The spicemen cometh: Spiced rum

Richard Woodard

28 October 2015

Take the time to get to know the spiced rum category and it could add some real points of interest to your offering. Richard Woodard explores a landscape beyond Coke

It’s derided and dismissed by many among the bartending cognoscenti as some kind of sub-par rum RTD – too sweet, too obvious and not grown-up enough for a category that’s begging to be taken more seriously.

Spiced rum gets a bad press from drinks snobs the world over – well, everywhere, perhaps, except for the Caribbean, where nearly every rum shop has its own concoction of overproof plus fruit/bark/vanilla/whatever comes to hand.

Here, where it all began, ‘spice’ doesn’t mean spice in the sense of nutmeg or cinnamon; search hard enough (if you really want to) and you might find fish, insects and even raw meat lurking in a bottle of the local island hooch.

What started off as a local speciality – a way of disguising poor spirit, or an aphrodisiac of dubious efficacy, or even a delivery method for homespun remedies to tackle all manner of ailments – has since travelled the world and become one of the greatest marketing successes of the modern spirits industry. Led by Diageo’s Captain Morgan, spiced rum has seen sales skyrocket over the past few years, luring rum-shy consumers into the category with its promise of non-challenging, palate-friendly flavours.

The Kraken, Sailor Jerry, Bacardí Oakheart, Pink Pigeon, Lemon Hart Navy Spiced, Elements Eight Barrel Infused Exotic Spices, Pusser’s Spiced, Lamb’s Spiced (not technically a rum because of its low 30% abv)… A plethora of spiced rum brands has sprung up faster than you can say ‘bandwagon’. There’s even one named after a legendary porn star, Ron de Jeremy, if you’re looking for a new take on the phrase ‘stiff drink’.

Crowd pleaser
In the year to 21 March 2015, on-trade spiced rum sales were up 11.8% by volume and 18.5% by value, says Lisa Jazwinski, category director rum for Northern Europe at Bacardi, quoting CGA figures. ‘It’s clear that spiced rum is helping to bring consumers into the category and drive consideration of rums, particularly amongst the 18- to 25-year-old male audience,’ she adds.

Fine, but it’s still not being taken seriously by the upmarket on-trade.

‘Spiced rum is being stocked by the more premium outlets, but they tend not to do much with it,’ bemoans Peter Thornton, brand manager for Pusser’s at Cellar Trends. ‘It doesn’t really have a great reputation in [those] accounts.’

The vast majority of spiced rum in the on-trade is still being consumed in the tried and tested way – what Thornton calls the ‘n’Coke’ listing – which only perpetuates its lowly status with bartenders who like to take themselves more seriously. Sure, they’ll slosh some spiced rum and Pepsi into an ice-filled glass for you, but don’t expect them to waste time on anything more creative.

But there are signs of this changing, not least because the increased diversity of the spiced rum scene is spawning a growing number of more premium products, such as Elements Eight and Pink Pigeon. With their natural ingredients, more complex flavour profiles and back bar-friendly packaging, these are demanding the attention of sceptical bartenders and aching to escape being swamped in fizzy sweet caramel.

Rum marks the spot
Amid the marquee globo-brands of Morgan and Bacardí, it’s easy to forget that spiced rum can play the provenance card every bit as successfully as its mainstream sister category. This flags up the huge diversity of flavours on offer, from the dark, molasses-rich backbone of The Kraken (Trinidad), to the perfumed silky-smoothness of Pink Pigeon (Mauritius). Sure, the ‘spices’ are also different – The Kraken’s forthright cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg versus Pink Pigeon’s more delicate vanilla, orange peel and orchid petals – but they work to complement the core spirit.

‘Rums from Jamaica, Barbados or Cuba all taste different,’ says Claudio ‘Nino’ Antonino, owner and manager at The Maven Bar in Leeds. ‘And it’s the same with spiced rums: they may use the same ingredients, but […] they’ll all taste different. It’s down to your personal taste.’

Twice the spice

Mario Sandgren, The Rum Kitchen

Glass: Goblet or wine glass
Garnish: Pineapple leaf
Method: Dry shake, shake with ice, then pour over cubed ice in the glass.
Top with soda and add bitters.
50ml Pink Pigeon
50ml pineapple juice
50ml soda
25ml Sauvignon syrup
20ml Rum Kitchen citric solution
2 dashes Bob’s Vanilla Bitters

Massimiliano Bosio, Lab

Glass: 14cl Martini glass
Garnish: Jaffa Cake
Method: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake hard
with cubed ice. Double-strain into the glass and add garnish.
37.5ml Elements Eight Spiced Rum
25ml lemon juice
15ml chocolate syrup
12.5ml dark cacao liqueur
2 dashes chocolate bitters
1bsp orange marmalade

Charles Marshall of Spirit Cartel – distributor of Ron de Jeremy – reckons that, while 88% of spiced rum volume remains in the mainstream, premium spiced is the fastest-growing sector. Nonetheless, brand owners know there is a lot of educational work still to be done.

‘Often spiced rum was only added at the very end of a rum category session, if at all, but once you delve deeper, you can see that there are huge variations,’ says Leanne Davidson, brand manager for Pink Pigeon at Mangrove.

‘As soon as the new, clear bottle was launched last October, we developed a category session with the help of Pete Holland from The Floating Rum Shack and Pritesh Mody of World of Zing. Not only do we look into the variations of the base rum, but also spices too.’

‘In every training session I host, I cover off the differences in styles – light, dark, aged as well as geographical style too – French, English, Spanish, etc,’ adds Thornton. ‘People that are into rum really love to learn about the different styles and what they mean and bring to rum.’

Think before you mix
Another reason for spiced rum negativity is the prescriptive nature of a product that comes pre-loaded with certain flavours, thereby potentially compromising the creativity and innovation of the bartender. ‘The versatility of the rum is entirely dependent on two points: the quality of the rum used and the spices that have been added,’ says Stelios Stylianou, bar supervisor at SkyLounge. ‘Certain flavours won’t pair well.’

But find a good example and accept its flavours as a starting-point rather than a straitjacket, and you’re in business. ‘Spiced rum can be interesting as you get the spice from the rum, [so] you can focus your mixing on other flavours and/or textures,’ observes Mario Sandgren, bar manager at The Rum Kitchen.

And do your research. ‘It is very difficult to generalise how and with what to mix a spiced rum because of the variety of the category,’ says Massimiliano Bosio, assistant general manager at Lab in London’s Soho. ‘The best thing, I would suggest, is to taste the rum a few times, analyse the flavour of the main product, find out which spices have been used in making it, and aggrandise the flavour of the product; obviously the most usual spices are the ones that work better: cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg.’

Spiced rum is a bartender’s secret weapon when taking guests into something new

Leanne Davidson

That said, spiced rum’s already multi-flavoured character means a ‘less is more’ approach often works best. It’s a philosophy tried and tested in the mainstream: Bacardi’s main focus with Oakheart remains on the signature ‘Oak & Coke’ serve, while the brand’s new Carta Fuego spin-off, a spiced rum spirit drink at 40% abv, is aimed at the shot occasion.

So, describing Ron de Jeremy Spiced as ‘fun more than sophisticated’ – and, given its brand back story, it’s hard to argue with that – Marshall says: ‘It is great on the rocks or in simple drinks that avoid too many flavours going on.’

Ditto Pink Pigeon. ‘The beauty of spiced rum is that the variety of flavours that you get from one sip means you can go from a simple “Pink & Ginger” to a whole host of other cocktails,’ says Davidson. The brand’s strong vanilla character, she adds, aids the creation of consumer-friendly drinks and allows migration into cocktails more typically associated with other spirits, such as the Espresso Martini.

‘Spiced rum is a bartender’s secret weapon when taking their guests into trying something new,’ says Davidson. ‘For those guests who are unsure about trying dark spirits, spiced rum can help to ease them in.’

Spiced rum as a recruitment agent? Whether it’s into the rum category in general or at a more premium, cocktail-literate level, it’s not a bad way to come in.

‘If the spiced rum being used is a good quality one, and one that can be played with and not lose character, then there are some great spiced rum drinks out there,’ says Thornton. ‘The Spiced Mojito is one of the biggest, [and] there is also a variation of the Ginger Sea Dog using Pusser’s Spiced which is very good and easy to drink.

‘The best advice I would give is: do your homework. Just because a brand is “big” doesn’t make it the best. There are some good spiced rums to be had, quite often from the smaller brands – so look around and taste-test them against each other too.

‘To make them work commercially? Be creative – and step away from the security blanket of the Mojito.’

Spice cadets

From zingy wintery punches to flavour-filled classics with a twist, four bartenders give their guidance on how using spiced rums can take your cocktails into another dimension

‘Nino’ Antonino
Owner and manager, The Maven Bar, Leeds
‘It’s good to use the typical spice flavours, like cinnamon, honey, vanilla and orange and orange bitters in particular – I keep coming back to that. And I even do a kind of a Bloody Mary using spiced rum and strawberries.
‘But you need to know what you’re working with, whether it’s a drier rum like Foursquare, or Elements Eight which is a bit sweeter – or Lamb’s Spiced, which is probably the sweetest.’

Massimiliano Bosio
Assistant general manager, Lab, London
‘Beyond cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg, other ingredients that also work well usually are jams (with spiced rum and orange marmalade it’s very difficult to fail) and also hot punch.

‘For example, every year for Christmas I serve at home a hot punch based on spiced rum, dark rum, cognac, red wine, spices (cinnamon, ginger, citrus peel, vanilla), water and honey. It works amazingly with the celebration. I like to combine spiced rum with another rum to exalt the flavour profile of both. But don’t go too crazy – already the spirit is a “cocktail” as there are many ingredients inside. Keep it simple!’

Mario Sandgren
Bar manager, The Rum Kitchen, London
‘It’s usually good to work with bigger flavours when using spiced rum – ginger, pineapple and mango all work really well. Tropical flavours mix very well with it, and spiced rum and ginger beer is a classic, I’d say.

‘Spiced rum can be very versatile, especially if you want to twist the classics. Try making a Harvey Wallbanger with Pink Pigeon, for example. It works very well.’

Stelios Stylianou
Bar supervisor, SkyLounge, DoubleTree by Hilton, Tower of London
‘The normal match would be pineapple or apple, but if you were wanting to be more contemporary, you could use pomegranate, guava or passion fruit.

‘My favourite is Lemon Hart Spiced Rum. It has great historical connections with the Royal Navy. I make a cocktail using fresh pomegranate and red plum with the Lemon Hart Navy Spiced, plus a lightly infused cinnamon syrup – I call it Pommies on the Frontier.

‘In terms of making it viable commercially, using it in punches that can be sold large-scale is probably the most effective method.’

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