Richard Seale resents the notion that rum has no rules. The fourth-generation Barbadian distiller works at Foursquare in Four Roads, Barbados, and is one of the spirit’s most outspoken defenders. On a beautiful day at the distillery, just past the copper still, he digs into this misconception.

“The cold reality is that if rum were produced by first-world, developed countries, the protections would be in,” says Seale, citing the protections afforded Cognac and bourbon. “If rum were produced by across-the-board major brands — there’s only one major brand, Bacardí — you would have protections. It’s cold-hearted economics.”

In rum-producing countries, rules of production (such as proof, distillate, and aging requirements) vary by destination of origin. In the U.S., however, standards for what constitutes rum are much, much looser, focusing primarily on base ingredients and disregarding geographic diversity. Even Brazil’s cachaça, because it’s distilled from sugar cane, is labeled a rum in the United States.

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The spirit’s democratic nature adds to the confusion. Roberto Serralles, a sixth-generation rum-maker at Puerto Rico’s Destilería Serralles, most famous for producing Don Q, believes the things that make rum so compelling can also baffle consumers. Uninitiated drinkers aren’t always certain what rum is, how it’s made, and which ones cost more and why.

“It’s not a lack of rules, it’s just an incredible diversity of rules, which can seem to a consumer to be a bit of the Wild West,” Serralles says. “The geography of rum production, when you look at it, it’s around the world. The No. 1 producer of rum is India right now.”

CARICOM, the consortium of 15 Caribbean countries, has created a standard for its participating nations. It prohibits adding coloring agents and reducing strength with anything but water, and requires tests for artificial color, among other regulations. Meanwhile, the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association has developed the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) mark, which has different tiers denoting base materials (sugarcane juice, molasses) and age statements: Authentic Caribbean Rum, “Matured” ACR, and “Deluxe” ACR.

Different rum-producing destinations have their own specifications, though. In Puerto Rico, for instance, even white rum must be aged for at least one year in a barrel and distilled at 189 proof. Rhum agricole from Martinique is protected by its French AOC, the same type of status afforded to Champagne. Jamaican law states that rum cannot be adulterated, such as with flavoring, without permission from a governmental agency. However, a company could buy bulk Jamaican rum, flavor it elsewhere, and sell it in the U.S. as Jamaican rum.

Age statements are where things get especially murky. “A marketing claim is acceptable even when it looks like an age statement,” says Bailey Pryor, founder and CEO of The Real McCoy rums, which are blended at Foursquare and named in homage to Prohibition-era smuggler Bill McCoy.

The forms that producers fill out and give to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for approval have different spaces for “marketing” and “age statements.” Labels are thus based on the honor system: No one is sent to check whether there’s actually 23-year-old rum in bottles brandished with a big “23” on the label. Yet, because alcohol does not have mandated ingredient labeling, producers cannot say whether a spirit has no sugar or chemicals added. Why? Because that would be classified as a “health” claim, which is not allowed by the TTB.

The Real McCoy puts its age statements in large font on the label, even its three and five year, to combat the unfair stigma placed on seemingly short-aged spirits. You can easily find Scotch or Irish whiskey aged for 25 years, but rum made in tropical climates will lose upwards of 10 percent of the liquid per year spent in the barrel to evaporation. (Compare that to Scotland, where the evaporation rate, or “angel’s share,” will only be 1 to 2 percent.) And so any spirit made in tropical conditions will naturally be younger.

At Don Q, Serralles forgoes age statements of any kind. Its aged expressions are named Añejo, which is a blend of three- to seven-year-old rums, and Gran Añejo, a blend of eight- to 12-year-olds.

“I could put a three on the label, but consumers have gotten used to seven, 12 year age claims,” says Serralles. “But when you age in the tropics, it’s so hard to get to those higher ages because of the cost. The evaporation rates are so massive, the costs are so high, that it’s hard to come up with a seven year old and try to sell it for under $20 — you’re really stretching your cost structure.

“We’re not gonna compete on that. We’re honest about our age claims. We’re not gonna do average age claims. It doesn’t work that way, and under U.S. rules, we couldn’t do that.”

Rums aged for many years have considerably higher prices. Jamaica’s Appleton Estate 30 year, which includes some 50 year aged rum in its blend, goes for $500 a bottle at Astor Wines and Spirits in NYC and cannot be found for less than $200 in an online search. Don Q Gran Añejo, on the other hand, retails for $64, and The Real McCoy 12 year is $40. Foursquare’s 2005 12-year-old rum is $60, if you can find it. A Scotch aged for 12 years would be priced similarly, but it isn’t as expensive to produce because distillers lose less to angel’s share.

Many rum-makers mention Scotland as a potential model for how to regulate and protect a spirit’s integrity while still allowing for creativity. But Scotland is one small country, not myriad countries speaking a range of languages. “It’s a very limited geography, few producers, and they’ve arrived at rules and have consistently held to those rules for 50 years,” Serralles says. “They have created an incredibly strong brand for what Scotch whisky is and what Scotch whisky isn’t. Can we get there with rum? I don’t know.”

Strict ingredient labeling, recognition of source country regulations, and enforcement of truth-in-age statements would go a long way toward undoing at least some U.S. consumer misunderstanding of the entire rum category. “I’d like to see the TTB not be so influenced by corporations,” Pryor says. “If consumers knew what was in their spirit, beer, and wine, they could make much more informed decisions.”