Ready for rum: operators look to boost the cane spirit's image with flights, craft cocktails and premium bottles.
Long dominated by two enormously popular brands (Bacardi and Captain Morgan), rum now accounts for about 11% of all spirits sold, second only to vodka, which has 33%. But the overall rum category shrank for the fourth consecutive year in 2016, down a little more than 1% to 24.4 million nine-liter cases.
Why is rum lagging? Consumers look to bars and restaurants these days for unusual and exceptional experiences when they drink. This is especially true for Millennial, who are notably brand disloyal and seen as searchers for the new, the rare and the spirits with stories to tell.
Despite rum's long history in the U.S., consumers haven't been as eager to explore the category. But that is slowly starting to change.
New and unique rums are entering the market with different tastes and intriguing histories. And there are a number of on-premise beacons for rum experimentation and sampling guiding new interest across the country.
RUM FOR ALL
New bars and those with changing menus nearly always include one or two rum-based drinks. This is not only to provide breadth, but also because rum is a relatively inexpensive product to use compared to other spirits.
Especially valuable to the rum business are those operators focusing more on the classic tropical connection between rum and the New World countries where most are produced.
Take the Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Phoenix. Co-owner and director of the spirit program Dwayne Allen has taken a firm stance on behalf of rum: with 150 or so rum variants on the back bar, it's the only spirit served. "You come see us, you're going to drink rum," he says.
Originally from Jamaica, Allen says it's only fitting that his place be rum-focused. "As you can imagine, rum courses through my veins," he says. "I knew rum long before I knew what it was in terms of a spirit, as it's an ubiquitous part of Jamaican culture." The approach to rum is different at Rum Bar, he says, in order to harken back to the days when that's what local Jamaican drinking places were known as. "My grandmother still refers to any bar as a rum bar; in her younger days, that's what they were specifically called because that is all they served."
Allen emphasizes that serving only rum at Rum Bar is not a gimmick. The spirit is used in many of the dishes, which are frequently paired with cocktails. Even the drink menu is broken into categories suitable for appetizers, entrees and desserts.
"There's a synergy between what goes on in my kitchen and what goes on behind the bar," Allen says. "The kitchen cooks with rum, and we make cocktails not only with the food in mind, but also using these unique ingredients like Irish Moss, which are indigenous to the islands."
Rum Bar's prices of individual pours range from $8 to $2,500 for a taste of the Appleton 50 Year Old Anniversary rum. "When we got it, we had no intention to sell any but to have it as a collector's item on our shelf" Allen says about the pricey pour. "But we've sold three drinks out of it."
In addition to tastings and occasional programs, Allen focuses novices and the informed alike on flights of rum. "On any given day, the majority of people who walk into our doors are going to be unfamiliar with rum in any sophisticated way, and will come in and say, 'The last time I had rum was at a frat party at college.' And we arrange to take them to the next level through the flights, three half-ounce pours arranged a number of different levels."
For example, Allen might create a flight based on age, highlighting the changes that occur in Guyanese rum El Dorado aged at 5, 10 and 15 years old. Or he might offer three rums made in Spanish-speaking countries, say, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Served with tasting cards as a guide and to showcase various flavors and attributes, the flights are priced according to the individual rums included. They serve as a perfect entry point for rum neophytes.
"What we've discovered is that this is the easiest way to transition people into drinking quality rum, to take them from a point of no knowledge," Allen says. And since a flight is just 1 Vi oz. of rum in total, it's not the same as a commitment to a full drink with an unknown brand.
Bringing customers up to speed this way is a style of service also used at Philadelphia's Alma De Cuba, a Starr Restaurant Group operation. Beverage manager Brian Cupitt offers flights priced from $22 to $50.
"Rums have their own terroir: Rums from Barbados or Jamaica or Guyana are all different-different places, soils, climates, people, traditions," Cupitt says. "When people realize rum is a lot like wine, in that where and how and by whom it's made matters, it means so much."
His current flights at Alma de Cuba include four offerings: one, "Greater Antilles," features Appleton Reserve from Jamaica, Don Q Gran Anejo from Puerto Rico and Zaya from the Dominican Republic ($26 for three 1-oz. pours). The priciest, at $50, is "Prima," made up of Zacapa XO from Guatemala, Mt. Gay 1703 Cask from Barbados and Pyrat Cask 1623 from Anguilla.
The more than 50 rums on Alma de Cuba's menu are arranged under the rubrics "Aged Rum," "White Rum," "Gold and Dark Rum," and "Esoteric." The latter includes Batavia-Arrack Van Oosten from Indonesia, Clement Premiere Canne from Martinique and La Columbe Coffee Rum, produced with local coffee vendor La Columbe.
At the Latin American-inspired rum bar Ronero, which opened this past December in Chicago, owner Nils Westlind has been using a more casual mode of offering flights. But he plans on formalizing it soon.
"When customers express an interest by telling us they want to sample some rums, one of our managers will go to the table, ask some questions and design a flight for them," Westlind says. Served on a wooden tray, the tastes are shared, and servers will suggest complementary items, such as coffee or chocolate.
Ronero, which is the name given to master distillers of rum in Spanish-speaking countries, stocks more than 100 rums. But an exhaustive collection isn't the point. Westlind, like Allen, has a childhood connection with rum he wants to share.
"There are other places in Chicago and other cities with a bigger rum selection, but it was most important to me that we had a curated rum collection-only rums we really liked and wanted to showcase," Westlind says. "It's been a lifelong dream to do a Latin American rum restaurant, as I grew up in Buenos Aires and Colombia.
Rums start from $10 to however extravagant customers want to go. In the upstairs club, bottles sourced by a spirit collector include a 1930s-era Cuban rum sold for more than $300 per ounce.
Ronero's cocktail list is also ambitious-perhaps too much at first, says Westlind, as they have trimmed back a little, from about 40 to 25. But the goal was to emphasis national variations, and while many rum-focused operations feature cachaca as well, Ronero is one of the few making cocktails with the Columbian spirit aguardiente.
"Our goal with the food and cocktails is a trip through Central and South America-every country has its own version. Columbia has aguardiente, which is a 'hate it or love it' type of rum," he says.
CLASSIC AND CREATIVE COCKTAILS
For National Cocktail Day on March 24, New York's Maxwell's Chophouse offered the Billy Ocean. Created by bartender/ mixologist Juan Arboleda, the $15 cocktail was made with caramelized-butter-fat-washed Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, apple cider sweetener, pimento bitters, cinnamon stick and grated nutmeg.
The Rye Bar at Rosewood in Washington, D.C., honored the National Cherry Blossom Festival this past spring with the Scidmore cocktail (rum, cherry syrup, Cherry Herring, yuzu, lime juice), priced at $16.
And Brooklyn's Diamond Reef opened this past March with drinks including Hot in the Shade (rum, pineapple, lime, orgeat, Madeira wine), and the Scorpion Kick (rum, mint, lime cacao), both priced at $12.
Cocktails at Ronero, all priced at $13, include classics with a twist. One is a Hemingway Daiquiri made with Brugal dry rum, Lazzaroni maraschino liqueur, grapefruit, lime, smoked sea salt, and a classic Daiquiri made with Flor de Cana 4 yr extra dry white rum, Demerara sugar, lime.
Also featured are more creative fare: The Cardejo bianco is a spicy rum Margarita made with Flor de Cana 4yr Anejo Oro rum, Plantation pineapple rum, Boomsma Clooster bitter liqueur, mango, dry-aged sugar cane, cilantro, oregano, parsley, jalapeno and lime. The Cantadera o Decima mixes Ron Abuelo anejo rum, Clement coconut rum, Fernet Gancia, Demerara sugar, egg and a peppercorn medley.
Including unusual ingredients is part of Breadfruit and Rum Bar's design as well; Allen used myrrh resin in one cocktail last winter. Cocktails are priced from $10 to 12 and use housemade liqueurs like tamarind and hibiscus as well as tinctures.
Classics revisited include Rum Old-Fashioned with Appleton Estate Reserve 12 Year Old, and the Pina Colada Redux, with Matusalem Platino rum, house-made coconut liqueur, fresh-pressed pineapple, coconut cream and nutmeg.
Daily rotating rum punches and drinks like the Escape Hatch, with Plantation Original Dark over-proof rum, passionfruit, Gran Classico amaro, lemon, coriander round out the menu. Cocktails are organized by "Light and Citrusy," "Full Flavored," "Classics Revisited" and "Spirited Sipping."
At Arbella in Chicago, cocktails are decidedly international, with sections dedicated to a changing list of countries and regions. Rum makes its way in through drinks like the Airmail ($14), made with rum, honey syrup, lime and prosecco; the recipe said to come from a 1930s Cuban Bacardi Pamphlet; and the Hammock ($13), made with rum, Cognac, Giffard Banane liqueur and lemon.
"Airmail is a light, refreshing drink; the Hammock is a more balanced, sipping kind of cocktail," says bartender Melissa Guadeloupe. During the winter months, most of drinks are made with darker rums, a smoked rum and a Sri Lankan rum, she notes. "But as the seasons change, we're more likely to include lighter rums, and of course, we do a lot off the menu when customers just want something they are more familiar with."
Guadeloupe finds that many guests are open to cocktails made with spirits they understand, like rum. But the more complicated drinks, such as the Stolen Booty ($14), with Stolen smoked rum, Fernet, amaro and lemon, offer a nontraditional and sippable option for the contemporary cocktail aficionado.
At Alma de Cuba, there's an emphasis on classic cocktails including Daiquiris, Mojitos and Caipirinhas, sometimes offered with a twist-perhaps including a 20-year-old rum in the Mojito, for example. New drinks such as the Papa Islay, a classic sour made with Scotch, Aperol and rum, show rum's greater versatility.
"The classics are definitely still immensely popular; people come in for a Dark and Stormy or Mojito, but they are also willing to try drinks that are not traditional," says Cuppit. "And rums are making an impact here," he adds. "We have regulars and in their reservation notes it says 'Bring the rum list' because every time they visit, they want to try something new."
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer, educator and judge based in Brooklyn, NY.
The El Jefe Mojito at Philadelphia's Alma De Cuba, made with Sailor Jerry rum, lime, mint, sugar and bitters.
The Hammock cocktail at Arbella in Chicago, made with rum. Cognac, Giffard Banane liqueur and lemon.
BLACK CHERRY PUNCH
Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Phoenix offers a daily rum punch special, such as this black cherry version.
TRINIDADIAN NUT PUNCH
Trinidadian Nut Punch, made with rum, milk, peanut butter, cinnamon and bananas, was a recent cocktail special at Chicago's Arbella created for Carnival.
FLAVORS OF THE MONTH
Spiced and flavored rum variants have been driving the overall rum category in terms of growth. While flavored whiskies have been cutting consumption of other flavored spirits, the product launches keep coming. For instance, Destilleria Serralles earlier this year launched its first spiced rum in the Don Q line.
Diageo's spiced rum brand Captain Morgan in March unveiled Captain Morgan Loco Nut, a Caribbean rum/coconut liqueur shot product. It follows the 2015 launch of its Captain Morgan Cannon Blast spiced-rum shot alternative, and the pumpkin spiced rum seasonal Jack-0'Blast was available this past fall.
Coconut is a key flavor for rum brands; one of the leaders in rum consumption is Pernod Ricard's coconut rum brand Malibu. Other popular flavors for rum are tropical fruits such as pineapple, banana and mango. The most recent flavored rum rollouts include Admiral Nelson's Pineapple rum from Heaven Hill Brands and Blue Chair Bay's Key Lime rum cream.
Caption: Arbella in Chicago uses darker and more exotic rums for cocktails in the cooler months, and lighter runs in the summer.
Caption: At Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Phoenix, prices of individual pours range from $8 to $2,500 for a taste of the Appleton 50 Year Old Anniversary rum.
Caption: Cocktails at Breadfruit and Rum Bar use house-made liqueurs and unique tinctures.