Golden age for aged rum
An often overlooked spirit is finally finding its way in the off-trade, says Nigel Huddleston
The British may be some way off the Caribbean custom of blessing the foundations of a new house with rum, but the region's favourite spirit is at last starting to gain credibility in the UK.
Within the category it's golden rum that's really pulling up trees. Cocktail waiters appreciate its versatility at one end of the market, while the sipping qualities of aged rum mean it's finding acceptance as an alternative to malt whisky among serious spirit-heads.
Joy Spence, master blender at Jamaican rum producer Appleton Estate, says: "You can get the range of flavours that you would with Cognac or a malt whisky but it's probably the best value for money within the spirits category because of the speed of the ageing process. Every year ageing in the Caribbean is worth three in Scotch whisky."
Jo Spencer, head of marketing for light spirits (including Havana Club) at Pernod Ricard UK, says golden rum is picking up devotees from premium lager as well as spirits. She adds: "Modern-day consumers are looking for brands which are premium, stylish, slightly out-of-the-ordinary and which make a statement . Golden rum seems to tick all the boxes."
Nielsen figures to the end of December show take-home value sales of golden rum up 27 per cent from a year earlier, and, though volumes are still below those of white and dark rum, it's gaining fast.
Though golden rum is being talked about as the big craze of the style bar, off-trade volumes now match those of the on-trade and the take-home market is growing seven times faster than ons in volume terms.
Scotland retains a historical affinity with golden rum, accounting for 50 per cent of all British sales, but across the rest of the nation sales are starting to catch up, with volumes in north east England up 58 per cent year on year and London up 49 per cent.
There's also a noticeable gulf in performance between the supermarkets and independents, with grocery multiples accounting for 84 per cent of off-trade sales, compared with 76 per cent for dark and white rum and malts. Volume growth of golden rum was 34 per cent in 2007, compared with just 11 per cent in the impulse channel.
Spencer says supermarket buyers have got behind golden rum in a big way .
"It was a long battle for us to get into Sainsbury's," she says, "but we got there in the end and the spirits buyers have been very supportive. We're aggressively pushing VX in the UK market and we'll progressively move to other aged styles.
"Eight Year Old is going in this year and then we'll try to move people forward to 12 Year Old and 21 Year Old. That's in Harrods and Selfridges and doing well, although it's in very small quantities as we only make 2,000 cases."
Dave Smith, global brand director for Cockspur of Barbados, says in some cases growth in supermarkets is just a case of those stores catching up with established markets in independents.
"Many stores are catering for their local community and stock the brand," he says. "But it still amazes me how some [bigger] retailers in areas with a strong Afro-Caribbean community do not stock our brand when the local independent is shifting pallets of it."
But Smith acknowledges that several multiples are getting behind golden rum.
"Traditionally they haven't played a key part in developing a premium brand," he says, "but this is no longer the case. They are a great shop window for brands and the price per drink versus the on-premise is key.
"Golden rums are far more accessible to the majority of the population through this trade channel, if you compare the £12 to £16 price per 70cl bottle with on-premises where companies are developing their golden rum brands at the top end."
Rob Preston, co-owner of Bermuda-based Gosling's supplier United Brands, likens the interest at retail level to that of Australian Chardonnay 10 years ago.
He says: "Australia was the most popular destination for both holidaymakers and gap year backpackers. On their return they wanted to purchase these same products to recreate the Australian experience and the off-trade delivered on this trend.
"A decade on the Americas are rivalling Australia as the new tourist trail and the mojito and the daiquiri are now recognised and sought out."
Gosling's owner, Malcolm Gosling, thinks off-trade buyers are taking their cues from style bars.
He says: "The on-trade in the UK has really embraced Gosling's and is working with us to change consumers' opinions about rum. We are breaking down perceptions that people have of dark rum, for example, throwing off the pipe and slipper image."
The prize for making significant inroads into the multiple off-trade is big. As Smith at Cockspur notes: "You don't have to achieve a place in too many whiskey, Bourbon or vodka drinkers' repertoires to achieve a considerable consumer base."
We may need to see a full-on housing crisis before foundation-blessing grips the UK, and a few more decades of global warming for another Caribbean use - treating jellyfish stings - to become popular .
But, for now, golden rum's versatility as a quality drink is serving it fine.
Fields go green with a ban on burning
Rum brands could soon be joining the queue of drinks ready to flaunt their green credentials.
Appleton Estate, the niche golden rum arm of J Wray & Nephew of Jamaica, has declared it will end the practice of burning sugar cane fields prior to harvesting in a move to "green cane harvesting" by 2010.
While nostalgists will miss the burning that removes unwanted foliage ahead of production, the new methods are easier on the environment. Master distiller Joy Spence adds: "We're also switching to a boiler which runs on the waste fibres of the sugar cane and by-product vinasse, which is rich in potassium , is being recycled as fertilizer for the sugar fields."
How the UK rum market breaks down
Off-trade Off-trade growth On-trade sales On-trade growth
(£m) (%) (£m) (%)
120 0 233 -6
47 +3 77 -3
Golden 20 +27 45 +7
Source: Nielsen, year to Dec 29 for off-trade; year to November for on-trade