The longer a rum spends time in a wooden barrel before being bottled, the more it acquires new flavors that add to its taste and overall character. But if you have a bottle of rum in your hands and you are trying to determine how old that rum is, it can be a pretty difficult task!
When it comes to rum, a few rules apply. The fact that rum from Martinique (french west indies) is one of the only ones to benefit from an AOC (“Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” in french) perfectly illustrates this.
Moreover, in terms of aged rums, based on how the rum was aged, different effects and conditions come in play and it can be pretty difficult to determine the actual age of a rum. For instance, some people estimate that one year in barrels under the Antilles sun is the equivalent of 4 years in Europe!
However, this did not hinder the implementation of the first liquor classification rules, which are also used when classifying products such as Cognac and Armagnac (a type of Brandy). Nonetheless, you might run into some rather mysterious abbreviations used when classifying liquors. These include VS, VSOP or XO. To make things even worse, there are still some sub-classifications within each category.
Be that as it may, having these classifications is already a good start. Understanding what each abbreviation stands for will not only help you to better choose your rum in the future, but will also make you appear more knowledgeable in social settings!
VS for “Very Special” rum
Although it is “very special”, this rum is often considered as the starter when it comes to aged rum! A VS rum is one that has been in barrels for at least two years before being bottled. But if you’re dealing with a rum made of a mixture of other types of rums (of different ages), the rum would be referred to as “Very Special” only if the youngest rum in the mixture has been aged for at least two years.
In addition to “Very Special”, other expressions such as “Very Superior” and “Trois Étoiles” (Three Stars) are also used to refer to the same category.
VO for “Very Old” rum
The AOC Martinique does not use the abbreviation VS but rather, VO. This is used for any rum that has been stored in barrels for at least three years.
In this case, we can also refer to the rum as “Old”.
VSOP for “Very Special Old Pale” rum
This category refers to rum that has been aged in barrels for at least 4 years.
Other names used for this category include: “Very Superior Old Pale” and “Réserve”, or, as specified by the AOC Martinique, “Très Vieux”, “Réserve Spéciale” or “Cuvée Spéciale”.
XO rum for “Extra Old”
Rums in this category are those that have aged in barrels for at least 6 years. They are also called “Napoleon” or “Out of Age”. In the case of the AOC Martinique, we also use the following terms: “Extra Old” or “Grande Réserve”.
Beware of getting this mixed up with « xo », a sign of affection that is usually used by English speakers at the end of their text messages, emails or online conversations!
Exceptional vintage rum
Here we are dealing with big rums, those that have aged so much that they are considered exceptional.
Among these, the most exceptional are surely the vintages. For a rum to be categorized as such, it must meet two strict criteria. First, it must come from a single harvest and therefore cannot be a mixture of several rums aged over different years. However, not all rums that meet this criterion are vintage. The second criterion is, the rum must also have been created during a year that is considered as “extraordinary” for one reason or another. Each year does not have the same importance.
These rums are exceptionally tasty, and it goes without saying: they are sold at “exceptional” prices!