Cane changers: Pushing spiced rum's boundaries

Clinton Cawood

Clinton Cawood

05 May 2020

While it’s always been stylistically diverse, rum’s boundaries are being pushed ever further by a wave of new products, from dry spiced examples to unusual botanical rums. Clinton Cawood boards the new cane train

Spare a thought for the rum aficionados. The true believers who have navigated this near impenetrable category over the years, with its complex regulations and production methods, while tolerating hordes of spiced Rum & Cola drinkers along the way. Soon they’ll be echoing die-hard gin fans with the cane equivalent of ‘but it’s supposed to taste like juniper...’. Because rum is changing as it goes boldly forth into the mainstream. While on the one hand the category is legitimising, and headed in an ever more premium direction, innovation is increasingly challenging established styles and conventions, for better or worse.

Just as GIs are created and the industry tackles issues such as the addition of sugar, new flavoured rums and hybrid styles are shaking things up. Botanicals are at the fore, new flavours are emerging, and dry styles of spiced are being produced. It’s the sign of a vibrant category at its peak, but it’s not without its challenges.

Cane converts

The hope, amidst all of this new activity, is that this has the potential to bring new drinkers into the category, and perhaps eventually introduce them to the more premium end of what rum has to offer. As Trailer Happiness owner Sly Augustin puts it: ‘Time will tell whether any of these styles last, but it’s at least good to see so many people excited about rum.’

There are parallels with flavoured gin... It’s an easy segue into the spiced rum world

Dean MacGregor

Laki Kane’s Georgi Radev agrees. ‘All of these new styles of rums are good. They bring something new to consumers and are making the category richer, while introducing more people to rum.’ While global rum ambassador Ian Burrell isn’t necessarily impressed with the innovation behind a lot of these new products, he is taken with the way they’re being presented. ‘They have all been done many times before, but what I do see is the creative way that these flavoured rums are marketed. It is attracting a new audience, and not necessary exclusively rum drinkers,’ he says. The predominant use of spice and botanicals in particular make these accessible to contemporary drinkers who are no strangers to gin, not to mention botanical mixers, non-alc botanical drinks and more.

‘These will definitely attract consumers into the category,’ says Speciality Brands’ rum ambassador Dean MacGregor. ‘There are parallels with flavoured gin, and people understand that. It’s an easy segue into the spiced rum world.’ Gergo Muráth of Trailer Happiness explains further: ‘There’s a diversification of flavours from your bog standard vanilla, cinnamon and sweetness combo, into botanical rums, non-sweetened spiced rums, smoked rums... All of these can help people get into the category,’ he says. This was the thinking behind Netherlands distillery Spirited Union’s botanical rums: ‘We look to grow the awareness of rum by targeting a consumer that’s looking for a sophisticated drink – not for... washing down with cola – and isn’t necessarily thinking of rum in the first place,’ says founder Ruben Maduro.

Tidal, a golden rum infused with oak-smoked pepper dulse seaweed, also has new rum drinkers – and G&T fans in particular – in mind. ‘At tastings some customers are initially sceptical about rum, either from a bad experience drinking too many Rum & Colas, or the association with an overly flavoured, sweetened “rum”. We’ve seen non-rum drinkers converted by Tidal – those who would traditionally be of the Gin & Tonic set, or traditional whisk(e)y drinkers who enjoy it straight up,’ explains Tidal’s Harry Coulthard.

BrewDog Distilling Co has created a botanicals-led rum of its own, Five Hundred Cuts, which is made using BrewDog’s own pot-distilled white rum and infused with lavender, clove, tonka bean, mace and more. ‘We see an opportunity to recruit gin drinkers by creating a bridge from the language of botanicals, which is well understood, to explain how we derive the spiced flavours in our botanical rum,’ says the distillery’s David Gates. The responsibility when it comes to these new products lies in educating new drinkers about where they fit in the category.

Often we see rums that are quite obviously spiced or flavoured, but paraded as traditional

Sly Augustin

‘We need to make it clear to consumers that this is not traditional rum,’ says Radev. ‘In this way new rum drinkers can go on to try other rums and better understand the category.’ William Borrell, who helped develop Dead Man’s Fingers Hemp for owner Halewood Wines & Spirits, agrees. ‘One of the issues is that without the right education there could be a whole generation of bartenders that assume hemp rum is your default spiced rum. And it’s clearly not a classic spiced rum.’

Learning curve

But insufficient education is just one potential pitfall for the category in the face of these new styles. For one thing, it may be too optimistic to think that these new rum drinkers will move towards the more premium end of the category at all. ‘I used to think that would be the case, that you would start off on spiced rums, then progress to “real” premium un-spiced expressions,’ says Burrell. ‘But research has shown that as they get older many spiced rum drinkers stick to a favourite.’

Indeed, some of the communication, and the styles themselves of some entry-point products don’t encourage a move into the rest of the category at all. ‘Often we see rums that are quite obviously spiced or flavoured, but paraded as premium and/or traditional, which doesn’t help to transition consumers to premium rum, but instead creates a distorted and inaccurate idea of what rum should taste like,’ says Augustin.

The rum character – and ultimately rum content – of flavoured and spiced products is an important consideration. ‘You have products that are merely vodkas with spices, sugar and caramel added to them, which are then sold as rum because they have a sailor, pirate or Caribbean theme on the label,’ says Burrell. ‘These products sit side by side on the shelves with real rums that have been spiced.’ Peter Thornton, brand ambassador for Black Tears, a dry spiced rum made with a Cuban rum base, agrees. ‘The biggest downside is that as the flavoured/spiced category becomes bigger and more popular, there will be brands created purely to ride the trend, that will be no more than liqueurs, and may or may not contain some form of rum.’

Better bases

Fortunately, like Black Tears, there are a number of recent launches that do place an emphasis on using rums with provenance as a base. ‘A positive is that brands releasing spiced and flavoured options are using bases from reputable distilleries, and not drowning their products in artificial flavouring to mask a bad distillate,’ agrees Muráth.

Radev has been working on with London’s Bimber Distillery on a Laki Kane Spiced Dry Rum that places much of its emphasis on the base spirit. ‘We add over 20 spices and dried fruits and distil again to add bucketloads of aromas and flavours, but we leave the rum itself to be the king. And after distillation we don’t add anything aside from distilled water,’ he explains.

These new styles of flavoured rums are putting more tools in the hands of skilled bartenders

Georgi Radev

‘Something like dry spiced rum can have a bit more provenance, rather than bulk rum with flavouring in it,’ adds MacGregor. ‘Laki Kane is doing a good thing with theirs. It’s accessible to consumers, and proves that rum isn’t inherently sweet.’ One product that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is the aforementioned Dead Man’s Fingers Hemp. It is not only infused with a controversial headline ingredient, but has a solid base rum. The base is a blend of two-year-old Caribbean rum, so you’re getting a much better product,’ says Borrell.

For bartenders, all of this innovation should mean a greater array of styles and flavours to play with behind the bar, whether that’s a dry spiced rum for lighter serves, or new botanicals such as hemp or pepper dulse. As Radev puts it: ‘These new styles of flavoured rums are putting even more tools in the hands of skilled bartenders.’

‘Besides creating simple serves with more complex flavour profiles, these are also excellent cocktail ingredients – think of how much we use spice in rum-based punches anyway!’ Muráth points out. Burrell agrees. ‘Most people who drink rum products love spices, so naturally there is potential for the trade to offer new flavour profiles within their cocktails.’

In the mix

Bars are taking advantage of the opportunity when it comes to cocktails. Callooh Callay, for example, makes use of Spirited Union’s Spice & Sea Salt in an otherwise traditional Daiquiri. And Laki Kane’s Radev has used Five Hundred Cuts to create the Curious Colada, using it with coconut, passion fruit juice, salt, and Fentimans Tropical Soda.

Relatively new spiced rum brand Rockstar worked with Fentimans for the launch of that same pineapple and cardamom Tropical Soda recently, combining it with its Grapefruit and Honeycomb Overproof Rum. The company has also worked with Coca-Cola on its premium Signature Mixers range, combining its Two Swallows Citrus and Salted Caramel Spiced Rum with Coca-Cola Signature Smoky for a new take on the spiced Rum & Cola.

‘We’re working with several major on-trade groups to develop premium spirit and mixer menus using our rums, using the concept seen with premium G&T pairings, but with my rums alongside the new breed of premium mixers,’ explains Rockstar’s founder Tom Hurst. MacGregor sees this tie in with top-end mixers as an opportunity for the category.

We’re... using the concept seen with premium G&T pairings, but with my rums alongside... mixers

Tom Hurst

‘A lot of the groundwork has been done by mixer companies like Three Cents and Sekforde, so it’s an easy transition for people who are unfamiliar with the category,’ he says. Hurst agrees. ‘The boom in quality, interesting gin would not have been as exciting without the incredible growth of new and exciting tonics that occurred at the same time.’

Rude health

Whether it’s being driven by all of this innovation, or it’s just a category whose time has finally come, it’s definitely a good time for rum. ‘My backbar isn’t big enough to house all the good rum being produced, and in the last year we’ve seen new independent bottlers popping up across the UK with excellent offerings,’ says Augustin. ‘There’s a growing demand and knowledge from guests. A subset of them know about quality, premium rums, and actively seek them out,’ agrees Muráth. The future for cane spirits looks bright, and it seems there will be plenty to satisfy new arrivals and its aficionados.

This feature was orignally published on the 2020 Spring issue of Imbibe Magazine.

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