In the first of a new series exploring the spirits we love, Know Thy Rum takes a closer look at rum’s renaissance, new product breakdowns, and the spirit’s rise to luxury status.
You’ve probably been swigging it since just before you were legal and while many of you will have formed an affinity for this rum, it’s time in the limelight has been long overdue.
Just so we’re clear, what exactly constitutes “rum”? A distilled liquor made from sugarcane products that are themselves usually the byproducts of sugar manufacturing, rum has always had a rather exotic persona, with many tropical points in the Atlantic enjoying a rich rum producing heritage.
Rum traces its origins to the West Indies where the spirit (in this case firewater from Barbados) gained its first mention in 1650 and it wasn’t long that rum became an important component of the slave trade, as slaves were brought from Africa and traded to plantation owners in the Caribbean for molasses, which was made into rum in New England, and in turn, traded to Africa for more slaves.
While most rums are made from molasses, that dark sticky syrup that’s leftover during the sugar refining process, it can also be made from sugarcane juice, which produces rhum agricoles, lighter spirits with distinctive vegetative profiles that have long been favoured by the French colonies of the Caribbean. In fact, every rum producer makes a different spirit, ensuring a product that really captures a sense of place; Cuba and Puerto Rico are partial to light-bodied rums while places like Jamaica produces drops that are fuller and more complex.
While premium rums are gaining ground, in part because of the downturn in popular spirits like whisky thanks to the trade war between the US and China, it’s important to know that not all rums are born equal. Before you start searching your wardrobe for a suitable pirate’s outfit, take a moment to be schooled in rum in all its forms so you know what you should be looking out for when you’re buying or ordering this enduring spirit.
It’s been a long road to luxury for rum. Unlike other spirits, including vodka and gin, rum has been slow to pick up the premiumization trend (hell, even tequila got there first!). This means that many people still cringe when they think of rum, with flashes of dorm room drinking games, overly sweet cocktails and hangover hell coming to mind.
Part of the problem is education (yes, punters don’t know thy rum); rum comes in many different forms and the idea of judging a rum by its colour simply doesn’t work as it should – just because it’s brown doesn’t mean it’s premium, and just because it’s white doesn’t mean you should be using it as mouth wash. In addition, rules around what you can add to a rum vary from country to country, adding fuel to the confusion.
“Rum hasn’t yet premiumised in the mind of the consumer because the entry-level rums have not been clearly communicating the virtues of the category which encourage vertical scaling,” says Sam Jeveons co-founder of rum brand Nusa Cana. “An example of this working well can be seen in the gin market, where the stalwarts of every bar, Gordons, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray and Beefeater have for decades engaged the consumer and educated on the basics of the category. The rum stalwarts of Havana Club, Bacardi and the world’s leading volume-based brand Tanduay (a rum from the Philippines) have not communicated or educated the consumer in the same way their gin counterparts have.”
However, rum is finally catching up, with the category showing a 165 per cent growth in sales in 2018 and a 62 per cent increase in on-trade demand, both in bars and restaurants. In 2018 that amounted to a US$1 billion global rum market, a milestone rum has met only a year behind gin. And it’s not just mixing rum that’s on the up and up – reports show a 5.1 per cent increase in super-premium rum sales in 2017 and a 17.6 per cent growth in ‘ultra-premium’ rums. “While there were around 50 rums available in a mature market like the UK in 2006, in 2019 there were 200 rum brands on the market,” says Jeveons.
So, whether you’re sipping it with a smug look on your face, blending it into a classic libation, or spiking your favourite soft drinks with it, there’s no better time to know more about the spirit and the many forms it comes in.
That doesn’t mean you should walk into your local bottle-o and just reach for the first rum you see. “Rum is split into two styles, the premium aged, and everything underneath,” says Jeveons. “Consumers can understand the concept of premium ageing and taste profile of dark spirits through the success of the whisky market communicating its virtues to the consumer. However, for younger consumers to join the rum journey they often start with mixable, gold, white or spiced rums. These rums come from various countries and are tainted by colourings, sweetness and reputations forged in the 80s and 90s. The comprehension of the spirit is lacking at a time when rum brands are multiplying, and the knock-on effect is too much to choose from with not enough info to choose confidently.”
Fortunately, a new system by The Whisky Exchange breaks the entire rum category down to six subcategories, making it easier for you to make your own selections and begin your rum journey:
Single Traditional Column
These are rums produced at one distillery using column stills, which produce lighter, higher-strength spirits than traditional pot stills. These are at the heart of the rum spectrum – not as heavy and complex as pot till rums but not as light and zesty as ‘modernist’ rums. Good examples would be Clement Premiere Canne Rhum, Bielle Blanc rum and English Harbour 5-Year-Old Rum.
Single Traditional Pot Still
The mark of pedigree, rums distilled at one distillery and in traditional pot stills tend to be produced at lower strengths but often have a heavier, more complex flavour profile and are valued by rum aficionados as sipping spirits. These rums can be made from either molasses or cane juice (to create Agricole rum). Look out for the likes of Crabby’s Small Batch Rum, Hampden Gold Jamaican Rum, Smith & Cross, and Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry Rum.
Single Traditional Blended
Rums have been blended for almost as long as they have been produced and single traditional blended rums are a marriage of both pot still-produced and column still-produced spirits, all originating from the same distillery. Appleton Special Rum, Mount Gay Eclipse Rum and Chairman’s Reserve from St Lucia are all great examples that your taste buds will thank you for.
It may sound like a Swedish bachelor, but this category is packed with spirits that have been made at a single distillery, using modern multicolumn stills, including in some cases an analyser, and even a hydro-selector still. The spirit produced through this method is quite different from those produced with more traditional processes, with the resulting rum higher in alcohol, and much lighter and cleaner, some could say more ‘modern’ than those produced the old school way, making them perfect for mixing. However, they still have their own individual characters. Examples include Havana Club 7 Year Old, Diplomatico Single Vintage 2005, Don Papa 7 Year Old Small Batch (another favourite from the Philippines, although one with a potentially misleading title), and Ron Zacapa Centenario XO Rum Solera Gran Reserva Especial.
In the good old days, rum producers would not bottle their own rums but would sell casks to merchants who would often blend rums to create a final, consistent product that they would sell to rum consumers. Some merchants made a real name for themselves for their blends. Today, Blended Traditionalist rums are those spirits that are a blend of only rums from traditional pot stills and traditional column stills, with great examples including Plantation Barbados 5 Year Old Signature Blend Rum, The Legendary Alnwick Rum, produced from spirit distilled in Guyana and Jamaica; The Duppy Share Rum, a blend of three-year-old Jamaican rum and five-year-old Barbadian rum, which is aged in ex-bourbon barrels; and Equiano Rum from Mauritius.
You guessed it; Blended Modernist rums are blended rums using spirit produced in the modernist fashion. These spirits, which are lighter and more approachable, have helped fuel rum’s renaissance over the past 20 years and can be as much an expression of the blender as they are of the individual distilleries making the raw spirit. Examples of Blended Modernist rums we’re sure you know of include Pyrat, Pusser’s 50th Anniversary Rum, OVD (from Scotland of all places), and Goslings.
While this classification might be a little heavy for the head, when it comes down to it, rum is all about tasting new spirits and finding which work for you. “People should accept that Rum is as broad as wine,” says Jeveons. “There is no right or wrong decisions, there is simply the enjoyment of experimenting and consuming what you enjoy and the absolute positive for the category is that new consumers experiment as they look for a brand or taste profile that resonates with the now. The experiential virtue of Millennial consumers is a welcome bonus for a category with so much to experience.”
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