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Think Rum, Talk Rum

Published:  14 February, 2018

The opening panel at Harpers’ annual Think Rum event delved deep into the premium possibilities to grow the category. Andrew Catchpole reports

With the current buzz around rum underscored by record UK sales, edging above the £1 billion mark in 2017, the category is clearly on its uppers. While that figure may still represent just a smidgeon of the numbers of bottles shifted of whisky or gin (let alone vodka), it does represent a growth category and one that smart on and off-trade operators can tap into.

Which is where Harpers’ annual Think Rum event stepped up to the mark, bringing together a panel of category experts to debate ways in which both suppliers and retailers can maximise engagement with and returns from the category.

One of the most salient factors about rum consumption is the demographic – drinkers have a younger age profile than any other spirit, according to the William Grant & Sons 2017 Market Report, and many are prepared to pay for a premium experience.

However, and slightly at odds with those findings, the majority of growth in rum is being driven by spiced and golden styles (both up 8%), with the higher-end, smaller-batch and craft products still occupying a buoyant niche among aficionados, cutting-edge bartenders and enthused indie merchants.

A key question for the panel was how best to encourage those coming into the category via spiced, golden and flavoured styles (all of which, as most agreed, offer a ‘gateway’ not to be sniffed at) to further explore the wealth of individual and premium styles now available.

Peter Holland of the Floating Rum Shack described a “rum world as diverse and vibrant as ever”, highlighting the possibilities of “a great category for attracting younger consumers, to bring them into the wider world of dark spirits too”.

For Louis Hayes of Merchant House bars – which counts in its number a whisky-focused outlet and one dedicated to the fashionable twin peaks of gin and rum – education is key.

“I have a strong belief that right now both the industry and consumers are very confused about what rum actually means,” he said. “Our main focus in the bar is on the educational side, but the first thing we teach people is exactly what rum is.”

Understanding the sector

In many cases this involves unpicking the rather bland, catch-all categories of white, golden, dark and spiced (which many rum experts argue hold back understanding of the complexities of rum), instead explaining the differences delivered by smaller and craft-production rums, from different islands and traditions, using different distilling techniques.

Sly Augustin of rum specialist bar Trailer Happiness echoed these thoughts, drawing a wry comparison with a runaway hit TV series. “At Trailor Happiness we create a familiar home for rum experts and save space for the ignorant,” he quipped, qualifying that: “I love meeting people who know nothing about rum… It makes me excited because it’s like meeting people who have never seen Game of Thrones – in one way you can say ‘how is that possible?’, but in another they are lucky because they are in for a real treat.”

Education in the on-trade, and especially via individual styles and cocktails in trend-setting bars, is crucial to the ongoing success of the category, agreed Dawn Davies MW of Speciality Drinks.

“At Speciality we’re trying to grow the premiumisation of rum and where we have seen sales growth this year is around the premium end. We’ve done really well with single cask projects, rums that might not be for the wider public arena,” she says.

“[But] we also acknowledge that to get people into the rum category you do have to have those rums that are softer, sweeter, those with the spices – I am all for them. Our job is to take people on that journey through to premium rums.”

Davies cautioned, though, that rum should “be really careful not to go down the gin route and have 9,000 products out there that are all the same”, with many producers “basically just bottlers”.

She added: “So we need to look at the quality of what is going into the bottle first and grow that niche, the premium end.”

Without this impetus and depth to the category, consumers who have eagerly delved into rum will find themselves with nowhere to go, it was suggested, with Davies drawing a comparison with the early entry of Australian wine into the UK.

“Australia came into market with cheap wines, but had never considered how to take customers from £5 to £10, and then to £15 and £20, so it lost out to countries such as Chile that came in cheap, but introduced a clearer path to entice people up to more premium wines,” she reasoned.

“If you don’t start talking to consumers and taking them up a ladder, then you start to lose them from that category.”

Education is paramount

High-end on-trade outlets – the likes of Trailer Happiness and Merchant House in London – can lead by education and swaying opinion-forming punters. But arguably, unless this love feeds through, any spirit that fails to break ranks in the broader market by definition is consigned to a precariously fashion-dependent niche.

Which lent interesting weight to what Waitrose rum buyer John Vine had to add to the conversation.

“Waitrose grew rum 13% year on year, and compared with market growth was about 2% ahead [of that], with spiced, golden and dark rum all increasing, while white rum, which is about 40% of what we sell, in decline,” said Vine.

He went on to describe a premium trend, plus an interesting spin-off, which is that, given Waitrose’s “older demographic, we are seeing good growth in dark rums too”.

The overarching picture is one of premium growth at this premium multiple retailer, which bodes well for the category as a whole.

There was also much debate over rum’s image – not least the association with pirates – and how this should best be tuned to appeal to consumers while still carrying a sense of premium spirit.

As Holland said: “We don’t want to suck all of the joy out of rum, but perhaps we do need to consider parking the pirates at the door.”

Augustin was less concerned about the cartoonish pirate image, making a serious point about how the appeal of the rum category differs somewhat from other dark spirits such as whisky and cognac.

“Rum has a tradition that is related to fun. It’s not something we should be ashamed of [and] I don’t think rum is ever necessarily going to be as straight-laced as whisky, or looked upon in quite the same way,” he reasoned.

“That doesn’t negate the possibility for succeeding as a premium spirit, but we are not about trying to be whisky. We don’t want to lose the essential element of rum which, for me, is as a social drink, to enjoy with friends.

“Rum is in a good space now and will naturally fade away from [the pirate] imagery,” he concluded.

Our Think Rum Awards 2018 - The Winners:

Best Independent Retailer: Gerry’s of Soho

Best Multiple Retailer: Waitrose

Best Individual Rum Bar: Trailer Happiness

Best Multiple On-trade: Drake & Morgan 

Rum Champion of the Year: Sly Augustin, Trailer Happiness