Think Rum: a focus on education

The most exciting opportunity for the rum industry to grow UK sales lies in educating more consumers and trade professionals about the myriad wonders within the category. Too few people fully appreciate its breadth, depth and versatility at a huge range of price points. We therefore decided to make education the chief focus of our big debate at the fourth annual Think Rum event in London this month. 

We pulled together an expert panel from across the trade, featuring rum advocate and Think Rum ambassador Peter Holland, Waitrose spirits buyer John Vine, Harvey Nichols spirits buyer Nick Bell and Wine & Spirit Education Trust product development manager Nick King, with the on-trade represented by Trailer Happiness owner Sly Augustin and Merchant House general manager Imie Augier. 

Most of them have undertaken WSET spirits courses and topped up their knowledge over the years through learning from producers, attending masterclasses and sharing information with their peers. King is currently putting the final touches to a WSET Level 3 qualification in spirits and anyone in the trade with an interest in improving their rum knowledge is encouraged to sign up when it launches this autumn.

“Rum is no different to any other category,” he says. “You just have to dig into it in an ordered fashion. If you do that, you are likely to get to an understanding. 

“The bigger context is that, historically, rum has been a traded commodity and the largest trader of Caribbean rum is in Holland. The issue is that in Scotland you get a very tight control about what is said about Scotch and how it is packaged, and that doesn’t happen with rum. It does present a significant challenge and it causes a great deal of confusion. That’s not going away. 

“Communicators need to understand what the broad context is and what drives style, then describe that honestly, and that is no different to what we would do with anything else.”

Producers have a big role to play alongside education providers such as the WSET when it comes to broadening knowledge of rum. Augustin is encouraged to see more UK distillers and bottlers producing rum, as he believes this will help spread the gospel among the trade and consumers. 

“That’s really important, because you’ve now got access to people right here on the ground,” he says. “Unfortunately we can only get the Mount Gay blender over here once or twice a year. But to have people making rum available in the UK, going round and talking about rum, is going to be massively important when it comes to education.”

He has picked up much of his education thanks to his role at the centre of the UK trade. “Trailer Happiness has been open for 15 years and is something of a rum embassy, so I’ve been fortunate to receive education from brands, distillers, blenders and reps, but also from the community,” he says. “A lot of the rum community considers Trailer Happiness to be a home from home and there’s always somebody there to give you their perspective or things they’ve found out about rum.”

Consumer confusion

Vine’s education began on holiday in Cuba and he has bolstered it through WSET courses and learning along the way as a buyer. He notes that it is a confusing category for consumers and that a better way of classifying it – as opposed to the classic white, dark, golden and spiced sub-categories – might help, but he admits that he has not yet found a solution.

Leading retailers continue to classify it in this way and they need to take the next step, according to Holland. “I twitch every time I hear rum described as white, golden and dark these days,” he says. 

“It makes no sense to me. We pander a little to the consumer market and refer to things in the simplest of terms. A degree of bravery is going to be needed, otherwise we’re just going to keep sticking to that system and nothing is going to change. Let’s get away from it. Which is going to be the first supermarket to move away from white, dark and gold? 

“Master of Malt still breaks down the website by gold and white. Why not take the next step?”

Vine says: “White rum, spiced rum, golden rum, dark rum, flavoured rum, and different ageing systems, the solera system, different countries of origin – for anybody coming into the category it can be confusing. We split up white, golden, spiced and dark because that’s probably the easiest way to talk to customers. Is it right? I don’t think it is, but we still need to find a way forward and work with brand ambassadors and bars and find a solution.

“We want to make it easy for people to understand. White, dark and gold is quite simple and it makes it easier for people to come into the category. As they learn more and take an active interest in the category they will make their own decisions and become rum geeks like us. I don’t know what the answer is. We keep going down different avenues. We just did a range review and we blocked rum about 15 different ways and then we went back to white, spiced, golden and dark. We have tried to go up in price points in the branches as well. Any suggestions are well received.”

Talk of how to classify rum dominated the debate and emerged as the biggest concern of all present when it comes to consumer education. Augier says: “It’s good that people can find a simpler side of rum, but we could be doing more in the trade to educate people, holding more tastings and more masterclasses. I often go on a white rum rant, because I love Wray & Nephew. I show people three completely different rums that are all white, and explain that there’s much more to it.

“Labelling plays a big part. If you can understand how to read a bottle it gives you a much better idea of what’s in it. As a consumer, you don’t need to know that much, you just need to understand ageing, abv and so on. Labelling is good at the moment, but it could be better. It needs to be more consistent. If everyone was on the same page and stuck to one classification it would be easier. Finding a middle ground between ‘very easy’, such as colour, and ‘detailed’, such as where it comes from, is it a pot or column still and what has it been aged in, would help.”

Dividing styles by colour is not an issue for Harvey Nichols, as everything falls within golden in its range. “We divide it up price-wise – super-premium, ultra-premium and so on – because that’s what our consumers react to,” says Bell. “They come in and they want to buy a rum for £150 or for £70, so it’s about staff knowing the price range people can fall into and then being able to explain the flavour base to them. It means understanding the brands and the flavours. In the store we divide everything as much as possible between producers and regions.

“I make sure we have lots of masterclasses and consumer tastings at Harvey Nichols on different styles of rum and covering different price points. We are about to double our range, because we believe it is going to do great, and as such we are doing heavier involvement in training for staff. We are doing a rum festival in our Edinburgh store in the next few months, so it’s something we are pushing.”

Categorising by flavour

Many guests talked up the idea of categorising rum more by flavour and style than by colour. “When I was working at Sainsbury’s there was an attempt to merchandise things by style,” says King. “If we embrace that kind of language we are more likely to direct people to other rums they might like.

“It’s hard work, and in a retailer, when you’ve only got the POS to work for you, it is a hard sell. But it’s not just for retailers to do that. It’s for everyone to say this white, golden and dark doesn’t make sense. It does for a large swathe of the consuming public, because white rum is, for most people, Bacardi and own-label brands that are similar. But you see Wray & Nephew in supermarkets and it’s not close to that. We need to find a way of dealing with that problem, rather than repeating and hoping everything changes, because it won’t.”

Augustin has the luxury of focusing on quality and recommending personal favourites, as he can hand-sell a wide range of rums to an engaged consumer at his bar. 

“First and foremost, we focus on quality,” he says. “We want to give the consumer an honest, genuine rum that we think is delicious. Once we start at that point, now the consumer is interested in education. 

“The problem is, for all the classifications and descriptions, the person has to want to know. People come into the bar and have an idea of what they might like, and we try to steer them on to something they will appreciate a bit more, saying if you like this, why don’t you try that? Then you have the spark. They take an enjoyment from trying something different. I don’t lead with ‘try another white rum’ or any classification.

“Whisky has a personality. You go into a whisky bar and you drink it in a glass. Whereas in a rum bar there has to be parrots, palm trees, there’s got to be all this gimmicky shit, because people associate rum with other stuff that can be irrelevant.

“Lead with the quality of the product and understanding what the consumer wants. It’s a slow process, but if we focus on the quality of what we are offering, people will be engaged and will want to learn.”

With better education, independent retailers and bartenders across the country can adopt a similar strategy to Augustin, Augier and their teams. Increased consumer knowledge should then hopefully filter down into the multiple retailers and lead to an increased interest in more intriguing, expensive rums, while those multiples can help fight the good fight with improved POS and training up advisors such as those seen at Waitrose. 

“We are looking at how to educate people around flavour styles,” says Vine. “We do a lot of work with rum. We do a rum showcase, a pullout in Waitrose magazine where we talk about producers and styles.”

We do not need a country of rum experts, but increased knowledge of the distillation process would be a great. 

“You have raw material, you can run your fermentation in certain ways, you have choices of distillation, and you have choices of post-distillation,” says King. “It’s the combination of all of those choices that creates style, and there’s no shortcut to get that understanding.” 

So we implore you to undertake at least a modest amount of rum education and pass it on to your shoppers, because it will help you boost your margins in this exciting category.

Focus on the positives

DRN would contend that the biggest challenge facing the rum trade is improving education, but Sly Augustin at Trailer Happiness begs to differ.

“When I see rums described as white and dark I think it’s nonsense, because it means nothing, but at the same time in the league table of issues we have it’s not the most damaging one,” he says.

“The rum community is passionate. They are amazing. Nobody is in it for anything other than the love of the rum. But you can also get this element of fanaticism that can creep into it, and personally I’ve never wanted to belong to a group that defines itself by how much it doesn’t like something. For me, as a rum person, I’d rather spend my time celebrating and talking about the beauty of rum.

“Obviously we need to discuss the dark stuff too, but there has to be a balance. In the forums I’m in, we’re slipping into this negativity where we give a lot of time to the negative stuff and not as much time to the positive stuff, and I’m seeing a lot of positive stuff in the rum community now, including a lot of UK bottlers and UK distillers coming through. British brands are coming up and getting interested in rum again. Let’s focus on the strengths and the great stuff that’s happening in rum.”

Think Rum Awards

Best Multiple Retailer: Waitrose

Best Multiple Bar Group: Revolucion de Cuba

Best Independent Retailer: Gerry’s

Best Online Retailer: The Whisky Exchange

Best Individual Bar: Trailer Happiness

Rum Champion of the Year: Ian Burrell

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