FT Business of Rum Special Report with my article!



June 26, 2015 6:44 pm
Caribbean rum strategy wants more sip and not mix

Ian Williams

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.
“Local Caribbean producers do not have the resources to build global markets”Tweet this quote

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.

Finding El Dorado – in Western Pennsylvania!

Fun time in Scranton… nice audience at the Everhart Museum, for a talk on rum history. They  became even nicer after sampling some of El Dorado range, 3, 8, 12, cream and spiced. Good effects: one wine connoisseur rushed off to a cigar bar while the 12 yr taste lingered . And they bought”Rum”  books!

Stayed over for the Xmas parade and took IAN & Owain to Steamtown. All those years on British Rail and the iron horses are still magnetic!

Black Tot Day! 31 July 1970-2010 RIP

Ian Williams, Rumpundit, commiserates Black Tot Day.

Saturday  31 July is the 40th Anniversary of Black Tot Day when the Royal Navy abandoned the daily grog ration for its sailors. Do hoist  a dark rum to mark the occasion. The British decision to abandon a centuries-old tradition of high octane fighting spirit and replace it with high megaton Trident submarines has proven to be a financial and naval disaster. When it waived the rum rules, Britannia abandoned all pretension of ruling the waves!

The first reference to Navy rum was by Samuel Pepys, who although best known for confiding his sex life to his diary, was the civil servant in charge of the Navy. He authorized the Navy in the Caribbean to issue rations of rum to the sailors based in Jamaica.

Soon, however, rum was a major constituent of the Navy’s fuel supply. Admiral Vernon, after whom George Washington’s home Mount Vernon was named, decided that it was better for the health and safety of his ships and crew to mix the rum with water before issuing it, and to issue the half pint in two servings. He was known as  “Old Grog” because he wore a waterproof cloak made of “grogram,” a mixed fabric that served before oil-skins and that gave the name to the mixture.

His orders were that the grog was to be mixed in a “scuttled butt.” The idea that scuttlebutt was sailor’s chat around the water cask is a post-Prohibitionist invention. It was the rum barrel that loosened the tongues of the eagerly waiting tars.

Navy regulations insisted that once the grog had been mixed, it had to be served promptly, otherwise it would thrown overboard, because it went “flat.” I’ve experimented with Pussers, still made to the original recipe, and it’s true! While the rum is in a colloidal suspension in the water the droplets of rum hit the tastebuds and taste as strong as normal spirits but once they are dissolved it tastes like watered rum!

The US Navy initially adopted British grog rations but then under influence from the growing whiskey industry, swapped over to what was presented as a more patriotic spirit after 1806. During the Civil War, the US Navy abolished the ration completely, perhaps taking advantage of the connection between abolitionism and prohibitionism, both of them gaining the upper hand with the departure of Confederate personnel. However it was only the ratings who were deprived.  It was not until 1913 that officers were coerced into official abstinence.

In contrast, the British Admiralty was frankly scared of the mutinous consequences  of depriving ratings of their historical entitlement, and it kept issuing Royal Navy rum, until 1970, when they overcame public nostalgia by breathalyzing the pilot of  a nuclear submarine after he had drunk his ration.

In fact, for centuries, the Royal Navy had maintained naval supremacy despite often inferior technology compared with its Spanish and French rivals, because its crews, pressganged or volunteers, outfought their enemies. And looking at it analytically, the major observable difference was the rum ration, which is why wanabee naval powers like Czarist Russia and Japan also served up rum.

British captains and admirals still have the discretion to order “Splice the mainbrace!” for special occasions, however, and naval lore is still steeped in rum, which in Britain was known as “Nelson’s blood,” since allegedly the devoted tars donated their rations to bring the Admiral’s body back from Trafalgar to London.

I checked it out in the Gibraltar library in the contemporary newspapers, and sadly,  the Admiral’s body was carried back to London pickled in Spanish Brandy, aguardiente. Perhaps the tars did not want to waste the good stuff… but I have not been able to prove or disprove the story that the coffin was drained by the time it arrived in Britain. The tars might have preferred rum – but any spirit in a drought was long-standing tradition.

This week Sukhinder Singh of Speciality Drinks in London launched Black Tot – an exclusive bottling of Navy Rum over 40 years old – a find for rum-drinkers equivalent to discovering Tutankhamen’s pickled stiff, except the archaeologists never brought the young pharoah back to life, while the old rum has indeed been revived. It  was in sealed ceramic flagons allowing its unique biochemistry to play out over almost half a century.

In the Admiralty, the most coveted job was to sit on the committee that each year assessed what proportions of Jamaica, Trinidad and Demerara rums was consistent to maintain the formula, and Speciality’s experts have topped up the work of all of those departed palates to ensure that the bottles live up to expectations.

If you can’t get some, then up spirits on Saturday with any dark rum and shed a tear for bygone glory!

Caribbean Heritage -Rum

ENTERTAINMENTCaribbean Heritage – A Renaissance of Rum

If you’re from the Caribbean hemisphere, chances are you got your first taste of rum before you could toddle upright without help… most Caribbean nationals get a hint of the elixir when Christmas comes around as the scents of cured fruits permeate the air in the Black cakes or Rum cakes being baked in preparation for the festive season.

In celebrating the first Caribbean Heritage Month here in the U.S., the Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a most intoxicating forum on the potent drink which featured Rum expert Ian Williams. Born in Liverpool Ian Williams has had a variety of career experiences, he’s worked on buses and railways; was a speech writer for a UK Labor party leader and participated in a drinking competition with Chinese Premier Chou En Lai and argued about English Literature with Chiang Ching, aka Mme Mao.

Consuls-General (l-r) Odle, Robertson and Evans showcase the rums of Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana, respectively

The Brooklyn Historical Society was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society. At that time, the city of Brooklyn was the commercial and cultural center of Long Island. Headed by Deborah Schwartz the venue was most appropriate to host a discussion on an aged topic which had great impact on the structure of Caribbean nations and governments, as well as to the economies of today’s western super powers. One learned about the spirit of Brooklyn’s history and rum in vintage style.

Presented by the Office of the District Attorney and sponsored by Cockspur, the premium rum of Barbados established in 1884, that nations’ Consul-General Jessica Odle proudly welcomed guests and promised an enjoyable event as biting and multi-layered as it’s described in the lecturer’s book entitled what else… RUM: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. A quick and lively read, the author give us an in depth look at the evolution of rum and the renaissance it’s enjoying today as pointed out by Dr. Harold Robertson.

Ian Williams having a taste

Rum is “the global spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean, the one factor that is shared by all the cultures of the region, and enthusiastically drunk by the descendants of those who were enslaved to produce it;” says Williams. He began drinking rum at an extremely early age and had he been in New York he’s sure children services would have taken him under their care. He began researching the subject seriously many years later while working in the Caribbean.

It was in Barbados in the first half of the seventeenth century that the British colonists realized that the by-product of sugar refining, molasses was more than just an inferior sweetener. In the tropics it fermented quickly, and although the immediate product was an intestinal challenge of a high order to any drinker, when distilled, a gallon of molasses produced a gallon of high-octane spirit.

Known as Kill-devil, Barbados Water, or rumbullion, before rum became the common term, it was a desirable commodity that quickly enhanced the profits of the sugar trade, while making more bearable the endless toil in the tropical heat necessary to grow and refine it. Rum quickly became the means of pay for soldiers and sailors who helped build the western empires, like the British. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid rum collectors and drinkers. For the first of its two centuries Barbados was the positioned first port of call for ships to the other British colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Any “good” ideas that originated in the island, whether rum, sugar plantations, African slavery, or even the idea of calling the head of the local government the President, were sure to spread to all the British colonies, and in those early days, they were carried by the departing colonists, Williams is quoted as writing.

Joining the festivities with rum products representing their nations also, were the Consuls-General of Guyana; Brentnold Evans and Trinidad and Tobago Dr. Harold Robertson both proudly displayed aged rums from their countries. Also represented at the event were St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. The event would not have been complete without the quintessential crowning of the night; that meant of course that to close the lecture a live rendition of Drunk and Disorderly was performed by non other than the Mighty Sparrow himself. Photos by Mike Hadaway Sr.

In Praise of Rum

And a puff for my rum book!

The perfect summer spirit also offers some of the highest quality for the money.

By Daniel Gritzer; Photographs by Roxana Marroquin

Dark and stormy at Cornelius

Say “rum” and most people think of party drinks involving tropical fruit juices and the occasional slush machine. That’s perfectly fine for a cooling beverage at a backyard barbecue, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that earns alcohol a distinguished rep. Even today, despite barkeeping’s second golden age and rum’s historical significance—it was the hard stuff of choice in Colonial America and a driving force behind both the slave trade and the American Revolution—the sugarcane distillate is more often associated with Coca-Cola than cognac. “One of the problems with rum as a category is it’s been synonymous with Bacardi or Captain Morgan, neither of which is really a premium rum,” says Ian Williams, author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.

Cocktail menus dedicated to brown liquors like bourbon, rye, Scotch and even tequila are increasingly common, but aged rum has yet to take the spotlight. In addition to making great summer cocktails, premium rums make for excellent sipping spirits, and offer one of the best values around. “When people taste premium aged rums, they’re stunned by the quality, and that’s before you start mentioning the prices,” explains Williams, adding, “a 15-year-old rum is going to cost a third of a 15-year-old Macallan.” Produced in Caribbean and Latin American countries where costs are low, and made from the abundant sugarcane crop, rum can spend years aging in oak barrels without a significant increase in price. The result is a diverse array of sipping spirits that have complex flavors including wood, spice, smoke and molasses, yet are still inexpensive enough—often under $30 per bottle—that you won’t feel guilty mixing them into cocktails. Fun, flexible, cheap and sophisticated? Sounds like our kind of drink.