Posted on | May 21, 2015
Written by | Jeffery Lindenmuth
From Spiced to Sipping, and from Every Corner of the Globe, Rum is Angling for Attention.
Few spirits are as literally all over the map as rum. While the Caribbean islands have been the cradle of rum for centuries, rum production can be found everywhere sugar cane grows, and some places that it doesn’t. Given rum’s geographic diversity, it comes as no surprise that this tropical spirit is all over the map figuratively as well. These are the brands and developing trends to keep an eye on now, as rum continues to evolve and prosper.
FLAVORS AND SPICE SURGE AHEAD
Compared to vodka, rum remains focused in a handful of flavors—spice, coconut and the occasional tropical fruits. But the number of brands competing within these familiar flavors continues to soar. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), flavored rum, including the massive spiced category, is now a majority shareholder in the realm of rum, accounting for 53% of all rum sold.
Once perceived as a sweet, introductory spirit, spiced rum is maturing alongside its loyal consumers. Category leader Captain Morgan continues to upsell drinkers with special editions, following up their Sherry Oak Finish Spiced Rum with the limited edition Captain Morgan 1671. With just 35% ABV, this special bottling’s lower proof may also signal an end to the proof arms race waged within spiced rum a few years ago, encouraging more consumers to sip it neat or with ice.
Other important brands in the spiced category include Sailor Jerry, Kraken, Admiral Nelson’s and Blackheart—all of which reinforce rum’s storied connection to the high seas, fraught with adventure.
Expect to see more craft distillers elevating the prestige of spiced rum too, with creative editions leaning on local flavors and quality ingredients. The respected Delaware-distilled brewer Dogfish Head makes a Wit Spiced Rhum aged on Curaçao orange peel and coriander; their Brown Honey Rum uses Delaware wildflower honey. Wicked Dolphin Distillery creates their spiced rum using Florida oranges and honey, while Colorado’s Dancing Pines Distillery uses whole spices of nutmeg, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick.
The ability to engage mixologists, who often disparaged spiced and flavored rum as too sweet, also favors increasing acceptance. Rather than mixing with cola or ginger ale, Jonathan Pogash, Blue Chair Bay Rum Master Mixologist suggests using the inherent sweetness to its advantage; and with Blue Chair’s potency (53 proof), drink-making can benefit. “I love that I can throw some fresh lime juice in a shaker with the banana rum and immediately produce a well-balanced Banana Daiquiri,” says Pogash, noting this ease of use is especially appealing for the home mixologist.
Value-priced Newfoundland Screech, a cult brand in the Canadian market, has expanded into 20+ states with a reinterpretation of spiced rums designed specifically for the U.S. market. Screech Spiced (also available in 100 proof version) uses no added sugar, relying instead on the caramelized sweetness and vanilla notes of 4 to 8 years-aged Demerara (Guyana) Rums. Screech Honey marks the first, and what now seems an inevitable, merging of rum with the spirits flavor du jour.
Part of what keeps flavored rum dynamic and exciting is the relative youth of its consumers, according to Brian Mequet, VP Rum and Liqueurs, Pernod Ricard USA, which has moved into shot occasions with Malibu Black and Malibu Red and recently added Malibu RTDs in pouches and cans. “The demographics of the flavored rum category consumers are unique in that they are generally younger, so they’re always looking for ‘new-news,’” says Mequet. “The other thing that’s exciting is that flavored rums over-index tremendously with multicultural consumers.”
According to DISCUS, sales of rum in the U.S. dipped slightly in both volume and revenue in 2014 from the previous year. One clear bright spot, however, is super-premium offerings, up 9.9% year over year by volume and 12% by revenue.
A few high-flyer brands are actually outperforming the segment, like Pyrat XO, a blend of ultra-premium rums from Patrón Spirits, which gained 14% last year. “People are looking for quality. Better spirits make better drinks, and bartenders and consumers have become increasingly more aware of that, which is why we’re seeing ultra-premium spirits grow at a faster rate than other sectors, across almost all spirits categories,” says Greg Cohen, Patrón Spirits.
Looking past the 2014 numbers, the rum category for several years now has been as active as ever in terms of innovation. Bacardi has aggressively led on multiple fronts, bringing wood to the spiced-rum sector with Oakheart; creating the luxurious sipping collection, Facundo; and now launching brand new Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron, a white rum designed specifically for mixing.
At the same time, the ability to distill and age rum anywhere in the world, with relative speed compared to brown spirits, has made rum ably targeted by craft distillers. The inaugural bottle to roll out the door in 2013 at Jersey Artisan Distilling—the first licensed distillery in New Jersey since Repeal in 1933—was rum. And in Rhode Island, Newport Distilling has honored the state’s own 18th-century rum-running pirate with their pot-still Thomas Tew Rum, which is winning fans well beyond New England.
Bartender-loving spirits company 86 Co. answered the call for a true Carta Blanca rum with Cana Brava. Having identified the white space for a Cuban-style, aged and filtered rum, they set out to revive the lost style by testing it in the most classic of rum cocktails, the daiquiri, in order to finalize the formula and contribute to the current proliferation of rum styles.
Established brands are also dipping into the innovation well. Barbados-based Mount Gay’s Black Barrel Rum, launched in 2013, is a blend of pot distillates and aged column distillates, although clearly skewed toward the richer pot distilled style. At 86 proof, and using whiskey terminology like “small batch,” and “finishing,” it is clearly styled to resonate with American whiskey lovers.
Cruzan is another brand deftly building a descriptive edge into their product names—to wit, “Single Barrel” aged rum; “Black Strap” dark rum; and “9” spiced rum.
Dark rum continues to be paced by Myers’s and Gosling’s Black Seal—the brand now indelibly tied to the Dark ’n Stormy, having staked a trademark claim to the phrase and come out with a canned single-serve RTD version. Blackwell has emerged as a critical favorite, and waves the Jamaican flag proudly with their rich, complex dark rum.
And in terms of overall category health, consider the fast-track success of Shellback, Silver and Spiced, which brings increased competition at the budget-driven end of the spectrum—a reminder that “rum” means many things to many consumers.
MAKING A STATEMENT… WITH AGE
Maybe the most important sub-category of rum to keep an eye on is the sipping sector, being targeted by a range of brands trumpeting distinctive production techniques, often with age statements. Gosling’s Family Reserve “Old Rum,” was an early entry in the category, longer aged than the standard Black Seal and designed for sipping, although without a specific age statement. Ron Abuelo, based for more than a century in Panama, is well positioned as an aged rum specialist, and currently offers both an Añejo 7 Years and Añejo 12 Years in the U.S.
While shocking to whiskey lovers, some rum age statements actually represent an average age or even just a general approximation of the taste. In the case of The Real McCoy, the age statement reflects the age of the youngest spirit in the blend, helping to bring rum in alignment with other aged spirits. “We choose to actually age our rums for the full length of time stated on our label—3 years, 5 years and 12 years. We do not add sugars, spices, flavors or aromatics of any kind, and we do not attempt to mislead people into thinking the product is aged longer than it really is, which is sometimes the case in the rum category,” says Bailey Pryor, founder & CEO, Real McCoy Spirits. The super-premium Zaya, which is touted as a blend of rum from several sources, has evolved production of their rum to new locations, but never tinkers with the minimum age of 12 years.
Aging is also a hallmark of Brugal rum from the Dominican Republic, with Brugal 1888 Gran Reserva finding fans among whiskey drinkers for its similar flavors born of aging six to eight years in medium-char White American Oak casks, followed by two to four years in Oloroso Sherry casks. “Our approach to wood management is modeled after some of the world’s finest aged spirits,” says Brian Avenius, Brand Director, Brugal. “We replace a substantial amount of our wood stock annually with the finest casks. We deliver an experience and credentials that super-premium whiskey drinkers appreciate.”
According to the latest figures from the Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica, produced by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) released last year, the nation’s rum exports fell by more than 13% at the same time that alcohol production increased by 11%. This is an indicator that the nation’s leading producer J. Wray & Nephew, which produces Appleton Estate distributed by Campari America, is investing in longer aging. According to Andrew Floor, Vice President Marketing, Dark Spirits, Campari America, “One of the side effects of whiskey growth is that it has informed people about the benefits and flavors of barrel gaining. So we absolutely see a major opportunity for premium aged rum ahead,” says Floor.
THE NEW RULES OF RUM
Other than AOC Rhum Agricole of Martinique, which has enjoyed some of the most enduring and stringent standards of production for rums like Rhum Clément, rum has fully lived up to its rather lawless image. Keep an eye for more nations to embrace and legalize their unique differences as they aim to distinguish themselves in the market.
Rum has been made in Guatemala since the 18th century, yet only in 2010 were strict regulations of quality for the protected designation of origin of Ron de Guatemala made official. Currently only Botrán Aged Rums and Diageo’s Ron Zacapa are crafting rums within the stringent guidelines of Ron de Guatemala, which include the use of raw cane syrup rather than molasses and aging in a solera system like that of Sherry.
Ron de Venezuela is also becoming more recognized as a mark of quality, validated by producers like Santa Teresa, Pompero and Diplomático—brands whose quality-price ratios represent extreme values in today’s U.S. marketplace.
Founded in the Philippines in 1854, Tanduay is the second largest rum producer in the world, topping 18 million cases annually. While Tanduay has made a quiet entry into the U.S. in Connecticut and Florida with the intriguing tagline “Tanduay Asian Rum,” it’s poised to grow and serves as a reminder that just when you think you have rum figured out, there’s another big surprise just around the corner.