It’s our go-to party drink, our mixer with cola, our holiday thirst-quencher. In other words, rum is fun – but it’s not to be taken seriously. Or at least it didn’t used to be. Compared to the other major categories – vodka, gin, tequila, whisk(e)y – rum has been slow to go premium, but its time has come. Education, growing transparency and innovation mean rum is now getting widespread attention from savvy drinkers. Its future is looking as bright as the Caribbean sunshine. Here’s why…
Scroll down to discover more about premium rum’s revival and Alicia’s picks
No one really knows how to define ‘premium rum’ – that’s been one of its greatest barriers to growth as a category. Scotch whiskies point to big age statements and gin to rare botanicals, but the rum picture is more complex, because rum itself is wildly diverse.
There is the obvious stylistic range, from white unaged spirit to ultra-dark. But rum is also made from different bases – molasses, syrup or sugar cane juice – with varied distillation methods. Crucially, there are myriad rum-producing nations, working to their own sets of rules, of which most consumers have little understanding.
‘Every country has its own regulations,’ explains Ian Burrell, consultant, presenter and global rum ambassador. ‘Some, like Jamaica, are very strict. They don’t allow added sugar, don’t add artificial flavourings. If a Jamaican rum says it’s been aged for a minimum of 21 years, then that will be the youngest rum in the bottle. But a Guatemalan rum labelled similarly might be mostly six-year- old rum with just a little 21-year-old.’
Burrell sees a growing understanding of origin as being a key to consumers’ willingness to spend more on quality rums. Once they try a rum from somewhere with high production standards, they know it’s worth it. Meanwhile, producers in these key locations, including Jamaica, are pushing to have their rums recognised as a separate category, much like Scotch whisky.
What’s also helping with awareness is that the industry is talking about rum in a new way. ‘Historically, we’ve used the terms white, gold and dark,’ says Dean MacGregor, rum portfolio ambassador at Speciality Brands. ‘Because of that, it’s been easy to dismiss rum.
‘Imagine if Scotch whisky were categorised in that way – if people didn’t like the taste of Laphroaig, that would put them off an entire category of “gold whisky”!’
Problematic colonialist tags such as ‘English’ and ‘Spanish’ are also being dropped. Rum guru Luca Gargano, in conjunction with Richard Seale, distiller at cult Barbados distillery Foursquare, are among those devising a new vocabulary. Focused on distillation style and base rather than colour, the Gargano Classification uses terms such as ‘pure single agricole rhum’ or ‘single blended rum’ to help consumers wrap their heads around what’s in their glass.
Focus on Source
In an era of heightened consumer awareness around provenance, the smoke and mirrors that have historically plagued the rum industry are slowly being replaced with a focus on sourcing and method. ‘In the past there have been fancy bottles but little provenance,’ notes MacGregor. ‘What we’re seeing now is distilleries being a lot more open about how their rum is made.’
Rhum agricole, the cane juice-based rum from French Caribbean islands, is at the forefront of this. In AP-protected Martinique, family-owned Neisson grows its own sugar cane, is moving towards organic farming, and distils with a unique single-column French Savalle still.
The ‘grass to glass’ character of many agricoles, especially unaged ones, is prized notably in France. ‘White rums are authentic; there is no cheating possible,’ notes Alexandre Beudet, founder of Excellence Rhum. His specialist rum shop opened in 2018 in a swish Paris postcode, in response to growing local demand for quality spirit. Full ‘grass to glass’ production can be prohibitively expensive for most molasses-based distillers, as it requires sugar-processing equipment. But a handful of producers, including Jamaica’s Worthy Park – which uses its 100% estate-grown sugar cane to make its molasses and ferments partly with proprietary yeast – are making it happen.
Among distillers that don’t produce their own molasses, there is increased transparency around sourcing. After all, transparency gains consumer trust – and, in turn, loyal customers.
Careful ageing is another factor. While a big age statement doesn’t necessarily make a rum ‘premium’, it does get the consumer’s attention. As rum ages rapidly in hot climates – with an evaporation rate about three times that of Scotch whisky – traditionally it didn’t make financial sense to age it any longer than strictly necessary. But now that consumers are willing to pay for it, it’s not uncommon to find rums aged for seven years or more (or, in the case of respected producer Appleton, 20 or more).
Innovative finishes, meanwhile, for example using Sherry or tequila barrels, are keeping drinkers interested in the long term and are pulling them in from competitor spirit categories.
The distilleries themselves aren’t the only ones driving change. Much premium rum growth is thanks to what are known as independent bottlers. Purchasing rums direct from distilleries or through an agent, they age or blend it before packaging it as a unique product.
At its more accessible end, independents are drawing in new drinkers with rums that balance genuine quality with style. Burrell’s Equiano is one example. A blend of rum from Grays in Mauritius and Foursquare in Barbados, it’s the world’s first Afro-Caribbean rum, and is highly sippable. It’s packaged beautifully, and comes at a price point that’s not just reserved for collectors.
At the highest end, independent bottlers source extremely rare barrels and release limited editions aimed at connoisseurs. In 2004, Gargano discovered and bottled barrels from Trinidad’s closed Caroni distillery, and these bottles are still prized. He went on to found Habitation Velier, a range of top pot-still rums with its own loyal following. Gargano doesn’t distil himself, but his knack for sourcing and his relationships with top producers make his bottles some of the most sought-after in the world.
You can try both Caroni and Velier at Ginger Lily, a bar in London’s swanky Pan Pacific hotel that opened in late 2021. It’s miles from the tiki rum bar cliché, with its serene atmosphere, suited bartenders and rums costing as much as £695 per 50ml. It’s living proof that the spirit’s image is changing. ‘There are so many bars in London and we wanted to do something different,’ says bar manager Francesco Putignano of his choice to champion rum. ‘But I wasn’t expecting so many people pointing to our back bar and saying, “I’ve heard about that rum, I can’t wait to try it”.’
And that is, perhaps, one of the strongest arguments for why premium rum is set to grow. Even at its priciest it is, at least compared to whisky, still available – and, relatively speaking, affordable. Many of the decades-old bottles Putignano lists retail in shops for a few hundred pounds. Meanwhile, a 40-year-old whisky from Port Ellen costs in excess of £6,000. Rare rum hasn’t yet fully passed into collectors-only territory. It’s still for drinking, and that can only mean one thing: more people are going to discover it.
A former editor at The Sunday Times, Alicia Miller’s years of writing about drink, food and travel have taken her to more than 50 countries. In 2020, she was shortlisted for the British Society of Magazine Editors’ Consumer Print Writer of the Year award.
Six to try: premium rums
Caroni Distillery, 23 Year Old, Trinidad
Parcels of prized Caroni, from the closed Trinidad distillery, can still (just about) be snapped up from specialist retailers. This bottling from That Boutique-y Rum Co was distilled in 1998. Nutty, molasses-y and dark fruity, with tropical banana. One for thoughtful sipping. Alcohol 61.1%
Eminente, Reserva 7 Year Old, Cuba
Cigar box, cacao, spice, praline – if you’re looking for a decadent sipping rum, then this is it. Aged in whisky barrels, which is where some of that depth of character comes from. A cracking choice for a rum-based Old Fashioned. Alc 41.3%
Equiano, Original, Barbados
Ian Burrell’s brand is a combination of spirit from Grays of Mauritius, aged in oak and ex-Cognac casks, and from Foursquare in Barbados, aged in ex-bourbon barrels. It’s ultra-smooth, with caramel, floral, vanilla and spice notes. Alc 43%
Neisson, Blanc, Martinique
This organic grain-to-glass rhum agricole has aromas of fresh sugar cane, citrus and honey. A perfect starting point for fans of blanco tequila or gin who want to see what quality unaged rum is all about. Alc 52.5%
A meeting of some of the most respected names in rum. Pot-still rum from Hampden in Jamaica joins Coffey column-still spirit from Bajan favourite Foursquare to make a fragrant white rum with aromas of pineapple, liquorice and banana. A great rum for mixing. Alc 47%
Worthy Park, Single Estate Reserve, Jamaica
One of the titans of Jamaica. The grass-to-glass estate has grown sugar cane for centuries, but relaunched its molasses-based rum production in the early-2000s. Its entry-level bottling is rich in sweet-savoury complexity with toast, toffee and plenty of ripe tropical banana. Alc 45%