Not long ago, rum was seen as the party dude of the spirit family. Rum meant carnival time. Rum meant blue cocktails in novelty Polynesian glassware. Rum meant jumping atop the bar, shouting yo-ho-ho and shaking booty. Rum was fun! But in an irascible, disreputable, piratical sort of way. It wasn’t a spirit you’d introduce to your parents.
In recent years, however, rum has had a shave, put on a nice suit and starting going to the sort of classy joints frequented by Scotch and Cognac. The distillers like to call this process “premiumisation”, believing rum to have been “underpremiumised” in the past. I prefer to call it the ‘Rumaissance’.
Consumers have been happy to get all pseudo about the precise botanical notes in their micro-distilled, biodynamically-foraged gin – but when it came to rum, they were all: “Ah, this one will do!” The “premium” category of rum only accounts for 16% of rum market - in other aged spirit categories it’s more like 40% - so the potential is there.
The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association’s (WIRSPA) predicts that volume sales of “super-premium” rum will increase 50% by next year, with many countries demonstrating what they call the “right pre-conditions” for growth. New brands such as Duppy Share (“the Hendrick’s of rum”) hope to reach the sort of drinker who’s prepared to pay a little more while distilleries such as Venezuela’s Diplomatico are taking rum to the heady heights of cognac with their finest expressions.
As the Master Distiller of Appleton Estate in Jamaica – and a woman in a male-dominated industry – the charismatic Joy Spence has been on a mission to get drinkers to take rum seriously for a few decades now.
Master Blender Joy Spence
Back in 1982, she developed the 21-year-old Appleton Estate expression that helped to establish “super-premium” rum.
“Before that rum was just seen as a high spirit that you used to make cocktails, to get a kick from the alcohol but not to look at flavours. With premiumisation and the consumers realising the sophistication of rum and how versatile it is, it changed the whole image.”
In some ways, rum has suffered from its most appealing qualities. For one, it’s easy-going enough to get along with any mixer you throw at it. And the rum industry has long been a bit of a free-for-all. You can only make tequila in certain parts of Mexico according to a very particular process. But as long as you start with molasses, or even sugar cane, and end up with alcohol, you can call pretty much anything rum. The average customer will have a hard time telling the difference between, say, Don Papa (a spiced rum produced in the Philippines with flavoured ingredients added after distillation) and Havana Club Extra Anejo (a fine Cuban rum blended from aged pot and column still distillates). Traditionally, only the Francophone parts of the Caribbean – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti – have applied any sort of “appellation” system that takes account of the unique terroirs.
Now however, the Jamaican government is seeking to bring a little rigour to the ageing process – a little like Scotland has done with its whisky. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that Scotch distillers began to stress the precise conditions; you can only sell Single Malt Speyside Whisky if it actually is a Single Malt from Speyside.
Joy Spence believes the Jamaican government’s minimum age system has helped distinguish its rums – and it’s worth stressing that age does a lot more to rum than it does to a whisky.
In Scotland, the climactic spectrum goes from cloudy to drizzly, while in Jamaica the extreme tropical climate means a few years in the barrel can lend a matchless complexity.
“That is when you develop those beautiful vanilla, coffee, and coconut, with slight almond taste,” says Ms Spence. “You actually get the sugar bean that develops the sweetness from the oak. It is charred, so the longer it sits, the more sugars you get from the barrel. You can really tell the difference between a minimum age and one that has an average age. You definitely get a burn on the back of the tongue with an average age, whereas with a minimum age you get that smoothness on the finish.”
And in a sense, this renewed appreciation for rum is getting back to something we’ve lost. As I was researching the recipes for my home-bartending book, The Spirits, I noticed that the old bartending books were much more specific about their rums than we’re used to being today: the recipes would call for Jamaican rum as distinct from Cuban rum as distinct from Haitian or Santa Cruz rum. And then I hit upon the treasure trove of Tiki cocktails that swept America in the post-war period – cocktails that are a lot more “premium” than they often appear.
Putting the well-rounded base an aged rum offers to cocktails to one side, it is the super-smooth luxurious flavours offered by these rums that are set to turn purists’ heads from other brown spirits in the coming years. The clarity of labelling aged rums without confusion has been set by the good governance of Jamaica, and latterly Cuba, and other nations are sure to follow. Without the staid conformities of occasion suffered by Scotch or brandy, drinking neat rum won’t have people worrying about faux pas. The cigars are just optional.
And another delightful way to appreciate is with food, and London restaurants are taking note. To my palate, rum is the best match for dessert bar none: it goes beautifully with chocolate, it cuts through anything creamy and it sings with any fruit you could care to name. Even when dressed up in a suit, it still goes out of its way to have a fun time.