolled through the public comments I expected to see legions of rum artisans and enthusiasts fighting for the changes that they believe would help elevate the rum category. And yet after reading through all 135 of the comments that have been submitted to date, I couldn’t find one consequential mention of rum from the public.

Until this past Saturday.

Andrew Lohfeld, the co-founder and head distiller at Roulaison Distilling Company in Louisiana, submitted the type of comment I was hoping to find—a succinct, thoughtful proposal that fights for the type of updates many in the rum community have long been hoping for. The introduction to his proposed ideas sums up the problem with the TTB’s current rum regulations far better than I ever could:

“Along with the changes proposed by your office, I would like to submit for your consideration some modifications to the rum category that I believe to be long overdue. As a producer of American made rum, I’ve watched as the whiskey category has flourished, with the type designations and standards for whiskey growing to accommodate the ingenuity and creativity of its producers. I’m left to wonder if the rum category is being relegated to the sidelines; rum’s resurgence, my peer’s innovations, and a return to traditional, artisanal production left stymied by a lack of opportunity codified into regulations. With seven major types of grains, new and used cooperage, white, unaged, blended, straight, light, and spirit whiskies, there are over fifty different type standards for whisky, excluding geographic designations. Rum has a single type standard. One. How can rum producers elevate and expand the category when we are all ultimately lumped into the same standards?”

Listen—I know all of us have our own ideas on the specific updates that should be made to the rum class. You may agree with some of Andrew’s ideas. You may vehemently disagree with them.

(You can read them all right here, by the way.)

All of that is beside the ultimate point, which is this—now is the time for us to follow his example. I have no idea whether submitting formal comments to the TTB on its proposal will actually make a difference or not. But I do know saying nothing will guarantee that nothing changes.

As I mentioned earlier, there are currently 135 comments on the proposal. What would happen if we added 135 more, all specifically addressing the shortcomings of the TTB’s current rum regulations? Maybe nothing. But at the risk of sounding like a total Pollyanna, we won’t know unless we try.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that, as I alluded to earlier, even the rum community has a hard time agreeing on the best way to classify different types of rums. Leaders like Richard Seale, Luca Gargano (of Velier), and Martin and Rebecca Cate (founders and owners of Smuggler’s Cove, among other tiki establishments) have created their own classification systems, but none are universally recognized by producers or enthusiasts.

Still, the groundwork they’ve laid is important, and can be helpful as you form your own opinions on the changes the TTB should consider making. If you want to bring yourself up to speed on these (and other) classification systems, I highly recommend checking out Matt Pietrek's 2016 article, “Categorically Flawed — How Rum’s Classifications Hold It Back.” It's the most comprehensive primer I've seen on the subject, and may help you sort through your own thoughts.

The TTB recently extended the deadline for submitting comments to June 25, 2019. So if you’re interested in making your voice heard, here are the relevant links:

I’m off to write my own comment, and I hope you’ll consider doing the same—regardless what ideas you propose. We don’t need to all agree on the same rules and regulations for rum in the U.S. We just need to move the conversation forward.