It's Time to Give Rum the Spotlight It Deserves

The spirit is so much more than a supporting actor in your Tiki drink.

Is This Rum's Big Year?

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Rum is in the midst of a misidentity crisis. To most Americans, mentioning the category still conjures colonial notions of pirates, pina coladas, painkillers, and similar sugary, boozed-up tropical drinks. 

“For decades, the popular perception of rum came largely from two brands: Bacardi’s white rum and Captain Morgan’s spiced rum,” says Alexander Brittell, editor-in-chief of Caribbean Journal and founder of the Caribbean Rum Awards. “Those two brands still drive what people think about rum: that it’s for mixing, and that it’s not a sipping spirit.”

Rum has been trying to shake off this rap. While the sugar cane spirit is an excellent base to vacation drinks (and certainly has fueled more than a few pirate crews), aged rums are also profound, highly sippable, and wildly special, akin in quality, terroir, and age-worthiness to any premium brown spirit. 

“The rum category has been on the precipice of growth for a long time,” says Lynnette Marrero, an award-winning bartender, MasterClass host, and the co-founder of Speed Rack. According to Grandview Research, the global rum market was worth $15 billion in 2021 and is determined to reach a valuation of $21.5 billion by 2027. E-commerce platform Drizly predicts that rum is poised for a big year, citing that one-third of respondents to an October survey said they were more likely to spend money on rum over bourbon. “People have really begun to appreciate the sheer artistry of aged rum,” says Brittell.

In late 2022, whiskey powerhouse Brown-Forman (owners of Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve) purchased Diplomatico, a premium Venezuelan sipping rum. Diageo (which owns brands like Casamigos and Johnnie Walker) snapped up Don Papa, a sipping rum from The Philippines, for a cool €260 million this past January. 

“It’s a very exciting time for rum,” agrees Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s iconic rum destination Smuggler’s Cove. “Younger and more diverse drinkers are moving to [the spirit], intrigued by the tremendous variety of the category.”

He finds that older, more established spirits lovers are coming over from Scotch and whiskey, captivated by the complexity and sophistication of rum, as well as the excellence and value that can be found at lower price points. With whiskey prices continuing to sky rocket, rum is bringing bourbon lovers into the fold and wooing Scotch drinkers who don’t want to shell out for single malt. This vibe shift towards very good, high-end rum, Cate says, has sparked the launch of new limited releases from established brands, like longer-aged expressions and unique barrel selections similar to what we see with other premium brown spirits.

Edouard Beaslay, the global marketing director of Diplomático, notes that the super-premium rum category [bottles over $30] has grown by almost 17% over the last five years, according to the IWSR. “There’s an established trend of consumers who are trading up into aged rums.”

But unlike other premium products, the rum category has a host of barriers to clear first. “The challenge around rum has been both in the context of the product — people think of it as a lower-end, sugary spirit — and the narrative: I think a lot of people want to associate rum with that one time they vacationed in the Caribbean,” says Marc Farrell, the founder of Ten to One Rum, a rum brand aimed at rewriting and reimagining how drinkers think of rum. “Even worse, we have even more extremes — narratives of pirates and plantations — colonial caricatures that have followed the category. To find a way to premiumize, you have to be able to address those.”

Jessica Gonzalez, general manager of The Jet Set in Newburgh, New York, says that many of her customers think they will get a hangover from rum due to its sugary content. Rum is distilled from sugarcane — either molasses, cane syrup, or cane juice — but the actual sugar and subsequent sweetness is largely removed in the distillation process. 

“People assume rum is cheap,” Marrero sighs. Despite rum’s renaissance, the category is having a tough time shrugging off the idea that the spirit is strictly meant for using in Pina Coladas, or with colas. “It’s a very damaging perception to the communities and people who make high-quality rum,” she continues. “Sustainability efforts, cultural exploration through a liquid journey, or social initiatives are increasingly important to drinkers. Rum, mostly due to the communities where it is produced, offers many of these options for consumers.”

“With rum, you’re telling a story of culture,” says Farrell. “You want people to appreciate that culture. Hopefully, that inspires a better understanding of rum and its experiences, how it came to be, and the role rum plays in moments of celebration in the Caribbean; from everything from the streets of Trinidad to hanging out with my family on the banks of the river swapping stories. There’s such a breadth and tapestry of Caribbean culture and you see rum woven into all these different moments.”

At Gonzalez’ tiki bar, she’s constantly converting guests to try rum cocktails , as well as new types of rum. “People always want to discover new drinks and go on new adventures,” she says. When people declare that rum and rum-based drinks aren’t for them, it’s her job to convince them they just haven’t had the right rum yet.

And there really is a rum for every drinker. Rhum Agricole is grassy and funky. Puerto Rico’s rums are often gentle and light. Guyana’s rums can be rich and smokey. “There’s a huge range of rums, from bone dry and grassy to earthier rums to fruity and sweet rums,” says Marrero. “The category is vast.” 

Farrell tries to compare the vastness of the category to wine. “Do you like Cabernet or Merlot? Think of it as terroir — If you look at the history of rum, you understand that the soil composition in Jamaica is different from what you find in Trinidad. There’s distillation methods in the Dominican Republic versus Jamaica. As we work to change the language around rum, we try and talk about things like provenance, terroir, and distillation methods.”

Marrerro is excited for Rhum Agricole in particular to finally enter the spotlight. “Consumers are leaning towards more flavorful white spirits (hello, tequila), and this will help other aromatic white spirits, like agricole rum, grow.” Rum is begging to be seen beyond tropical drink tropes. Rum is wildly good in a Manhattan. Consider rum in an Aperol Spritz. Let us turn you on to a rum negroni! Do as Farrell does with his family and sip it with a splash of coconut water. It’s an incredibly versatile, storied category of spirits. “Walk into the Aviary in Chicago or walk into Cote or Eleven Madison Park in New York, and you can order a beautiful rum craft cocktail,” says Farrell. “It’s a signal we’re shifting the perception of rum away from what it’s been mired as in the past.”

“There is no spirit in the world with more romance or more personality than rum,” Brittell says. “It’s a spirit that can transport you and take you on a trip to a far-away setting in a few sips. Nobody is sitting in their home bar dreaming they were actually in Kentucky.”

Marrero is encouraged to see collectors who are  starting to come into the category; they see how you can find complex flavors and aromas. “Rum can stand up in a whiskey or Cognac tasting as an elevated brown spirit.” Next up? “Rum will shed its reputation as a party-only sip. It’s going to become a serious contender in aged spirits.”

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