Opinion: Will the real rum spirit please stand up?

Nate Brown

Nate Brown

21 August 2018

The recent growth of rum doesn't hide the fact that the category is confusing to customers. It's time for producers to stop obfuscating and grow up, says Nate Brown

You can get pretty much anything in a decent pub these days. Fancy a gin? No worries, we’ve a dozen. Fancy a scotch, not a problem, there’s 10. Fancy an Irish? We’ve got three, but they’re great. Fancy a rum? Sure, spiced?

My local offers one rum and two spiced. No prizes for guessing which brand. Premium rum, it seems, has been slow to catch up, or rather grow up, in its engagement with drinkers. This is an oddity.

Rum, with all its flaws would appear to have all the characteristics required for mass-market appeal. The liquid on the shelf seldom fits the bill, however.

What’s more, the rum category probably carries more confusion than even its esoteric friend Scotch. Offer a Bacardi drinker down the pub an alternative column-distilled Puerto Rican rum and see what response you get. Why is it that consumers don’t yet know real rum? Maybe it’s because rum itself doesn’t really know who it is?

Bonkers background

Then again, it’s hardly any wonder that rum has an identity crisis. Born from the waste product of an Indonesian crop, transported by European colonialists, cultivated by oppressed hands thousands of miles from home, drunk by privateers, mixed with from-the-carton juices and married with spice essences. If it were a person, its psychiatrist would be putting it on a watch list.

In today’s market, rum has seen an increase in sales paralleled to the much-lauded Irish whiskey category, even against a backdrop of low-ABV drinking, juniper hounds and a diversification of choice.

The papers are announcing that sales have passed the £1bn mark in the UK. But in what context? How much do we really know about our rums?

Add enough sugar to anything and the unwitting palate will moan for more.

Where gin has its ease of understanding through botanical referencing, and whisky (I’m thinking Scotch here) has a rigid framework of rules that demand labelling, rum’s easy-going, laid back approach permits an almost endless spectrum of interpretations. This is not always a good thing.

To begin with, the addition of sugar is permitted unannounced within the category. In principal, this should not be something to be scorned (dosage in champagne, anyone?) but as with any permission this can be, and often is, abused.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about the sheer quantities of sugar added, bringing many within nosing distance of ‘liqueur’ classification. These same brands are marketing themselves as ‘smooth’ (a word, along with ‘fruity’, banned in the Merchant House vocabulary - try bloody harder) and ‘sipping’, raising connotations of whisky, swirling tumblers and long ageing. All of which is horse poop. Add enough sugar to anything and the unwitting palate will moan for more.

How old are you again?...

What’s more, age statements in rum are about as dubious as McLovin’s ID. The EU’s wisdom is clear (long may she reign). The age must reflect the youngest liquid in the blend unless otherwise stipulated by the country of origin’s local laws. But who checks this? I’m not alone in my dubious eye-rolling.

Many of the stated ages rely on a solera system, which often indicates little more than a rough average. If the rumours are to be believed, it may even be the oldest.

To a regular consumer, who’s likely to believe that the age on the label is the age of the liquid, this is misdirection. Like the addition of sugar, the lenience in the regulation has become one of ‘give an inch, take a mile’. Unfortunately, as the consumer becomes more curious and educated, this inch may be enough to hang the category as perceived falsehoods are named and shamed.

Spiced rum’ is not rum, but a category in its own right.

Add to this the misnomer of spiced rums. ‘Rum may not be flavoured’ is one of the very few rules. Therefore ‘spiced rum’ is not rum, but a category in its own right. Try telling that to Captain Morgan’s hyped up sugar-fuelled carnival disciples.

However, there are those that take a different approach, most famously Richard Seale of Foursquare in Barbados. His policy of nothing added and complete transparency currently holds an almost cult-like status among the rum squad.

This aligns with the rise of independent bottlers, showcasing regionality like never before. The similarities with whisky are impossible to ignore.

Spirit distilled to a moderate ABV, then aged in casks for what we call in Ireland ‘a fair while’ to create a synergy of wood and liquid. Mmm yummy. But this whisky-like attribute also brings the scavengers. These bottlings are batch distilled, whereby scarcity is an unavoidable byproduct. As a result, savvy dealers are buying up stocks to sell at an inflated rate in years to come. This drives the retail price higher and higher.

Suddenly the shelf price of an 11-year-old rum is the equivalent of a 21-year-old Scotch. The fact that location of ageing is as important, if not more so, than time is not readily understood. All in all, the playing field becomes uneven.

Totally tropically tiki

It’s impossible to talk about rum without looking at what the big players are doing. Bacardi’s legacy (pun intended) over recent time has been to push rum down the carnival root, promoting associations of dancing, sexy peoples and music.

These cultural learnings enforce a low price point, conditioning the majority of drinkers to expect feel-good, price-friendly spirits, happily mixed with cola, ginger or in cheeky ‘Snaquiris’.

Inevitably this leads to tiki cocktails and feel-good tiki bars. If a potential connoisseur wants to enjoy rum, it’s a miracle to get past the grass-skirted wall. There simply aren’t enough sipping rum bars or serious educators, without whose guidance and protection, rum is left to become its own worst enemy.

In order for rum to play with the big boys it may have to grow up and lose the tiki shirts, and stop going to the same party every day.

Read more from Nate Brown here:
How the tipping point can beat the summer bar blues
Highballs are the future
Don’t stir my Negroni

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