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Nick Gillett on the rum renaissance: is it finally happening?

Published:  12 June, 2023

With the rum revival being forecast for the best part of 25 years, it’s great for us mystic megs of the industry to finally be able to say, it’s happening. But why now, after all this time, and is it here to stay? Whether you’re a professional in the on or off-trade, or just a seasoned spirits lover looking to learn – here’s how to navigate this brilliant and booming category.

After 25 years, why now?

It’s a perfect storm of scenarios that has finally brought us the rum boom.

Let’s be honest. By its very essence, rum is a vibrant category. From its origin in warm, palm-tree lined, beachy lands like the Caribbean, to its key part in the frivolity of bar culture, there’s a lot to draw you into it. And, on a drier note, it has definitely benefitted from the shift away from US whiskey caused by EU tariffs on Bourbon.

Obviously, rum has always enjoyed a fair amount of popularity. As a key ingredient of Mojitos and Daquiris, every bar and booze shelf is likely to have some sort of selection of white, dark, spiced and golden varieties, thanks to its versatility. But what we’re seeing now, is an even greater demand for depth and breadth of product.

Premiumisation is happening across the industry and with a higher price point, consumers are putting more effort and research behind their choices. Combine this with the results of the gin boom and you have a generation that’s willing to explore new categories to find the next big thing. And as of now, it’s rum. 

Agricole: the category’s RHUM-dinger

In my humble opinion, the category has a secret weapon: rhum agricole. Those in the on and off-trade should now be asking themselves: is my knowledge of rhum up to scratch? If it’s not, it’s time to hit the books.

Rhum agricole is made from the juice of pressed pure sugar cane, as opposed to rum which is made from molasses. It’s been produced on French Caribbean Islands for over 100 years, and it has an entirely different flavour profile from rum (softer, more nuanced, earthy and vegetal notes).

If you’re a mixologist or an aficionado of tiki cocktails, you will already appreciate its worth. If not, stock up this minute. It’s an incredibly rewarding liquid, sipped neat or used to bring an added dimension to cocktails. It’s versatile, subtle, and delicious. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Martinique based distiller Rhum J. M’s selection, which, with sterling eco-creds, is also a good choice if you’re environmentally minded.

What to look out for

So, what’s happening where and what trends are we likely to see in the category in the not-so-distant future?

Let’s start in the Caribbean. There is conversation amongst Barbadian distillers about a Geographical Indicator in the near future which would almost give a stamp of approval to the exceptional produce coming out of this region. Then, move west to St Lucia and the whole spectrum of wonderful rums is represented, from Bounty (a premium and delicious rum that lends itself well to cocktails and being sipped at sunny festivals), through to the more nuanced, Chairman’s Reserve and other premium expressions distilled across the island.

But we don’t have to look abroad to see wonderful things happening in the category. There’s a rum renaissance happening right here in the UK. Look at Scotland-based distiller, Dark Matter’s range, Two Drifters’ sip-worthy and sustainable selection, or East London Liquor Company’s offering for options that span all varieties.

Now, I’ve spoken in the past about the lack of restriction on rum production: the process is so flexible that producers can innovate in pretty much any direction. This gives the humble rum-lover an abundance of choice and all different from a taste perspective. Where some producers are blending different varieties, others are experimenting with ageing and cask finishes – just look to Don Q for a range that’s as diverse as it is tempting.

All of the above means that the larger players in the category have a job on their hands to keep up, from both a quality and flavour perspective. And guess how they’re keeping up? By buying up terrific challenger brands for their own portfolios.

How best to explore

So, if you can’t rely on age statements, or colour to give you a clue on flavour, where does the intrepid explorer begin?

Well, experiment with different countries of origin and different price points; and if you’re in the on-trade, consider how each product would work in both long and short drinks. I’m a huge fan of lengthening rum with a simple mixer like soda or tonic. It’s quite a good way to enjoy the drink if you’re not quite at the point of sipping it neat.

If it’s spiced rums you’re into, price point is a good indicator of quality. Generally speaking, the higher the price, the higher the quality of ingredients. But there are still affordable varieties using decent ingredients that are tasty too and perfect for mixing.

To the experts of the on and off-trade – we have an education piece to consider. With all that’s on offer to us, we can lead consumers through their own journey of discovery to the stars of the category. Here at Mangrove, we’re taking that job seriously, bringing on Ashera Goonewardene as brand ambassador for the Mangrove rum portfolio, which now of course includes Spiribam’s range of rums. She’ll bring a wealth of category expertise to our business, our tastings and our training.

I’m confident that there’s a rum (or rhum) out there for everyone. But if you take anything away from this article, let it be this: after decades of waiting, don’t get left behind. Do your research, embrace premiumisation and sample the wonderful rums the world has to offer. You might just find some new absolute stars for the bar.