For many years now, the world of rum has been slowly bubbling away in the background – the passion project of a particularly niche set of Hawaiian-shirt wearing aficionados who for the most part kept themselves to themselves.
They were occasionally found in underground dens like Notting Hill’s Trailer Happiness, sipping on Piña Coladas and umbrella drinks while exchanging knowing nods of mutual appreciation that they were members of the same secret spirits society. For just as many years, writers have touted rum as ‘the next big thing!’ only to have these prophetic pronouncements fall upon barren ground with whisky lovers. However, the times they are a changin’.
Slowly, surely, the spirits world is starting to acknowledge the growing presence of its Caribbean cousin. Once relegated to the lower shelves, adorned with pirates, tattoos, and sea monsters, rum is now making its bid for the top shelf, fueled with transparency, information, and – most importantly – flavour. Like many spirits lovers, you too may have secretly hidden away in your whisky cabinet a tipple of tropical temptation. As many of us find ourselves under pandemic persuasion to finally invite those friends and family over for that dinner you’d promised you’d always get round to, you may find your guilty secret under scrutiny – “Rum? Really? I thought you had taste?!” Well, let me introduce you to the real world of rum.
See, for so long, the trouble with rum wasn’t rum at all, but its misconceptions. It was thought to be all spiced, sweet, coloured, sugary liquid from the tropics – and as I’ll demonstrate later there was little way of knowing how to pick a ‘good’ bottle. As a result, most people’s first impression of rum was far from a good one, so rum continued its slow and steady journey under the radar of spirits specialists, until finally, quietly, it reached a tipping point….
In the last year alone, we’ve seen the rum market grow seven percent. Compare this with whisky’s growth of 2.4% and it doesn’t take a master statistician to work out that, at this rate, the sugarcane underdog might soon stand toe to toe with its weary, cynical, malted matron.
The historical disparity in perception, furthermore, means the upper echelons of the rum world are still within reach – a newcomer to the rum world can quickly educate themselves to the point where they can wade in with even the most seasoned of sugarcane sippers. With more information available than ever, perhaps rum might finally be appreciated on a grand scale for the liquid treasure that it truly is.
Why then, if rum is so good, has it for so long lived in the shadows of its malty brethren? A large part of this was due to lack of education – archaic and simplified descriptors like white and gold meant one’s understanding of rum was never likely to progress past a meagre level. Imagine your most fanatical wine sommelier talking to someone about the nuances of white, pink, or red wine without mention of terroir, grape varietal, region, or process and you can see how ridiculous relying on simple colour terminology would be. Do you like brown whisky or white whisky? Red wine or white wine?
While misnomers like gold or dark are patently to be avoided, some of the more enlightened amongst you may profess that rum is categorised not by colour, but by the territorial groupings English, Spanish and French. Well, not only may you have noticed that 2020 is not a good year to drop colonial descriptors, but they also again tell you next to nothing about the rum you’re drinking. Do you like European whisk(e)y – which one? Try telling a French and an Italian their wines are all ‘European’ and see if you finish your soirée with your outstretched little drinking pinky still intact.
So why is the rum world changing now? Well, like anything, it’s a combination of factors occurring at once, the culmination of which means rum is reaching a tipping point. Within the rum world itself, there has been a revolution. Producers are championing transparency, and consumers in return have demanded it from those that don’t. You’ll now find rum labels with more information than ever. Whereas category restrictions might limit certain information on other spirit labels, rum has freedom to fully disclose its methods (if it chooses to).
What is fascinating is that it is the smaller independent brands within the rum world have led the charge, tearing away from templates set by larger rum producers and redefining what it is that a rum drinker expects from a brand. And what’s interesting is that these producers for the most part have made themselves accessible online. You, as the potential rum aficionado, now have direct access to those making the spirit in your bottle. No longer are voices from the tropics lost in the aether of dubious brand mythology.
If there’s anything positive we can take away from the pandemic, it’s that this accessibility to the source has increased even more. We now have access to speakers who, previously, you would have had to travel halfway round the world just for the chance to say hello to, or hear them speak at a seminar.
Have we piqued your curiosity? If you’re not already a rum lover, but you aspire to throw off the shackles of your three piece tweed suit in exchange for some more colourful attire, you may be wondering – where do I start? Well, don’t throw away your pipe and monocle just yet, first let’s find you a rum. Here in lies the beauty and the treachery in the rum world – there are seemingly infinite countries, islands, distilleries, brands, and styles of rum to choose from. So which is the rum for you?
Well, it depends what you like to drink already. Presuming you’re already a veteran whisk(e)y or spirit lover looking to convert to the light, I’ll take your favourite tipple and hopefully offer you an (improved) sugarcane equivalent.
Bourbon lovers, let’s go to Barbados – the birthplace of molasses rum. Home to four distilleries, you’ll typically find an elegant, balanced, range of pot & column still blends here, which I’ve always found is the quintessential sweet-spot in terms of rum flavour profiles. You’ll find tropical fruits, vanillin and coconut notes that will entice your palette far further south than Kentucky.
More a straight shooting rye drinker? St. Lucia or Grenada might quench your thirst.
Irish? Let’s head for a full-bodied Trinidad or aged Cuban.
Intense Islay more your jam? Let’s swap out smoke for funk in Jamaica. Or are you not a whisky drinker at all and you prefer a little tequila or mezcal? Well, I’d love to introduce you to the world of agricole and Clairin…
The important thing for any spirits lover to remember is that if you’ve only ever drunk ‘the cheap stuff’, chances are you haven’t scratched the surface of what the rum world truly has to offer you. Think of the cheapest vodka, gin, whisky, or tequila you’ve ever tried – would you still drink that now, or would you agree there are hundreds of better options available to you? There’s nothing wrong with mixing rum with Coke but, as with any spirit, if you think it’s only for mixing the chances are you just need to try a better rum.
So sit back, relax, pour yourself a little rum, and prepare to dive into a world of spirits that may surprise you.