Nate Brown v Sly Augustin: Is tiki bad for rum?

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

01 October 2018

We love a strong opinion at Imbibe, and Nate Brown’s recent opinion piece about rum was certainly that. It got plenty of people debating the assertions that the Merchant House co-owner made.

Among those responses was one from Trailer Happiness owner Sly Augustin, who felt that Brown had unfairly put tiki in the crosshairs, blaming it for the current standing of the rum category as a whole.

We thought it was only fair to allow the two to duke it out between themselves (by medium of Facebook messenger), exploring whether rum’s relationship with tiki is damaging to the category. Here’s what they both had to say…

Nate: For me, rum as a spirit has all the DNA in production to be a fine spirit demanding a premium price, à la most whiskies and cognacs.

It is not, however, viewed in this light. Products like Foursquare's exceptional cask series or the Samaroli bottlings exist within this sphere, but not the price point. If these were whiskies – and I know Samaroli do more whisky then rum – they'd be fawned over and respected more.

As it is, far too many thought leaders in the rum category are glued to tiki shirts, which I think does the category no good at all. Rum is too tightly tied to tiki to garner enough respect for premium offerings to become solidly mainstream in the UK market.

It's pretty hard not to sound like a rant, it's not a rant. I want to see some high-end rums in more places.

Sly: The question you have to ask is why tiki shirts are so connected to rum. Could it be that those same tiki-loving vagabonds are the reason the rum category sustained itself during the decades? Now it seems that, as well as those genuinely in love with rum, we are seeing whisky lovers who have been priced out of the market turning to rum as a surrogate.

Being from Notting Hill, I can tell you that your argument sounds a lot like gentrification. You want the riffraff that made the area popular and vibrant to move out so you can increase the rent. I understand it from a business point, but the success of rum shouldn't be tied to its ability to price out its core following. I'd be interested to know what the ideal price point for premium rum would be in your mind.

A bottle of Yamazaki 50yo just sold for £225,000. Is this where rum needs to end up?

Nate: Sure, those prices are ridiculous but, controversially, I’d say if we had rum in those echelons it could make premium rum more of an aspirational product and we’d see more premium [products] available in the mass market.

But we don’t, and the rum thought leaders and biggest brands still focus on the escapism and feel-good factors, which (perhaps inadvertently) cheapens perceptions and does not do enough to promote a market for premium rum.

The result is that the only rum in most bars and pubs (pubs being where the article referred to) is frankly shit. I’ve been careful not to blame tiki, and am reluctant to get drawn into a debate around tiki, though I will say that if the only ones promoting rum are aligned with tiki, it will not become an aspirational product.

The key here is the word 'only'. If suddenly four or five brands hired ambassadors in smart outfits to push their brands we might see a shift in perceptions, which I’d argue would be beneficial for the category.

Sly: Despite how some may choose to market their product I think it’s important not to confuse culture and heritage with marketing. While I agree that rum is largely undersold and certainly misunderstood I feel the primary solution is education and I don’t believe the modern consumer cares whether that’s delivered by a person in a nice suit or a tiki shirt – I certainly don’t think people necessarily think 'truth and honesty' when looking at men in suits these days.

We all know of 'premium' rum brands that have adopted the smartly dressed approach to great success despite their liquid being far from premium, I don’t think this is helpful to the category. How do you alter the DNA of rum?

For centuries it’s offered respite to the subjugated and the downtrodden. Rum is the spirit of revolution, not leisurely pursuits, and it speaks more to celebration than acquisition. When British sailors were drinking their tots of rum, the aristocracy were enjoying drams of whisky. This is rum. You cannot change the history of the spirit, you can only embrace and celebrate it as we move forward. I know you’re not suggesting everyone burn their tiki shirts, but I would hate for premium rum to go the way of premium whisky where the liquid becomes little more than an appreciative asset, something to be stored and ‘flipped’ rather than consumed.

The premium rum category is not suffering from a lack of growth, it’s better than ever – let’s remember bulk rum sales keep distilleries open not small batch – and I can still mostly afford it. Ultimately, I guess I love rum slightly more than money… which might explain why I bought Trailer Happiness in the first place.

Nate: At the risk of repeating myself, I’m a romantic. I believe that part of the magic of spirits is in their heritage and craft. Merchant House is built on these stories and the added value guests receive when we share them. Aligning this history with proud distilling and careful crafting of the liquid elevates the entire category.

It has the makings of a lofty aspirational brand, which could promote transparency and quality. But the problem is that too much of the promotion alludes to the feel-good and care-free, and these two principal personas are unbalanced.

As a result we have a mass audience that thinks of rum as a cheap cocktail ingredient and the overwhelming majority of venues have a substandard rum offering. If we want to drink a decent rum, our options are limited beyond belief. The thought leaders have a responsibility to do more. Paying more is only fair.

 Sly: I take your point regarding sub-standard rum in commercial venues, but the places selling crap rum are selling low-quality spirits across the board. And probably shit beer to boot.

I have no issue paying more for good rum, I'm on the ballot for a bottle of Caroni 2000 as we speak. I just don't think bottles of rum need to be £300,000, or even £30k, unless they carry significant historical significance.

Nate: True. I think we can agree the balance is slightly askew though, meaning rum is under-priced and as a result undervalued. How that’s corrected and to what cost is up for debate.

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