Rum’s history is a chequered one, intermingled with empire building and revolution, tainted by the stain of slavery. Its home is the Caribbean, but it was also America’s first spirit and an early gold standard of distilling practice. It has been upper class and working class, blighted by an (inaccurate) association with pirates, beloved by the navy, and the base for some of the world’s great cocktails. It has been lauded and dismissed, revered and ignored, and always misunderstood.
Once you accept these inconsistencies, it is a joy to explore the spirit’s many forms: the differences between heavy pot-still and light column-still rums; the flavour contrasts between those made from fresh cane juice, sugar syrup or molasses; and the fact that, after decades of being called the next big thing, it has never quite delivered.
When I posed the question of rum’s middling, muddling reputation to Dawn Davies MW, buying director of The Whisky Exchange, her gambit for a noted rum proselytiser was surprising. ‘The reason it has taken time to break through is because the quality hasn’t been there,’ she says. ‘Rum has generally been seen as a cheap drink for mixing, partly due to the dominance of the big brands.’
Throughout its existence, rum has been buffeted by external forces. Until recently, it was largely considered a bulk spirit, made chiefly in the Caribbean and Latin America and shipped to European merchants, where the profits were made – a hangover of its birth in the mercantile system of the 17th century. As it began to slip in popularity throughout the 20th century, so rum became commoditised. Prices and quality fell, resulting in the individual identity of distillery or country becoming obscured.
Davies’ optimism for rum’s future as a premium spirit is based on a sea change in the manner in which the industry now operates, with distilleries exerting greater control over their supply, bottling and selling their own rums, reinvesting in equipment and casks, and gaining better distribution. All of this has either coincided with or been driven by the emergence of a more intellectually curious spirits drinker.
Just as new converts to single-malt Scotch initially latch on to peated or Sherried styles, so rum converts are tempted by bold expressions, creating a cult around certain distilleries
Today, rum has a certain swagger about it. That diversity, often seen as a drawback, is now considered an asset in a changed spirits market and the subsequent shift in consumers’ palates and mindset. ‘People’s palates are evolving constantly,’ Davies says. ‘We’re now seeing a new generation of drinkers of unaged spirits, such as gin, who are beginning to transition into aged rums, often through its sweeter styles.
The rise of premium aged rum can also be linked to an increased interest in single-malt Scotch, the latest chapter in a centuries-old dance between the two spirits. Eighteenth century rum-distillation techniques were adopted as quality standards for whisky-makers in 19th-century Scotland and America: sour-mashing was a rum technique centuries before it became a signature for Bourbon. Knowledge of maturation, thanks to long Atlantic crossings, also came from rum, while the famous Scottish grocers who initiated blended Scotch had prior experience in blending rums.
Scotch is now paying back those debts. Single malt’s popularity is largely down to the eagerness of drinkers to investigate flavour and location. The fact that each distillery produces a character specific to that site encourages exploration, not only because of the diversity of flavours that exists, but because of the increased emphasis placed on provenance by today’s premium spirits drinker, who is looking beyond the label to story, place and people.
Provenance has always been an integral part of rum. Each island, or country, developed its own signature style, driven by climate, approach and the demand of blenders. Individuality was prized, but those specific flavours were hidden while rum remained in thrall to the commodity system. Now those flavours are being revealed, thanks to this taking back of control. Jamaican rum, for example, was always different from that of Barbados. The former’s fame was built on the power and pungency of its pot-still rums. Longer ferments, with the addition of dunder (the acidic liquid left after distillation), helped create a savoury mix of pineapple, leather and even solvent – the famous and compelling so-called Jamaican funk.
Bajan rums, on the other hand, have always been more about tropical fruits and subtle spices. If Jamaica tilts the balance in favour of intensity, Barbados looks for perfect equilibrium. Equally, rums from Guyana are noted for their mellow, sweet, dark-fruited style – weightier, thicker, more substantial.
These differences were maintained because they were needed for blends, whose main principle is using a range of characters to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Now, however, it is the singularities of the styles – and then the way in which each distillery puts its own spin on them – that are key to rum’s identity.
The French islands took a different tack, thanks to the start of sugar-beet cultivation in Europe in the 19th century. The subsequent collapse of the sugar industry in Martinique and Guadeloupe meant no molasses for distillers, so they turned to making their rum from fresh cane juice, and a new style – rhum agricole – was born, with a green, vegetal intensity.
Cuba took a different path again. Its belated arrival as a major sugar producer in the 19th century coincided with the Industrial Revolution, which transformed both sugar processing and distillation via the introduction of column stills, quickly adopted by Cuba’s new distillers. The result was a light style, fresher, more citric and ideal for a new way of drinking – via the cocktail. This light style then became the norm for rums from Spanish-speaking countries.
Made in Taiwan with molasses and cane juice, different yeasts and pot stills, Renaissance is proof that today, quality rum can come from anywhere
If the highlighting of individuality is helping to boost rum’s momentum, then so is its price. As whisky steadily bids farewell to its status as an affordable luxury, rum is picking up consumers who are either priced out of the single-malt market or have become dissatisfied with its quality:price ratio.
Rums of equal quality at a lower price are appealing to those who are driven by provenance and flavour, something that Davies has noticed. ‘Premium rum is better value at the moment, because whisky prices are sky-rocketing, especially on aged stock,’ she says. ‘The average spend has risen from the mid-£20s to mid-£30s. There’s also been an increase in demand for “investment-grade” rums – brands like Foursquare, Caroni, Habitation Velier, and Mount Gay and Appleton Estate limited editions. Consumers are becoming more aware of the rum’s breadth and range.’
An intriguing parallel with Scotch lies in the styles that aged rum’s new drinkers are embracing. Just as new converts to single malt initially tend to latch on to peated or Sherried styles, so rum converts are tempted by bold expressions such as those funky Jamaican pot-still rums, creating a cult around distilleries such as Hampden Estate or Monymusk. The same applies to the heavy rum made at Trinidad’s now demolished Caroni.
Distillers such as Venezuela’s Diplomático – best known for its classic sweet style – have embraced this desire for punchier flavours with (unsweetened) small-batch releases from individual stills. It’s an approach pioneered by El Dorado and recently taken up by the enterprising and underrated St Lucia Distillery; while Foursquare in Barbados has embarked on an Exceptional Cask Selection that explores age, distillates and cask types.
This willingness to try a range of styles is also, perhaps, the result of a new generation coming to rum with no preconceived ideas. This is seen most clearly in the rise in interest in rhum agricole. With its significantly different flavour profile from the fruitier, molasses-based styles long preferred in the UK, agricole’s finesse and firmer structure is proving another bridge between single malt and rum. Neither is interest restricted to established brands and styles. The recent ‘discovery’ of hundreds of small farm stills in Haiti has resulted in the unaged clairins style also acquiring cult status. Think of it as rum’s equivalent to mezcal.
Rum’s rise is also a global phenomenon. Distillers in the United States, such as Maine’s Privateer or Georgia’s Richland Rum, are reviving the country’s lost rum-making tradition – the former with sweet caramel, cinnamon and baked fruits, the latter with more barrel-driven spices and maple syrup notes. Australia also has a long rum-making tradition: Queensland’s Beenleigh has been distilling for 136 years and, unsurprisingly, makes a rich, powerful, compelling style.
Indian Ocean rums such as Réunion’s Savanna or Medine’s single-estate Penny Blue XO from Mauritius share a layered complexity, while two new Asian distilleries, Vietnam’s Sampan and Thailand’s organic Chalong Bay, are helping to develop a new premium, unaged, cane-juice category, floral, gently fruited, yet with substance. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Renaissance is ploughing a very different furrow.
Rums are even now emerging from new Scottish distilleries, closing the circle. Glasgow’s Sugar House and Livingston’s Matugga both take a ‘Jamaican’ approach to their pot-still rums, with the former pushing the funk, the latter adding a liquorice and honeyed depth. Orkney’s J Gow is supple and fine-boned, while another complex premium white comes from Lockerbie’s Ninefold. A rum distillery has even recently opened on Islay.
The result today is no single style but multiple variations on a theme. And that, surely, is rum’s greatest asset. What at the outset seems an impossible-to-navigate maze instead becomes a complex tapestry of flavours – a world ready to be explored.