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Dark rum revolution

People who like rum tend to really love it. The unrestrained nature of the spirit means that the pace of innovation among producers is fast, with new cask-ageing techniques and flavour styles emerging all the time, notably among the dark rums. Neil Ridley reports.

The world of rum is an exciting place to be at the moment, particularly when it comes to dark and spiced rums. A host of innovative players are developing new products, and there are a number of brand-new, craft producers opening up in unlikely, distinctly ‘un-rummy’ locations.

It’s easy to see why. According to data from market analyst NielsenIQ, the rum category surpassed £1 billion in sales in the UK in the 12 months to July 2022, actually putting it ahead of whisky for the first time. This achievement is said to be driven by increased interest from younger drinkers (aged 18-34) and also by the perception of freedom that comes with rum for both producers and consumers: a spirit with limitless serves and flavour potential.

A colourful conundrum

‘Dark rum’ is a fascinating descriptor in itself, as the colour of the spirit really is in the eye of the beholder – and often the creativity of the producer. The wider rum category was once seen as a ‘wild west’ when it came to regulations, but there are now more stringent rules in some of the main producing regions, such as Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These cover which additives can and can’t be mixed with rum, especially with regard to its colour and sweetness. A number of producers don’t add anything by way of additional flavour or colour.

When choosing a rum, it makes sense to consider the raw ingredients and techniques used, both of which have a huge impact on the flavour. For instance, heavier pot-distilled, molasses-based spirits will be full of heady esters and robust flavour, while in contrast, column-distilled cane juice rums tend to be (though aren’t limited to being) more fruity, aromatic and fresh-tasting.

The cask connection

The Plantation Rum team, with Maison Ferrand owner Alexandre Gabriel, back right. Credit: Alwyn Kirk

You can also look at the type of cask in which the rum has been matured, and at where that cask has been aged, to give you clues about its additional flavour profile. ‘Barrel ageing is quite a complex process, even though it may seem simple enough,’ points out Cristhel Molina, marketing and product development manager for Don Papa Rum from the Philippines. Don Papa has experimented with a number of interesting new cask finishes, including Port, peppery American rye whiskey and smoky Scotch whisky.

‘There are so many factors that contribute to how the rum extracts the flavours in these different barrels,’ Molina continues. ‘The climatic conditions are also integral to the ageing process. In hot, humid climates, the conditions are more favourable for optimal flavour extraction. You then have to consider whether the cask is a first-fill [being used for rum for the first time], second- or third-fill – and this is where the balance and consistency becomes even trickier. You need a really good master blender and barrel cooper to maintain the consistency of the rum.’

‘Tropical ageing is a rum fundament: ex-bourbon casks and tropical climates are the true essence of a great rum,’ says Paul McFadyen, brand ambassador for Plantation Rum, which has specialised in introducing the world to ‘terroir-based’ expressions. These range from stalwart, heavier ‘English-style’ locations such as Barbados and Jamaica – the latter particularly famous for its more funky, pungent, high-ester spirit – to traditional and often lighter ‘Spanish-style’ locations such as Trinidad and Panama. Not to mention some lesser-known locations including Fiji, Australia and Peru.

Plantation also explores the concept of unusual cask and wood types, such as stout (beer), wine (Malbec, Chardonnay and Côte-Rôtie Syrah), chestnut, wild cherry and acacia. Alongside these it also operates a ‘double-ageing’ programme, which involves additionally maturing its rums in French oak from the Cognac region, where the company is based as part of Cognac house Maison Ferrand.

‘The continental ageing in southwest France brings our own signature,’ continues McFadyen. ‘It’s a style of rum ageing as old as any in the Caribbean, but uniquely different. Cognac barrels are larger, more porous and richer in tannins, and the second ageing in a temperate climate adds structure and the unique notes of Cognac wood.’

Great Scot

When asked to think of an archetypal rum location, your mind might automatically travel to a sandy-shored tropical paradise. However, stranger things are occurring a little closer to home. A new breed of rum distillers have begun to establish themselves in the UK – with Scotland being a rather unlikely hotbed.

‘The diversity and variation in the category is just fantastic – and adding to that [being a Scottish rum producer] is one of the most exciting things for us,’ explains Ben Inglis, founder of The Islay Rum Co, located on the Scottish island that’s more famed as a whisky mecca.

‘It’s going to be fascinating to see what else people come up with in the next few years,’ he continues. ‘You have Scottish rum producers already experimenting with wild yeast strains and casks made from local wood, as well as casks made from different species besides oak.’

Kit Carruthers of Ninefold Distillery, based near Lockerbie, agrees: ‘There are some really exciting things happening for us – and for the Scottish rum category as a whole. I think there’s a future of barrel exchanges between rum and whisky distilleries, as well as blended Scottish rums.’ Ninefold was set up on the Dormont Estate, east of Dumfries, in two converted byres formerly used for milking cattle, and began distilling in spring 2019.

Alongside Ninefold and Islay Rum, there’s also Matugga, based in Livingston near Edinburgh, which brings together Scottish distillation knowhow and Ugandan heritage. The owners have established a sugar cane plantation on family land in Matugga, Uganda, so they can offer a transparent cane-to-cask process.

With some truly innovative players exploring new frontiers in location, maturation and flavour, there’s no doubt that dark rum is in a dynamic place right now – with a very bright future indeed.

Six innovative dark rums to try, recommended by Neil Ridley

Berry Bros & Rudd The Classic Range Nicaragua Rum

Berry Bros’ long-earned expertise in sourcing fine libations is not limited to wine. Thanks to reserve spirits manager Doug McIvor, Berry’s has a range of aged rums from locations such as Belize, Mauritius and Panama. This Nicaraguan rum is distilled at the same place as the popular Flor de Caña brand and is lighter in style, with tropical fruit notes, a hint of nuttiness and a little deeper wood spice on the finish. Alcohol 40.5%

Don Papa Gayuma

Don Papa has become one of the UK’s favourite rum brands in recent years and its spirit of innovation has led to some interesting cask finishes, including Port, rye whiskey and its latest, an Islay whisky cask, which balances distinct, sweet, spicy notes with an underlying, warming and medicinal smokiness that’s synonymous with the type of whisky made on Islay, off the west coast of Scotland. Alc 40%

The Equiano Rum Co Original African & Caribbean Rum 

Co-founded by UK rum expert Ian Burrell, Equiano is the world’s first blend of African and Caribbean rums. Named after historical figure Olaudah Equiano, an influential anti- slavery campaigner and activist, the rum is matured in a mixture of ex-bourbon barrels and Cognac casks and contains no added sugar, for a rich, distinctly tropical style, with drier woody spice, some dried fruit and a buttery dark caramel note. Alc 43%

Ninefold Cask-Aged Pure Single Rum

One of Scotland’s first independent rum distillers, Ninefold ferments and distils everything on site and focuses on transparency as one of its production pillars. The rum is distilled in a bespoke 500-litre still using Algerian cane molasses, and matures in a variety of casks, including virgin American oak, ex-bourbon and also a small proportion of Scottish oak, harvested from the estate where the distillery is located. Notes of ripe banana, toffee, dark chocolate and sweet butterscotch, with a rich mouthfeel. Alc 45%

Plantation Vintage Collection Guyana 2007

Under the inventive eye of owner Alexandre Gabriel, Plantation rum has built a solid reputation with its approach to sourcing and highlighting rum from lesser-known locations around the world. This is a 15-year-old vintage from the Port Mourant distillery: 13 years aged in Guyana, then a further two in southwest France, in 350-litre Cognac casks. Rich and oily, with robust spice notes, espresso coffee, dark chocolate, charred orange and bonfire toffee. Alc 51%

That Boutique-y Rum Co Engenho Novo da Madeira

Irreverent and explorative, Boutique-y Rum has set the benchmark when it comes to discovering unusual casks of rum and previously unavailable distilleries. Aided by rum expert Peter Holland, each release is small batch and bottled at cask strength. This is a three-year-old rum from little- known Portuguese distillery Engenho Novo on the island of Madeira. It’s a lighter, fruity, agricole-style rum, matured in ex-Amarone wine casks to give a rich, tropical fruit-laden body, with vanilla ice cream, maple syrup and dark chocolate notes. Alc 53.5%

Trash & Treasure Spiced Botanical Rum

A lockdown passion project saw Tom Warner of Warner’s Gin in Northampton source some highly flavoured ‘high ester’ Jamaican rum and redistill it with waste botanicals, overripe banana and citrus peels. He also included other botanicals grown within just a 5km radius to the distillery, notably roasted dandelion root, which gives a distinct dark, coffee note to this highly inventive spiced rum. Alc 40%

Two Drifters Signature Rum

One of the pioneering new rum brands from the UK. Founders Dr Russ and Gemma Wakeham have achieved the challenge of being a carbon-negative brand and have recently obtained B-Corp status.  The rum is made using molasses from central America and is then distilled at the couple’s distillery in Exeter. It’s matured in a mixture of ex-Madeira and French oak casks, giving a distinctly drier style. Orange peel notes, some woody spice and a touch of vanilla-laden dark caramel. Alc 40%

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