June 26, 2015 6:44 pm
Caribbean rum strategy wants more sip and not mix
Although rum is a global drink, made across the tropics and drunk in all climate zones, its name shows its deep roots in the English-speaking Caribbean. It first appeared in Barbados in the mid-17th century, as “Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil . . . made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor”. The pioneering distillers soon discovered that redistilling the first flow made it considerably less hellish.
In a further boost to palatability, the only way to export rum in quantity was in the oak casks that were the shipping containers of the day, and soon drinkers discovered that rum, above all spirits, benefits from ageing in oak.
By the turn of the 17th century Jamaica too had begun to make rum. It soon eclipsed Barbados in production and British West Indies rum dominated the world. To make rum, the colonists used molasses, the byproduct of sugar-refining. That gave the British an economic edge as well as rum expertise since, until the end of the 18th century, French and Spanish monarchs prohibited their colonies from producing any spirits that would rival their domestic industries.
Rum was appreciated in the heart of the empire as well. In 2011 an inventory of Earl Harewood’s cellars in England discovered bottles of Barbadian rum laid down in 1780. Once the encrusted cobwebs were polished off, Christie’s sold a dozen of the bottles for £78,255 in January 2014. It followed with 16 further bottles, raising another £135,713 last December. That gave bottles of aged dark rum a premium price of £11,162 each. It was a telling reminder that the fortunes of much of Britain’s landed gentry were in Caribbean plantations, sugar and rum — not to mention slavery.
The Royal Navy’s adoption of rum, usually Caribbean, as its restorative of choice certainly helped bulk sales, but a government-guaranteed market of millions of gallons of what one could call a “robust” rum might not have spurred premium quality. Although the Pussers brand, based on the Navy’s official formula, attracts devoted customers today it is open to debate whether the tradition or the liquor is the greatest attraction.
Even before the Harewood sale Anglo-Caribbean rum makers were rediscovering that premium, aged rums have a growing market that adds value for consumer and distiller alike. But brand-building is an expensive business, even more so with premium spirits that need decades of lead time to build and age stocks. Local Caribbean producers do not have the resources to build global markets. Nor is it enough to have a quality product, since makers have to tell discerning drinkers about it and supply the product in quantities that deliver economies of scale in a crowded market place.
Frank Ward of the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association was prominent in the “Authentic Caribbean Rum” marque campaign, funded by EU “reparations” for ending trade preferences that had protected the Caribbean against Latin American competition. He notes that, with a few exceptions, the English-speaking Caribbean has concentrated on bulk rum production, selling their products to be bottled and branded by others. This surrenders the high, value-added ground to the bottlers.
The premium share of the market is expanding rapidly as drinkers treat aged rums as sipping spirits rather than as mixers for cocktails. Both Appleton Estate and Mount Gay, the market leaders in the region, have responded to this and adopted a similar strategy — maintaining high-prestige “flagship” rums and concentrating on premium blends of consistent age and quality and to some extent cutting adrift the local markets’ favourite cheaper brands. Significantly, Campari had taken over Appleton and Rémy Cointreau Mount Gay, so both had become part of large global companies with the resources to invest in production and marketing and the courage to risk upsetting local island consumers and build exports.
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It appears that smaller brands, such as El Dorado or Angostura, will have to risk losing some of their local character. Deals with, and access to, the marketing resources of the leading spirits producers may well be what is required to make an impression on a waiting world.
Mr Ward believes the EU Caribbean rum programme did help smaller brands obtain more exposure. But he adds: “It takes years to build a brand of rum and the first programme [which] only ran 18 months helped some suppliers to diversify, but it has a long way to go”.
The smaller, yet distinguished brands from Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent have appreciative consumers but find it difficult to secure distribution, particularly in the US liquor market whose structure is a hangover from Prohibition. If these brands cannot fill a container, they are at an immediate disadvantage. The “Authentic Caribbean Rum” marque did help publicise these smaller entrants, but Mr Ward says the campaign benefited all rums worldwide.
Nonetheless, the investment in premium brand-building by companies such as Rémy Cointreau and Campari is raising the prestige of the whole rum category, something that is sure to continue.