by David Rosario & Alia Akkam
In the midst of the summer season, it’s not unusual to crave frothy, playful libations like daiquiris and pina coladas. While rum is perhaps best well-known as a seasonal party mixer for these types of fruity, tropical cocktails, it has successfully shed its image of toothpick umbrellas and roguish pirates. Nuanced and complex, premium and super premium rums are dominating the category, while the tried and true rum brands that first brought the second-leading distilled spirit to the forefront continue to keep their stronghold on the market.
Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Agricole, which launched two years ago, is differentiated from traditional rum since it comes from Martinique and uses distilled fresh sugar cane juice instead of the usual molasses. Just like Champagne has rigorous geographic rules, rhum agricole can only be produced in Martinique where controls are in place to oversee everything from the quality of the sugar cane selected to the processes of pressing and fermentation. Depaz uses costly blue cane sugar, making their product even more exclusive. “We wanted to do it the right way, with a market by market strategy,” says Greg Levine, brand manager of the spirits division at Kobrand Corporation, who explains Depaz is slowly being introduced to new markets. “We see the category in itself as something to watch, just like ten years ago when Jose Cuervo dominated tequila and there weren’t many premium options out there,” he says. “Consumers are more intelligent. They’re looking for quality and we have that.” Levine says Depaz’s history, tracing back to 1651, is another selling point. “Obviously, other quality brands are out there, but we have that heritage,” he notes.
Vizcaya VXOP is another newcomer. Currently available in seventeen markets, the brand is constantly growing, opening a new market each month. Created as a sipping rum, it is made in the old Cuban tradition from fresh pure cane juice, then aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels to add another layer of depth.
Ron Abuelo Rum, from the third generation of the Varela-Hermanos family distillery in Panama, is made with sugar cane grown by the family, then aged in oak casks. Currently available in eight states, by the end of the year the company plans to nearly double its scope by featuring Ron Abuelo in fifteen markets. Ricardo March, director of sales and marketing at Varela Imports, believes that in addition to the quality of the premium 7 year-old, the brand’s Panamanian origins are a strong selling point. As Panama enjoys a boost in tourism, with visitors seeking out its affordability and beautiful beaches as an alternative to other Central American destinations, March says more people will be turned on to Ron Abuelo, which naturally, is quite popular in its native country. “People are seeing it as a luxury,” March says of Ron Abuelo. “They are into high-end sipping rums to relax with while smoking a cigar.”
With the classic cocktail revolution, mixologists are looking towards rum’s versatility more frequently these days—and luring in curious customers to boot. Specifically, there is a big resurgence in tiki drinks says Lynnette Marrero, bar manager of Elettaria in New York City, which features twenty-eight rums on its menu, more than any other spirit. “Mixing tiki drinks well is one area that’s now being hit by mixologists; it’s an area in classic cocktails not yet explored,” she says.
Further north, at Merkato 55, there are fifty-five infused rums available at the restaurant and five of its seven signature cocktails are rum-based, like the SOGBA, made with Bacardi Light, Regatta ginger beer, bay leaf infusion and mint leaves. “I notice a lot of people partaking in rum cocktails because the average consumer is looking for something new, stimulating and interesting,” says Susan Spikes, operations manager.
In the Caribbean, rum shops, low-key bars where locals relax and sip rum, are popular hangouts. More lavish and stylish establishments are popping up in the U.S. in response to the trend. RUMBAR at the swanky Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne, features VIP rum lockers; inside the new InterContinental Boston Hotel, RumBa is an intimate rum and Champagne bar, featuring more than seventy rums from around the world; and RumFire at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel features over 100 rums in its tower.
With all the fanfare of new rum brands and cocktails, this means those well-established brands must continue to forge ahead. The 202-year-old Goslings has three rums in its portfolio, with the strongest sales in its flagship Black Seal rum. The official ultra-premium in the lineup is the Gosling Family Reserve Old Rum, made in limited quantities.
Rum leader Bacardi is known for upscale products like Bacardi Gold and Bacardi Superior, as well as its white rum, Bacardi Light, and an extensive lineup of flavored offerings.
Popular Jamaican brand, Appleton, features an Estate Reserve, a blend of Estate-produced select rums aged in oak barrels, as well as the Appleton Estate Extra 12-year old.
The portfolio of well-known Haitian rum, Rhum Barbancourt, not only includes its traditional white and four-year-aged Three Star, but a premium Five Star Reserve Speciale, aged for eight years, and a limited quantity of the fifteen-year-old Estate Reserve..
The Rhum Clément line-up features a Premiére Canne, VSOP, Créole Shrubb, Cuvée Homére and XO.
IN THE CLEAR
Clear, white rum, which favors simple oak casks and stainless steel tanks over the usual charred barrels for dark versions, is another segment of the category that seems to be doing particularly well.
“Ultra premium rum is the fastest growing spirit in the white spirits category,” says Randy Carlson, director of marketing innovation at Diageo—good news for their Oronoco brand, made with Brazilian sugar cane spirit and a blend of aged South American rums.
Ultra premium Tommy Bahama from Barbados, made with blackstrap molasses and water filtered through coral stones, comes in Golden Sun, a blend of rums, but is also known for its white rum, White Sand.
Moët Hennessy’s 10 Cane, which exploded onto the rum scene in 2005, is made from sugar cane juice—hand-cut Trinidadian that is pressed within three hours—instead of molasses. Vice President of 10 Cane, Rob Bryans, says that the original intent behind launching 10 Cane was to introduce a new upscale tier of rum. “We wanted to create a luxury rum category,” Bryans says matter-of-factly. Bryans notes that perhaps the biggest obstacle with this new rum category is convincing the customer rum isn’t just a low-to-mid-priced spirit. “We’re trying to think of rum as the new vodka. The mentality for trading up to vodka is there,” he says. For Bryans, working with bartenders across the country is key to arousing customer interest. “As much as marketing has a role to play, we have to get people to appreciate the product quality and its unique point of differentiation. Bartenders have to like it, or they’re not going to pass it on to Joe Public,” he explains.
The real growth from a value perspective is certainly in the super premium segment. “They may not have large volume at present, but their contributions based on sales dollars are slightly shifting the rum category,” says Terri Hnatyszyn, brand manager for newcomer Rubi Rey, a high-end single barrel-finished white rum aged in oak, then blended and rested together again. “With its unique hand–crafted process and striking packaging, Rubi Rey is trying to help shift traditional perceptions of what rum can represent for consumers.”
David Kanbar, who worked at SKYY Vodka (his uncle Maurice founded the company), launched Bambu Rum, handcrafted in the British West Indies, in 2005. Quadruple-distilled from sugar cane, Kanbar says his customers can easily tell the difference between Bambu and more traditional products on the market. Currently, Bambu is only available in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida, and Kanbar is happy with this limited distribution. “We really want a focused effort. We’d rather do well in a handful of markets,” he says. Although the super premium market is growing, Kanbar does point out there’s still a long road ahead. “It has not developed to the extent we’d like. It’s small, but growing,” he says hopefully.
Mount Gay, the oldest rum brand in the world, has a new Eclipse Silver, offering a premium white to trade up to. “It gives mixologists a rum with incredible versatility and smoothness,” says Todd Schuessler, brand manager. Of the five labels, the company has seen the biggest increase with the Extra Old, the most premium label. The rum is distilled and then aged in oak bourbon barrels from Kentucky.
While the growth of high-end rum can be attributed to the premiumization of the category as a whole, Schuessler also says authenticity has become more important to consumers. “Palates have become more sophisticated, creating the need for more than just something that mixes nicely with Coke,” he adds. And, as bartending continues to evolve, it will only help the rum category grow. For the first time, as Schuessler explains, the rum category is getting past the “commodity rap that has plagued it for so long.”
FLAVORS OF RUM
“Last year, the rum business grew—not just our base rum, but flavored. It’s a significant opportunity for us. There’s almost a consumer expectation for newness,” says Gordon Chisholm, brand director at Bacardi USA. Bacardi is a leader in the flavored rum market, with seven different ones in its portfolio, including Limón, O, Razz, Cóco, Big Apple, Grand Melón and, most recently, Peach Red. “Bacardi flavors take the trademark beyond rum,’ Chisholm explains. “When you’re looking at flavored spirits, you’re not just going up against flavored rum, but against flavored vodka.”
“Flavored rums will continue to grow for the established brands. Base flavors, as well as new introductions, will keep fueling this segment,” says Peter Wijk, brand director for Cruzan Rum, which just introduced its new Guava flavor.
The original Malibu Rum, with its distinctive coconut flavor, is perhaps the most iconic of the category. Building on its success, with an alluring marketing image hinting at a breezy Caribbean lifestyle, the Malibu portfolio now includes pineapple, mango, passionfruit and tropical banana.
Captain Morgan Spiced Rum was the first flavored rum to hit the market in 1983. Its Parrot Bay line, Puerto Rican white rum with essences of coconut, mango, pineapple and passionfruit, further expanded the category, as well as its popular “hot” spice-enhanced Tattoo.
Admiral Nelson’s Premium Spiced Rum, also has premium rum flavors in coconut, raspberry and vanilla. Yet, their traditional spiced version is the priority, according to Todd Nickodym, director of marketing for Luxco Spirited Brands. “Our brand has been outpacing growth in the flavored rum category on the strength of our spiced rum,” says Nickodym.
Inside a voluptuous bottle of Castries Crème Rum, now available in nearly twenty states, is a blend of St. Lucian rum, premium roasted peanuts, vanilla from Madagascar and cinnamon and brown sugar spices. While a peanut rum may leave one thinking of sweet, dessert-inspired cocktails, David Jones, CEO of Team Spirits Import Company, says that Castries lends itself to numerous savory concoctions as well. “The mixability of a flavored rum and the culinary flexibility of peanuts gives bartenders a lot of interpretations,” he explains. “Flavored rums are just getting better and better.”
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