Premium rum growth hindered by lack of understanding, says Mount Gay master blender

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

19 October 2018

For years, we’ve heard that rum is ‘the next big thing’ – and yet, consumer appreciation of high-quality rum still seems to dwarf in comparison to that of gin and whisky.

So when Mount Gay Rum’s master blender Allen Smith came to town to promote the launch of his new expression XO Peat Smoke – a luxury retail release coming in at a casual £200 – Imbibe was keen sit down with him and ask about the challenges facing premium rum from a producer’s perspective.

Smith’s answer? Growth of the premium rum category could be hindered by consumer confusion, particularly over age statements and the addition of sugar to the liquid.

The age of confusion

When it comes to ageing, Smith indicated that consumers often incorrectly hold rum to the same standards as whisky due to the latter spirit’s widespread popularity.

‘We want our rum to be appreciated in the same way [as whisky] and our industries are very similar, but the advantage we have is that because of the tropical conditions [at the Mount Gay distillery in Barbados], our spirits mature much faster than they do in Scotland, so our rums come into maturity much quicker,’ Smith explained.

‘This is where it’s important to differentiate between chronological age and maturity as they’re not the same. The maturation process is a physical and chemical process influenced by temperature and humidity. Just by maturing products in a different environment, we can achieve full maturity in a third or a quarter of the time.’

So how do these differences in speed of maturation relate to actual ageing time?

‘For a 10yo Scotch [equivalent], we would only have to mature the rum for three, four years maximum,’ said Smith. ‘For a 30yo Scotch, it’d be 10 years for rum.’

He also pointed out that rum’s quicker maturation is an important selling point for the spirit, once consumers understand what it means. ‘Consumers are keen to save money,’ he commented. ‘If you think of a 60yo Scotch, you’re gonna pay what? £2,000 depending? A 60yo Scotch is like a 20yo rum. But you can buy a 20yo rum – same maturity – for a couple of hundred bucks.’

A less-than-sweet problem

Another issue that is potentially quelling the growth of the premium rum category is the lack of standards around adding sugar to the product. Smith believes that sweeter rums are encumbering consumer appreciation of other premium styles.

‘We don't add sugars, but there are a lot of other producers that produce rums that are more like liqueurs because there's no standard,’ he said. ‘Consumers can become confused, because a lot of people will prefer something sweet over something not sweetened.

‘A true rum enthusiast will know that they don't need sugar in their rum. But inevitably you find people who are attracted to the taste [of these liqueur-like rums], because sugar can make it smoother.’

Still, even with a plethora of sweetened rums on the market, Smith doesn’t foresee the spirit heading the way of gin, with attention-grabbing colours and flavours that seem to veer away the definition of the juniper spirit entirely.

‘[The rum market has] been down the road of gin back in the 90s – rum flavours were all the rage. But it’s a phase, it’s a fad. Now there’s a consciousness of no artificial flavours or colours, and that's working in our favour. The rum industry has been there, but we've come out of it.

‘What we try to do is educate, because customers have a choice, and educated rum or spirit drinkers are more discerning.’

Can’t get enough on the hot topic of rum? Read Nate Brown and Sly Augustin’s debate on rum’s relationship with tiki here.

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