Rum’s Conundrum


The rum category seems always on the cusp of cashing in on the brown spirits vogue that has made stars of whiskey and brandy. Overall, the category is flat but many of the top players are enjoying positive growth. And producers are hoping to provide the springboard rum needs on the backbar and at retail. In this wide-ranging category there are many bright spots—aged expressions, superpremium bottles, barrel-finishes experiments, flavors and RTD products. On top of that, new expressions, products, packaging and promotional campaigns are catching consumers’ attention.

“Rum has had a slow but steady burn,” says Christine Moll, category marketing director, rum, for Campari America. “Premiumization will definitely continue as brands, and even countries, drive focus on educating consumers.”

Perhaps the surest signs of an impending rum romance are growth rates for super-premium and the proliferation of aged expressions.

“The premium and super-premium labels are showing double digit growth,” says John Eason, COO and executive vice president at Serrallés USA, whose portfolio includes the Don Q brand. “Suppliers are launching new and exciting expressions.”

“People are experimenting and seeing the benefit of consuming fine aged rum,” says Malcolm Gosling Sr., CEO and president of Goslings Rum. “Because of this, we see that the aged segment of the rum category (albeit the smallest) is growing at a healthy rate.”

According to the latest stats from the Distilled Spirits Council, volumes of super-premium rums grew 10.2% in 2017, while revenues were up 8.3%.

“Aged expression are becoming increasingly popular,” notes Moll, citing Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12-Year-Old and Appleton Estate 21-Year. High-end rums will pick up momentum as aged rum (and aged Jamaican Rum in particular) become a more compelling proposition with tastemakers (bartenders, chefs, retail buyers, food personalities) and consumers, she adds. To that end, the company just launched limited-edition Appleton Estate 30-Year-Old.

As an indication of rum’s potential, new players continue to enter and explore the market. Hotaling & Co., formerly known as Anchor Distilling, has invested in Denizen Rum, the line of blended Caribbean rums first released in 2010. Hotaling & Co. will play an active role alongside Nicholas Pelis, Denizen’s founder, on day-to-day brand management, distribution and future line extensions. Currently, the portfolio consists of Denizen Aged White Rum and Denizen Merchant’s Reserve Rum.

Category leader Bacardi is spearheading a category initiative on the premiumization of rum, with the launch of two new premium products – Bacardi Añejo Cuatro and Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez.

Category Trends

Are rum consumers trading up? Is premiumization helping rum sales, like it is with whiskey and tequila? Yes and no, depending upon whom you ask.

“Without a doubt premiumization is helping rum sales,” says Ricardo March, vice president of sales for Varela Imports, whose portfolio includes Ron Abuelo. “People are drinking less but much better quality.” As an example, March cites Ron Abuelo Centuria, a limited-edition that retails for $140 a bottle. High-end on-premise accounts have been pouring it for $35 a shot with great success, he says.

“We are starting to see the premiumization trend that transformed whiskey and tequila have an impact on rum. For the past several years, while the overall category volume has been flat to slightly declining, premium (super and ultra-premium) rum have been posting solid growth,” says Flor de Caña senior brand manager William Orsburn. “The high-end of the category will be the future of rum.”

Sounding an opposing viewpoint is Hannah Venhoff, brand manager at Heaven Hill, whose portfolio includes the Admiral Nelson’s and Blackheart spiced rums. “Today customers are still looking for value,” she says. That goes hand-in-hand with the propensity for consumers to explore new products. Trying something new is important, but the products have to be at approachable price points. Research indicates that consumers in the rum category have the highest propensity for impulse purchase compared to other spirits categories, she adds.

Rum producers are also borrowing inspiration from whiskey makers, offering products with unique barrel finishes and single barrel expressions.

“There are all these whiskey brands making versions with rum barrel finishes, like Balvenie and Tullamore. Rum has to figure out how to steal back that idea,” observes Josh Hayes, senior brand manager for Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum. “Consumers will want to see rums with different barrel finishes and age statements, just like with whiskey.”

Ron Abuelo was a rum pioneer in barrel finishes. Its Ron Abuelo Finish Collection is a 14-year-old rum matured for an extra year in different barrels: Oloroso Sherry Casks, Tawny Port Casks and Napoleon Cognac Casks. The finishes show off the flexibility of rum beyond white, gold, flavors and spiced, March says.

The latest entry in Serralles’ Signature Series is Don Q Double Aged Vermouth Cask Finish Rum. It’s a blend of rare rums aged between 5 and 8 years in American white oak casks, and then rested for 4-6 weeks in Mancino Vermouth Vecchio barrels. “It’s best served neat or on the rocks, but I love it in a Manhattan,” Eason says.

Goslings, too, is working with barrel finishes. “With recent line extensions, we’ve developed proprietary ways to finish the aging process, either by using a variety of barrels and/or barrels that we have treated to impart our own unique ‘Goslings’ character in the finished product,” the CEO says. The most recent is Goslings Gold Seal, where one of the rums in the blend is aged in once-used bourbon barrels.

Other tactics also borrow from whiskey. For example, Don Q offers a Single Barrel Signature Release, with the age of the batch indicated on the label. This strategy has proved popular with whiskey fans. And, Eason notes, “Compared to the pricing of bourbon, whiskey and Cognac, aged rum has tremendous value.”

Later this year, Goslings will also release a limited quantity of a single-barrel rum.

Flavors in Favor

For many rum companies, spiced and flavored rums are performing well. Several new variants debuted recently and other companies are revamping their flavor portfolios.

“The days of-off-the-wall flavors are over; it’s back to basics,” says Venhoff, brand manager for Admiral Nelson’s Premium Spiced Rum and Blackheart, a black spiced rum. “That dials down to traditional rum flavors—pineapple and coconut—which is where brands are winning.”

After testing well in select markets, Admiral Nelson’s Pineapple is now rolling out nationally this April. “It’s an easy introduction to the rum category,” Venhoff notes. Overall, the brand is up 3% on a large base, she says, and Blackheart is up 10%.

“We noticed that consumers were consuming shots more often, and thought that was a great opportunity for Captain Morgan,” says vice president Linda Bethea. The brand began adding permanent shot offerings in 2015 – first with Cannon Blast, then the seasonal Jack-O-Blast, then Loco-Nut last spring.

The newest is Watermelon Smash, positioned as a limited-time offering for spring and summer. “It’s innovative not just from liquid standpoint, but in its packaging as well,” Bethea says. The bottle is designed to look like a plump and juicy watermelon, and a scratch and sniff covering lends a melon fragrance.

“There’s been a shift in consumer behavior that has led to an increased demand for ‘back-to-basics’ flavors within the rum category,” says Daniel R. Clarke, brand director USA for Malibu Rum. With this in mind, Malibu has a renewed focus on signature flavor offerings, including Malibu Original (Coconut), Malibu Pineapple, Malibu Banana, Malibu Mango, Malibu Passion Fruit. The newest offering is Malibu Lime, launched in February. “Lime is the most popular fruit paired with rum, the brand capitalized on this,” Clarke adds.

Getting the Word Out

Promotional and marketing campaigns aim to draw customers into stores.

Sailor Jerry is focusing marketing to reflect its Navy heritage and Made in America tag. Instead of promoting spring break, the brand will celebrate Fleet Week, and has teamed with USAA to host music festivals on military bases—with sampling opportunities, of course. Sailor Jerry has also partnered with another iconic American brand, Harley Davidson (Norman Collins rode a Harley) and both will be present this year at the Sturgis Rally and SXSW.

Malibu Lime launched with a national 360 approach, supported by a combination of advertising, marketing and promotions. With the slogan “Just in Lime for the Summer,” Malibu Lime created advertisements showcasing the new flavor. Off- and on-premise sampling kits include Mojito recipe magnets, recipe cards, counter cards, wooden Mojito muddlers, sampling cups, straws, stainless steel lime juicers, table tents and acrylic tumblers with straws.

Goslings’ most recent outdoor campaign is titled “Handcrafted Enjoyment in a Bottle.” The brand’s history and authenticity are touted in TV ads that debuted in 2017 and will continue to air through 2018.

Captain Morgan is continuing the “Live Like a Captain” promotion, with a full multi-media campaign. This summer it’s sponsoring a Cruise with the Captain experiential tour.

Campari Group recently opened its renovated distillery experience in Jamaica called, “The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience.” Appleton’s parent invested $7.2 million in the project, which spans approximately 24,000 square feet of new building construction, as well as 27,000 square feet of outdoor historic estate grounds. Moll says it is expected to draw thousands of visitors and drive economic growth to the region through jobs and tourism.

Additionally, this year, Appleton Estate is launching a series of experiential events bringing the best of Jamaica to U.S. audiences. This platform, Appleton Estate’s Studio Rum, includes partnering with Jamaican record label Studio 1, bringing together two iconic Jamaican brands.

Rum’s range and versatility are the category’s strength. And many are betting that aged rums will soon grab the attention of whiskey geeks and tequila fans.

“What is different with the rum category is that it encompasses such a variety of qualities – from the unaged, to the flavored, to the moderately aged, to super-premium aged products,” Gosling says.

At Serralles, Eason says he is more excited than ever about rum’s future. “We’ve been promoting the higher end of our rum portfolio for several years and saw this trend approaching. Rum is such an amazing spirit; it’s so much more than pirates and sea monsters. We’ve had a nice start to 2018 and look forward to a great summer selling season.” •


Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions.


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