“Rums are diverse in a way that no other distilled spirit can be,” says Nate Hynson, general manager for Mutiny Pirate Bar & Island Grille. The company, with two units based in Maryland, stocks about 120 different rums.
“I’ve had agricole rums that you would swear were made from agave,” he notes. “There are rums that mimic whiskey so well that we’ve converted literally hundreds of diehard Bourbon drinkers into rum snobs.”
Think about this, Hynson says: “If you’re making a vodka Martini, would you ever mix two kinds of vodka? What about a whiskey sour; any reason to use two different whiskies? Not really. But there are thousands of drinks that use more than one rum.”
The category encompasses expressions ranging from white rum, black rum, dark rum, aged rum, spiced and flavored rum to funky rum and high-proof rum. Tiki, rum bars and other rum-centric concepts have already bought into the many splendors of rum, and are destinations for the growing number of aficionados.
Rum is eminently mixable. Four of the top-10 bestselling cocktails are rum drinks, according to Bacardi’s 2022 Cocktail Trends Report: the Mojito (number-one), Pina Colada, Rum & Cola and the Daiquiri. That means rum is a must-have for every beverage program.
Why Rum has a Bright Future
“Rum is about to have its proverbial day in the sun,” predicts James Flanigan, chief financial officer of Old School Hospitality. “Historically rum been overshadowed by the other brown liquors, i.e. whiskey, but there has been a noticeable uptick in rum interest recently.” The Fort Lauderdale, FL-based group, which includes five Quarterdeck concepts and three other casual restaurants, is now building a Tiki bar called the Hula Kai in Fort Lauderdale. They have bet big on rum.
“Rum is definitely our number-one seller,” says Fred Jason, general manager at Casta’s Rum Bar in Washington, D.C., adding that rum sells five to one compared to other spirits. Of course that’s not surprising for a rum-centric concept that features 125 rums on its menu at any given time, with148 brands in stock.
The Guild Bar in downtown San Diego isn’t a rum specialist; it stocks fewer than 15 varieties. But those few are choice, including Doctor Bird Jamaican, Appleton Estate 12-year and El Dorado 15-year-old. And The Guild Bar’s signature cocktail is the flamboyant Million Dollar Bill, a blend of three rums, falernum, lemon juice and kiwi syrup.
“We leaned on rum-heavy traditional Tiki cocktails, but substituted the citrus and sweet modifier with less-conventional ingredients,” says bar supervisor Robert Chacon. The drink is served in a Tiki mug wrapped in a “million-dollar bill,” which is set aflame for a fiery presentation.
Top-shelf Rum Sells
Premiumization impacts the rum category. Dark, aged, top-shelf rums lead the way. Revenues of superpremium rums were up 14.4% and high-end premium up 5.3% in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.’s recent Economic Briefing Report. Bacardi’s Cocktail Trends Report also affirms that dark rums have experienced premiumization.
“Like many categories, rum is following a path of premiumization as consumers become interested in different appellations, different styles and more aged products, and as a result, they are willing to pay more for rums that offer more,” says Mark Breene, CEO of Copalli USA, which recently released Copalli Cacao Rum, made with organic cacao nibs in Belize.
One indication of increasing respect for rum was the creation late last year of a new rum appellation, when the Dominican Association of Rum Producers declared a Denomination of Origin. Such regulations offer consumers transparency and clarity in a category muddled by a general lack of consensus about origins and aging.
The Rum Geek Factor
Rum aficionados have plenty of aspects to geek over, such as barrel finishes, celeb affiliations and the fun of funk.
Rum producers offer a number of aged expressions in various barrel treatments and finishes. To cite just a few examples: In celebration of Black History Month, Ten to One Rum partnered with Uncle Nearest for a limited edition of its Caribbean Dark Rum finished in 1856 Bourbon Cask Barrels.
Appleton Estate this past January launched its Ruby Ann Edition to celebrate Master Blender Joy Spence’s 40-year career with the distillery; the edition blends rums aged 35-45 years. For its first release of 2022, Holmes Cay Rum offers a limited-edition 2012 Barbados single-cask aged rum with secondary maturation in port casks.
Mount Gay Rum late last year bottled its 2021 Master Blender Collection. After 14 years in ex-bourbon barrels, the edition finished for 11 months in Andean oak. Black Tot Rum debuted its second Master Blenders Reserve in select markets; the bottling blends rums from five countries and an age range of nine to 24 years. And last summer, Bacardi launched its Cask Finished Rum Series with Bacardi Reserva Ocho Sherry Cask Finish; this is the first of a five-year program.
Rum might not boast the star power associated with other spirits and wine; however, there are some celeb-backed brands. Singer-songwriter Ciara last fall joined Ten To One Rum as an investor, director and co-owner with founder Marc Farrell. Also last fall, the rock band Kiss introduced its Drink It Up portfolio to the U.S. market, which includes Black Diamond Premium Dark Rum, Detroit Rock Premium Dark Rum and limited-edition Monstrum Ultra Premium Dark Rum.
Country music star Kenny Chesney helms Blue Chair Bay Rum (the name is from one of his songs), offering 10 flavors. Rocker and spirits entrepreneur Sammy Hager markets Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. And singers Bruno Mars (SelvaRey Rum) and Lil Wayne (Bumba Rum) are also involved with the category.
Agricole, Jamaican and a few other rums exhibit flavor characteristics described as funky. This subcategory is an acquired taste — people either love it or hate it.
“I’m a big fan of mixing with funky agricole rum because it adds layers of grassiness, sugarcane, pepper and smoke,” says Amanda Sasser, managing partner of The CanTiki, a recently opened cantina/Tiki bar in Glendale, CA. Sasser’s take on Navy Grog, called Reservoir Grog, packs a punch with three different rums: Scarlet Ibis Trinidad, Real McCoy 3-year and the aptly named The Funk, a pot still Jamaican rum.
“The Funk can be a hard sell with some customers, because it’s so funky, but it’s more approachable in this cocktail,” says Sasser. “It starts a conversation with customers and opens them up to trying different kinds of rum and other sugarcane spirits.”
Casta’s also includes The Funk in its collection, says Jason, along with other unusual expressions such as Coconut Cartel Anejo Rum and Rhum Paranubes Aguardiente.
Perhaps the best-known rum bar in the Northwest is Rumba, owned by Pike Hospitality Group, which boasts more than 700 different rums, including some remarkable bottlings. “Paranubes is an Oaxacan pot still rum made from fresh sugarcane juice. It stands out because on the nose it has a ketchup or barbecue sauce and ripe fruit smell, and an oily mouthfeel,” says Rumba’s bar manager John Fry. “The other that stands out is ‘Doctor Bird’ an over-proof Jamaican Rum that has a smell of banana bread and a funky kick.”
“Not everyone likes the hogo-heavy pot-stilled rums of Jamaica, but to the person who loves that style, there’s absolutely nothing better,” says Hynson. Among the rare rums on his list are The Black Tot, Amrut Old Port and Constellation Rum from the local Tobacco Barn Distillery, which ages at sea aboard the 1854 sloop-of-war, the U.S.S. Constellation, moored at Baltimore Harbor.
Enticing Rum Prospects
How do operators entice customers to take a deeper dive into rum?
“Many beginning rum drinkers call for Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, from Venezuela; Zacapa 23, from Guatemala; and Havana Club 7-year, from Cuba,” says Fry. “These are molasses-based fuller bodied, lush and easy on the palate. They’re nice ‘gateway’ rums.”
Along with preselected rum flights, Rumba entices explorers with map of 60 different rums. The rum map is broken down by origin as well as multi-island blends and “wild cards.”
Mutiny’s Rum Club has garnered thousands of members over the past 10 years. “The biggest operational advantage is how it helps us move inventory,” says Hynson. Club members eventually drink every rum, so even the obscure, unusual or expensive bottles don’t sit around for long, he notes.
Rum flights sell well at Casta’s. “Oftentimes, our guests don’t know exactly what they want, so they’ll ask their bartender to choose flights for them and then guests can identify which they like best,” says Jason. Rum flights start at $25 for four 1-oz. pours.
“Rum is the preferred spirit at our island-inspired restaurants, Rumba and Rhum, with sales rising every year,” says David Hersh, owner of Rooted Hospitality Group in Center Moriches, NY. The collection stands at more than 70 rums, with new additions every year. They are destinations for rum fans.
Popular calls are El Dorado 12-year, Centenario 20-year and Appleton 21-year. Rarities include Pusser’s “Nelson’s Blood,” Flor de Cana 25-year and Barbancourt 15-year, says Hersh. As an intro to the collection, Rumba and Rhum offer a three-course beverage add-on to dinners, consisting of two signature rum cocktails and finishing with a sipper. An extensive list of sipping rums, organized by country of origin, launches this spring, plus rum flights.
“Tiki drinks can be elaborate concoctions with lots of ingredients that take time to craft,” says Sasser. To speed service at The CanTiki, she taps draft cocktails. “Batched cocktails speed service, balance our workflow and helps with staffing.” Currently on tap are a Mai Tai, Smog Cutter ($12 each) and Scorpion Bowl ($18—serves four).
Old School Hospitality keeps it simple when it comes to rum. The current most popular calls among the 20 rums stocked at Quarterdeck are Bacardi and Captain Morgan. “The most popular rum cocktail right now is a straightforward rum-and-a-mixer drink. The Mojito would be a close second,” says Flanigan.
“We hang our hat on being a top-notch craft cocktail bar, so our featured cocktails are exotic, unique and inspired,” says Hynson. “But of course plenty of people just want something that tastes good without all the pomp and circumstance, which is why our Rum Punch remains one of our most popular drinks.” Rum Punch is a mix of light and dark rums, orange and pineapple juices, Angostura bitters and house grenadine.
Rum Cocktails are Key
Although more customers venture into sipping aged expressions, most rum is still consumed via cocktails.
“Our cocktail lists at Rhum and Rumba have a huge focus on rums with many tropical choices,” says Hersh. Caribbean Rum Punch is the restaurants’ signature, made with Cruzan light and dark rums, orange curacao and fresh pineapple, orange and lime juices, served in three sizes — Beenie, Bigga & Carafe. Some other popular cocktails are Passion Fruit Pina Colada (Don Q Coco rum, passion fruit, pineapple and coconut, with a float of Myer’s dark rum) and Key Lime and Coconut Rum Martinis.
“The Mojito is our number-one seller,” says Jason at Casta’s, “and to be honest, there’s not even a number two!”
“Overall, the most popular rum cocktail must be a Daiquiri,” says Fry at Rumba. Another popular cocktail is the Rumba Old Fashioned, made with falernum, banana liqueur, bitters and a blend of 10 rums.
At The CanTiki, Feel Mai Pain is cross between Mai Tai and Painkiller, says Sasser. It’s made with pineapple-washed rum, Rhum Clement Barrel Select, Greenbar dry Curaçao, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, house-made coconut curry, orgeat, lime and orange juices and a float of Cruzan Blackstrap rum.
Monk Overboard is a riff on the Mule; it’s a combination of Malahat Spiced rum, Yellow Chartreuse, house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, falernum and Fever Tree ginger beer.
One of the top-selling cocktails at Mutiny is the Agricole Crusta, which is a riff on the Brandy Crusta, says Hynson. It combines Clement VSOP Agricole rum, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, Maggie’s Farm Falernum, Angostura bitters, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup, served in a sugar-crusted glass with an enormous lemon twist. “I think it’s safe to say that most guests don’t know what agricole or falernum mean — or not until they’ve spent a little time around us, at least — but this drink is a top seller in spite of that,” Hynson adds. “My staff deserves most of the credit, because even though the drinks are (mostly) my creations, it’s all about how they tell the story of each cocktail that gets people excited.”
On The Cusp
With its diversity of styles and versatility as a mixer and a sipper, rum seems poised for greatness.
“Rum is already on the rise in popularity and more and more attention,” notes Fry. “It’s become the spirit that enthusiasts of other spirits segue into because they find similarities in their favorites, like whiskey or tequila, and discover there’s a rum that has a similar flavor profile.”
“I think rum has the potential to be as big as whiskey or tequila,” predicts Hynson. “There is a rum out there for everyone.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable. Read his recent piece, The Top Beer Trends in 2021-22.