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Innovation driving rum’s move towards premiumisation

Rum has had a bad rap for failing to keep pace with premiumisation seen in other categories. But producers are proving they have the skills and innovation to make them just as worthy of premium price tags as any other spirit.

*This feature was originally published in the March 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

While categories such as gin have achieved premium status with apparent ease in recent years, it’s been a long, hard-­fought battle for rum. By the admission of its own producers, the drink has struggled to shake its low­-rent, party image and has failed to convince patrons of its premium credentials.

“Rum’s the last category to premiumise,” confesses Tine Van Neval, European brand director, Bacardi. Take gin in the UK, for example, which broke through the £1 billion sales barrier in 2016 six months ahead of forecasts, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA). Rum, by comparison, only reached the billion-­pound mark in 2018, by which point gin had grown by another £1bn.

The task is great, but rum producers hope to mimic gin’s success – even if it comes at a slower pace – and the figures suggest the category is moving in the right direction.

“We’ve seen that gin shows no signs of stopping, and hope to see the same result with rum,” says Van Neval. “In the past five years, UK rum sales have grown 15% by volume and 32% by value [according to the 2017 WSTA Spirits Report], and rum sales have now broken £1bn. Premium rum represents 15% of the total rum sector, and the segment is continuing to grow.”

Cross-­category competition and consumers’ premium demands have pushed producers to create a more diverse, innovative rum category. “We have to give added value to customers as we premiumise,” reasons Jordi Xifra Keysper, marketing manager at Beveland Distillers, which owns rum brands including Relicario and Marama.


Consequentially, new trends – such as experimental cask maturation and finishes – have been emerging thick and fast in the category over the past year as producers innovate to prove their premium worth. A prime example is Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club Professional Edition, which was developed in collaboration with bartenders for bartenders, and launched in 2018.

The small batch series got off the ground with Havana Club Professional A – a white rum blend of three aged rum bases and pure aguardiente, matured in large oak barrels for up to four years. It has been filtered using an “innovative approach that retains the character while lightening the colour and palate”. The second bottling in the range was Havana Club Professional Edition B, which was made in partnership with UK cocktail expert Nick Strangeway.

Bartender Nick Strangeway (left) with Asbel Morales, Havana Club’s maestro del ron Cubano

“Havana Club Professional Edition B was finished in heavily peated Islay whisky barrels, adding a smoky note, resulting in a beautiful smoky, yet rich­and­-sweet-profile rum,” explains Nick Blacknell, global marketing director at Havana Club International. But it’s not the only cask experimentation Havana Club has undertaken. The third instalment in the brand’s Tributo Collection featured a blend of rums drawn from 60-­year­-old casks and part-finished in smoky whisky casks. The brand has just unveiled the fourth expression in the ultra-­premium range – Havana Club Tributo 2019, a blend of vintage liquids that includes a rum matured in rare Cognac casks.

“Finishing the rum in unusual casks gives us the opportunity to engage with other category consumers – like Cognac or whisky drinkers – and introduce them to the exquisite world of Cuban rum,” adds Blacknell.

Diplomático has also been endeavouring to connect more with its consumers, as they become ever more inquisitive and knowledgeable about the products they buy. In 2017, the Venezuelan rum brand unveiled the first two expressions in a limited edition range, called Distillery Collection, which were designed to showcase the brand’s “diverse” distillation methods. The first releases included Diplomático Batch Kettle and Diplomático Barbet rums. The Batch Kettle bottling was named after the batch kettle still used in its production. The still was brought to Diplomático’s La Miel distillery in 1959, and operates a semi­continuous distillation system that originated in Canada to make whisky.


The Barbet expression is distilled in a French Barbet column still that was also installed at the distillery in 1959. The Barbet column still is made from 100% copper, and is said to give the spirit a “strong, fruity” flavour.

Now, Diplomático is preparing to release the third and final rum from the Distillery Collection in March – a pot still variation. Edouard Beasley, global marketing director at Diplomático, says: “These rums are basically the three components of what goes into our Reserva Exclusiva. It’s a great way for us to tell the story of how we make and blend our Exclusiva with those three distillation styles.”

Maison Ferrand’s Plantation Rum also uses three styles of distillation – a pot still, a column still and a lesser­-known chamber still, described as an “intermediate distilling device between pot and column stills”. The equipment is the last surviving original chamber still in the world. As the name suggests, the still comprises three chambers layered one on top of the other, with vapours rising through each chamber and rectification occurring in the top, third chamber. It’s a unique part of the Plantation story and an important element in creating a point of difference in the category.

Plantation is also looking to other sectors for innovative inspiration and has been working on an initiative called Barrel Swap to create unusual finishes for its rums. The brand partnered with Swedish distillery Mackmyra to create Plantation Single Cask 2018 Barbados 7 Years Old, a rum made from pot still and twin-­column distillation that was aged in a Bourbon cask for five years, before being transferred to a Ferrand cask for one year, then finished in a 30-­litre Mackmyra Reserve whisky cask for another year.

Barrels being stored at Venezuela’s Diplomático

“Nowadays, a lot of rums are just aged in Bourbon barrels, but in the old days people were using all the barrels shipped to the Caribbean – wine, Sherry, Port, Armagnac, Cognac – whatever people were drinking in the Caribbean would be used to store rum,” explains Alexandre Gabriel, Plantation’s master blender. “So with Plantation every year we’re doing a barrel swap in partnership with other master blenders and distillers we admire, such as Mackmyra, Teeling [Irish whiskey] and even Tequila producers. I’ve done a Guyana pot still rum that I’ve put into a barrel from my friends at Ocho Tequila. To my knowledge, it’s the only rum that’s aged in a Tequila barrel, and it was quite a technical challenge because we didn’t want the herbal note of the Tequila to take over.”

And Gabriel hopes to delve further into the brand’s history for its future releases, which include at least 10 single cask bottlings each year. Sifting through the archives that date back to 1893, he recently discovered that sea water was once used in rum production as it “creates mild stress on yeast, which creates a specific taste profile”. “One day you might see me do a sea­-water-­fermented rum and think I’ve fallen on my head,” he says, only half­-jokingly. “Innovation is rooted in history and tradition. Very often, what people look at today as innovation is actually research or reinterpreted traditions.”


In other historical trends, forgotten rum­-producing regions are being rediscovered. Nusa Caña is a new rum from Indonesia that hopes to remind people about “one of rum’s forgotten stories”. The brand is the brainchild of drinks industry experts Marc Rodrigues, Joe Milner, Andy Gaunt and bartender Sam Jeveons. Rum has become synonymous with the Caribbean, but Indonesia has been making rum for centuries, and is “considered the Godfather of rum, older than cachaça, older than Caribbean rum”, says Jeveons.

“With Nusa Caña,” explains Jeveons, “we wanted to create new flavours based on the history of Indonesian rum. We found there is no one particular recipe for rum; it changes as people have influenced it, whether Indonesian, Dutch or Portuguese. Rather than bring back something historic, almost geeky and nerdy, we wanted to produce something that had mass appeal, that would really go out and get to a competitive price set in the market. For all of these reasons, we steered away from historic and went innovative and new.”

But that’s not to say the four friends haven’t stuck to tradition as well. Nusa Caña is distilled in Indonesia on the island of Java, then, like all Indonesian rum, it is shipped to Holland to be matured, blended and bottled. Jeveons explains that this tradition – carried out by choice rather than legal obligation – comes from when the Dutch colonised Indonesia, which lasted for 350 years. “So they basically took raw ingredients that were produced on the island and its rum, and sent it back to Europe to be sold on the market,” he claims.

Relicario: premiumisation must give consumers added value

While other spirit categories, particularly whisky, frequently discuss base materials used in production, from barley varieties to yeast strains, rum has not been as vocal. One of the stand­out features of Nusa Caña’s production is its use of Indonesian red rice yeast, which is commonly used in Indonesian rum brands. Jeveons says it produces distinct flavours in the final spirit.

Nusa Caña has also shunned the common use of oak barrels in favour of Indonesian teak wood casks. “Originally, rum was sent to Europe in pottery containers, 20­litre jars,” explains Jeveons. “In the 1500s, barrels started with Cognac. Barrelling came to Indonesia with colonisation, but no oak grows in Indonesia. So when barrelling became a popular mode of transport, producers used teak. It’s a hard, compact, strong wood. Teak casks create less interaction with the wood itself, which results in a slightly drier product. So we’re creating different effects and flavours through how we age the rum.”

And when it comes to flavours, spiced and flavoured rums are seeing a surge in popularity. Bacardi has been quick to meet demand for such variations, launching a ginger and raspberry-­flavoured iteration in 2018. The brand also recently revealed Bacardi Spiced, which is set to launch in the UK this year.

“Flavoured and spiced rums are proving popular, with a 20.8% increase in the on-trade, while golden rum is also experiencing growth, rising by 8.2% in the past year,” says Bacardi’s Van Neval, citing global Nielsen data to 16 June 2018. “At Bacardi we have kept a close eye on these trends. The arrival of Bacardi Spiced to the market comes in response to the increasing global demand for flavoured rums. Unlike some of our most popular competitors, Bacardi Spiced does not use artificial sweeteners to enhance the rich flavours of its spices.”

Until now, many have been reluctant to accept rum as a serious contender in the spirits world. But the rate at which the category is innovating and driving trends forward is unquestionably gathering pace – and enticing new consumers to explore rum’s potential. If trends and innovation can continue to progress in this way, rum could prove that old time proverb right: “Slow and steady wins the race”.

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