When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Thierry Gardère, the owner of the Barbancourt rum distillery in Port-au-Prince, the capital, lost almost half of his ageing stock. Many of his barrels of French Limousin oak cracked and the spirit – popular among Haiti’s voodoo priests – spilled across the floor.
After contemplating their misfortune, Mr Gardère and his cousin Michel, the Barbancourt rum master, had the idea to mix everything that was left at the bottom of the shattered casks of premium ageing rums into a prestige blend, marking the company’s 150 years.
“We had to be resilient and imaginative in order, first to survive and then to succeed,” Mr Gardère says. Today, Barbancourt is back in full operation with a$20m expansion plan in the works.
Indeed, “resilience” is the word that might best describe today’s rum-makers. The spirit has grown in popularity in recent years and has a long history of adapting not only to the customary vagaries of market forces, but also to the uncertain world of international politics. For example, the Bermuda-based Bacardí, the original manufacturer of Cuban rum is – though still exiled from its homeland – today the world’s largest privately held spirits company. Across on the isthmus of Central America, meanwhile, rum has perhaps a more settled home. Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela comes from a family that makes Abuelo rums, including its Centuria brand, which ages for up to 30 years.
After centuries of being considered the drink of choice for British seafarers, from English pirates to sailors of the Royal Navy, or more recently associated with the piña colada cocktail set at all-inclusive beach hotels, rum has been transformed by distillers into a drink of prestige. It fuels a multimillion-dollar industry stretching from the Americas to Asia.
The cradle of rum, of course, was the Caribbean. Ian Williams, author of Rum, a Social and Sociable History, and a guest writer in this report, notes: “It was in the Caribbean that the crucial connections between peoples, European, African and American, with their respective technologies, came together to be distilled into rum.”
The drink’s main categories usually relate to the distilling and ageing methods inherited from the different traditions of rum making. In the French Antilles, Rhum agricole is distilled from sugar cane juice. This gives a lighter flavour and aroma than the rums distilled from molasses in former British colonies, which often produces a darker, heavier product.
Spanish-speaking makers of the spirit, while also distilling from molasses, generally produce crisper rums. The Spaniards brought in their brandy-making expertise to employ on añejos, or aged rums. Today, some distillers such as Venezuela’s Santa Teresa, use a fractional blending and ageing system called solera, originally used for sherry.
The expansion of sugar plantations across the tropics, coupled with the arrival of sailors, spawned various types of rum, or spirits related to it, in regions such as Brazil, India and the Philippines. Peru, while a country known for its pisco, now boasts a premium rum, Millonario, of its own.
Charles William Taussig, head of the American Molasses Company in the 1930s – and an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who reportedly toasted the end of the 19-year US occupation of Haiti in 1934 with Barbancourt rum – wrote in his book, Rum, Romance & Rebellion, “Where we find rum, we find action, sometimes cruel, sometimes heroic.”
Rum began with English settlers in Barbados and was favoured by George Washington. Jamaican rum developed to become the gold standard and was much enjoyed by another US founding father, Benjamin Franklin.
The spirit’s history has often included periods of brutality: Spanish conquistadors massacred indigenous peoples; African slaves toiled in Caribbean plantations; in more recent times, revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua removed regimes that had little credibility with their citizens.
Yet, in today’s competitive business environment, rum has needed its dose of heroic resilience to remain alive and compete with more established spirits, such as whisky. “Global branding for rum is a fairly recent phenomenon,” says Komal Samaroo of Guyana’s Demerara Distillers.
For years Bacardí was seen as flooding the global market with lighter rums. Mostly produced in Puerto Rico, these are usually associated with being the key ingredient in popular drinks, like mojitos and the Cuba Libre. Captain Morgan, originally part of Seagram’s, then stepped into the global picture with its spiced rum.
“Up to the mid-1990s there was basically one global brand of rum, Bacardí,” adds Mr Samaroo. “After it was taken over by Diageo, Captain Morgan became the second global brand.” For years, in the mind of the consumer, those two brands “were rum, that was the standard”.
Bacardí still produces huge numbers of standard and relatively affordable premium rums – last year alone it sold 18m cases. But it recently launched a classy series of four luxury sipping rums, called Facundo. A shot of one of them, Exquisito, sells for $45 at glitzy bars in Miami’s South Beach.
“We thought it was about time to share some of the exceptional rums from our private family reserve,” explains Michael Sheldon, Bacardí’s global brand director for super-premium rums. The rum market is “premiumising rapidly”, as he puts it. “The top end of rums is growing around four times as fast as the rest of the rum category.”
Indeed, for decades Colombia’s rum – mostly produced by regional state-owned factories – was seen by connoisseurs as of poor quality and taste. Until recently, that is, when the coastal city of Barranquilla gave birth to a super-premium rum, La Hechicera, which is distilled by a Cuban-Japanese rum master and has won strong praise.
Santa Teresa, one of a dwindling number of successful companies in Venezuela, has to focus on the upper end of the rum market to thrive. As the government limits the supply of foreign currency, its chief Alberto Vollmer says Santa Teresa may sometimes “lack the caps, the labels and the bottles” but is unconditionally committed to producing the best product possible.
In Central America, Zacapa and Flor de Caña have become landmarks in the drinks business of, respectively, their native Guatemala and Nicaragua. But it has taken three centuries of resilience to get there.
Another Anglo-Caribbean rum, Guyana’s El Dorado, now says it has fine products that can “resonate with the whisky drinker”. Global rum sales (143m cases last year) may lag behind those of whisky (373.8m), says International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR), but premium rums particularly are elbowing their way into the picture.
A top Venezuelan rum brand, Diplomático, last summer occupied an entire prime window display at Julius Meinl, Vienna’s gourmet store. Back home in Caracas galloping inflation and shrinking imports have turned local consumers away from whisky, Venezuela’s drink of prestige, boosting sales of local premium rums.
One noteworthy point, says IWSR, is that, while whisky consumption in the UK fell by nearly 1 per cent last year, compared with 2013, that of rum rose by 4 per cent. Some imbibers may well agree with John Georges, master distiller at Angostura in Trinidad and Tobago, who comments that his rums are “much like a single malt, only better”.