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Geeking Out About Sugar Cane - Montanya's Karen Hoskin

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Can you please give a short introduction to who you are and how you gained all your rum knowledge and experience?

My love affair with premium rum has lasted, without flagging, for more than thirty years. My tastes weren’t always very evolved, since my first introduction was to Old Monk Rum in India in January of 1989. I went through a Matusalem phase, then a Ron Zacapa phase and so on, until I really began to understand how to discern beautiful rums.

Much of my exposure was determined by the availability - or lack thereof - on liquor store shelves in the US years ago. It took detective work and international travel to find better and better rums as my tastes evolved. All I knew for sure during these years is that I love sugar cane spirits with a wild passion, and I deeply appreciate that I don’t get a hangover the next day. I typically only have a cocktail or two, but any other spirit will make me feel terrible even after one or two.

In 2008 when I was considering a career change, I knew I wanted to learn how to make rum. I started with a lobster pot on my stovetop at home - I am from Maine and came of age pulling pots in Penobscot Bay with my uncle and cousins. The domed lid of the pot created natural condensation. It wasn’t tasty, but it was a start. Then I began to learn from expert distillers like Jake Norris at Stranahan’s and Davy Lindig at Peach Street.They and their colleagues answered every question I ever had.

Over time, I have been educated on the frontier of rum, forging my own path, making what I like to sip, educating myself obsessively, and not always following the rules. My love of the spirit has not wavered. In addition to drinking it, I have loved reading about it, listening to experts talk about it, and visiting rum distilleries. It is a great joy to me that the conversation about premium rum has elevated so much over the last decade.

Karen Hoskin

What are the major strains of cane and do they produce significantly different product?

There are many species of sugar cane worldwide, not all in commercial use. They all share the family of Poaceae and genus name of Saccharum. The species names vary, with the most common ones including Officinarum, Edule, Spontaneum, Barberi, Ravennae, Sinensae, etc. Officinarum, which I remember by thinking of a Harry Potter spell, is the most commonly used in the making of sugar, molasses and rum.

Many of these are regionally specific. Officinarum hails from New Guinea, Barberi from India and Senensae from Taiwan and China. Some are richer in sucrose and more widely planted - like Officinarum. Spontaneum is more naturally disease and pest resistant but has a low sugar content and smaller stalks. Barberi is more resilient to changing temperature and moisture conditions.

Within genus and species, we also classify by strains and variants. Specific cane variants are identified by numbers rather than scientific names. The sugar cane I source directly from the growers is 299, although they are newly experimenting with variant 12-201, which promises higher sucrose content and more natural resilience to pests. I stay very on top of what is being grown because GMO sugar cane has snuck into the supply chain so quietly and quickly since 2017. I need to stay vigilant to avoid it.

Why is GMO even an issue? The one thing that is well established in the literature is that heavier pesticides are terrible for the land, especially in a monoculture practice without crop rotation. The only reason farmers introduce GMO strains is to be able to use heavier pesticides. Brazil, as the largest world producer by a factor of 2x, is converting their crops to GMO at a rate of 1.5 million hectares every 3 years. The US recently approved the import of sugar and molasses made from Brazilian GMO cane. I call this infiltration “the Morning Glory effect”. In American sugar cane fields, the Morning Glory vine creeps in and takes over, strangling the baby cane plants. GMO cane is doing the same, only to the end products we use to make things we love.

Unlike many plants, sugar cane grows in a variety of soils from acidic to alkaline (pH 5-8.5), clay to bauxitic, mollisols (well-drained), vertisols (heavy cracking), oxisols (acidic), histosols (loamy and peaty), and andisols (rocky). Cane benefits from a drier period in the last 3 months of its growing season, prior to harvest, to product the highest Brix. The plant is amazingly resilient in the tropics and subtropics to a variety of temperatures and moisture conditions, probably because it is a grass. It can survive being laid down on the ground by a hurricane, still harvestable. Because of these characteristics, we can reasonably assume that terroir is affected from year to year by all of these factors.

Most sugar cane stalks contain about 12% molasses, which is separated by milling, boiling, crystallizing and spinning in a centrifuge. The remainder – crystalized cane - is usually sent to the refinery for the making of table sugar. The refinery provides additional treatment with chemical flocculants, making the sugar crystals uniform in shape and color, as well as free of bagasse and impurities. Although this refining process adds nothing to the process of making rum, uses a ton of extra energy and removes natural flavor, the products are used, especially outside the Caribbean, as a base ingredient in rum.

How important are different strains in agricole vs molasses rum?

I don’t think this is a factor. I could be wrong but the way I understand it, molasses just sort of “is”. It is not made better or worse, more or less flavorful by strain. Terroir would need to be pretty robust to shine through the flavor of molasses.

How much does the location of the cane impact the final result in molasses rum? Country A buys molasses from country B, but then has to switch to buying from country C. Will it be much different?

It depends on the rest of the production process. If a producer is adding sugar, flavorings or caramel to their rum, the subtleties of the base ingredient will be harder to detect behind the additives. The type of yeast, the type of still (aka potstill) and the freshness of the barrel may contribute a dominant flavor profile that would also hide the shift. Many producers are blending from a number of origins, so a shift in one origin would probably be hard to detect.

But if a distiller uses a single source of cane, avoids additives, uses minimal or no filtration, distills in a column and ages in an older barrel (or does not barrel age), I believe the change to a new sugar cane source might have a significant impact on the flavor of the liquid in the bottle.

In my case, I changed from Hawaii to Louisiana and found a detectable but subtle shift. I use Alembic copper pot stills, age all my rums in freshly dumped whiskey barrels, and add a minuscule trace amount of honey at bottling time. The change in profile was noticeable mainly on the finish of the rum, but it still tasted like Montanya rum to us.

How important is terroir in cane? When I began making rum in 2011, I was using cane grown and milled on the Hawaiian Islands. I would hear all the time that people tasted coffee notes in the rum. This came up in many product reviews between 2011 and 2014, but it rarely comes up anymore since we changed our cane supply to Louisiana. I suspect this was partly due to the terroir in the cane from the Kona coffee growing regions that were alongside the cane fields. It is a much less prominent flavor now in Montanya Rums now that we use Louisiana cane.

One of the great misunderstandings of terroir in rum is that Demerara rum gets its unique flavor profiles from the Guyana sugar cane sharing the same name. These rums are not actually made from Demerara cane, but evoke the name of the eponymous river near the distillery. It is their Port Mourant and Enmore Coffey stills that give these rums such a unique profile.

The best example of terroir in cane may be Clairin. If the stories are true, the Clairins from Haiti are made from wild species of sugar cane that are also wild fermented, which explains their unique flavors. These rums are grassy like agricoles, funky like Jamaicans and earthy like Mezcals. Part of this has got to be the sugar cane terroir.

It can be ha