Putting together a solid rum offer
Today’s rum category already seems vast. Couple that with ever-changing consumer trends and assembling a decent rum selection can seem like navigating a labyrinth in a blindfold.
Here, DR explores the key trends in rum styles outside of spiced rum. We look at how the industry has reacted to classification attempts and explore what effective measures can be taken to put together a solid rum offer.
The trend towards premiumisation in rum is the result of several other consumer shifts, including a maturing interest in the category, increased cocktail knowledge and a desire to drink less but better.
“Consumers have become extremely knowledgeable with which spirits they choose when ordering a drink,” says Ruben Maduro, founder & chief executive of Amsterdam’s Spirited Union Distillery, saying they tend to move away from mainstream brands and “instead know which brands to choose and what to mix them with”.
He adds: “We have seen consumers being selective with their gin and flavoured tonic. This is now also happening with rum.”
Martamaria Carrillo, global brand manager & co-founder of Colombian aged rum brand La Hechicera, says premiumisation is evolving.
“More and more consumers are experiencing what we like to call ‘true’ rums, meaning there are no added sugars or colourings, and they are enjoying these rums neat or over ice,” Carrillo says. “As consumers trade up and discover the nuances of rums and the depths of flavour, they are slowly moving away from traditional cola and rum and opting for simple, classic cocktails.”
Hand-in-hand with premiumisation comes the trend towards “quality and provenance”, believes Liam Hirt, director and co-founder of Bristol’s Circumstance Distillery. In terms of what that means for retailers, Hirt suggests taking the time to research brands’ credentials as well as “focusing on bottlers of vintages and blends”.
Maduro concurs. As consumers become more knowledgeable, he also describes an increase in the number of “rum crusaders”. At the same time, there are more brands setting out to make an impact and add more transparency to the rum category.
At The Whisky Exchange’s sister company, Speciality Brands, managing director Chris Seale expands on the provenance trend, highlighting that geographical origin has become a key purchase driver for consumers.
“This has encouraged the emergence of new quality rums from Latin America, the Caribbean and even Japan,” he says. “Our premium rum brands, from Venezuela’s Diplomatico and Jamaica’s Hampden to Haiti’s Clairin, are all fully benefiting from this trend and building strong followings as consumers are keen to explore their stories but also their various tasting profiles.”
Innovation around flavour is an important trend, Hirt adds, highlighting coffee infusions. Spirited Union has hit upon more sophisticated flavour offerings with its botanical rum line-up.
In May 2019, The Whisky Exchange, led by buyer Dawn Davies MW, introduced a new classification system for rum, placing more emphasis on flavours and production than colour. The system is inspired by the technically-based Gargano Classification for rums devised by Luca Gargano, of the Italian-based Velier rum brand, and Richard Seale of Foursquare in Barbados.
The move has received a mixed reception. La Hechicera’s Carrillo applauds the initiative: “One obstacle the category faces is consumer confusion,” Carrillo says. “Consumers are confused about age statements, colour and flavour - what a true rum should taste like.”
Jonathan Welch, co-founder of Brand Harbour, which represents organic, single estate rum Copalli also believes that making it easy to choose between different styles and “rums with clean ingredients versus other types can only aid consumers in finding the product that fits their needs and aligns to how they feel products should be made”.
In the new world of rums, Spirited Union’s Maduro agrees that the fundamental reason behind the classification of rum is “great”. However, there are limitations.
“In practice it will be difficult to live by these rules as rum is a vibrant and global category,” he says, highlighting his own botanical rums.
But Circumstance’s Hirt is not a fan. He says distillers such as Circumstance and Empirical Spirits have moved to producing spirits outside of traditional categories. He believes the “old guard of rum” is “desperately trying to impose their views of what rum is allowed to be on consumers and the entire industry, under the guise of ‘protecting the consumer’”.
He points out that even Scotch whisky has begun to relax its rules by allowing tequila casks for maturation.
“I am an advocate of transparency rather than classification.” he adds.
PUTTING TOGETHER A RUM OFFER
Whether retailers use the classification system as a tool to organise their offer or not, it seems the rum consumer is as diverse as the rum category.
Master of Malt editor Kristiane Sherry describes the level of rum education as varying “from genuine expert to first-time drinker”. She says retailers have to meet the needs of everyone on that scale.
“Having clear navigation is helpful – but also incredibly challenging to get right,” she says. “You need a balance between accuracy and accessibility; a system that does not get too technical
and that everyone can use. While a typical consumer might not understand the difference between typically pot and column distilled styles, for example, they may understand the differences in character and flavour between light and heavy marks.”
Sherry also believes retailers need to have a clear demarcation between sugar cane-based and molasses styles. “This is an essential area to get right, as consumers, especially in the UK, remain largely unexposed to cane-based expressions. We need to make sure we present a product accurately and build an understanding to ensure the bottling meets their expectations,” she adds.
Nick Bell, spirits buyer at Harvey Nichols, advocates balance. He says it is easy to get carried away with “lost distilleries and finding the rarest rum”. He adds: “Keeping the range diverse and interesting is always more rewarding than buying rums you’d like in your own personal collection, and consumers will respond in kind.”
When it comes to helping consumers understand different styles of rum, education has to start with staff. “We keep our store staff informed as they are the direct point of contact for our customers,” says Bell. “Where possible, we always insist our staff try every bottle we sell, often through presentations from the brands. This is to ensure they are knowledgeable when advising customers on our rum range.”
Copalli’s Welch also believes it is important to offer brands that talk to the big trends driving consumer choices, including “respect for the environment, sustainability and activism on one hand, great stories, great tastes and openness about product ingredients and origins on the other”.
As rum continues to capture the hearts and minds of consumers, innovation will continue to drive both premiumisation and debate around classifications. For those retailers staring at a well- stocked gin display, all this will feel very familiar.