Rum Makes its Case to Join the Premiumization Push

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Rum may not have benefited as much as others from the general boom and premiumization of spirits, but given the spending to create a top shelf visitor center in the heart of Jamaica—as well as expand distillery operations—Appleton Estate’s efforts are reassuring.

The landmark Jamaica distillery has gone through a major rebranding project and in the past couple of years introduced new expressions, like the 25-year-old Joy Anniversary release (named, like the visitor center, after the rum’s master blender, Joy Spence) that sold out quickly at $250 or so a bottle.

The new Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience, the latest splurge on North American brands owned by Gruppo Campari, shows the similar sort of commitment they showed Wild Turkey a few years ago.

The facility was already the biggest attraction on the south coast of Jamaica, and the fancied-up experience aims to host more than 200,000 visitors each year. Now it is expected not only to drive rum tourism to the island country, the commitment is intended to set a new benchmark for Appleton's global marketing reach.

Mixing glimpses of historic Jamaican rum production methods—including crushing cane and cooking molasses—with distillery and warehouse tours, it’s hoped the Appleton experience will further bring consumers to the thinking that some rums really are best when sipped and savored. This is a long-time goal of quality producers who fight against the way most consumers prefer their sugar cane spirit: mixed with juice or soft drinks.  

One way Appleton has done that has been to shed its white and gold rum expressions, turning those expressions over to brand stablemate J. Wray. Now, five expressions—no age statement Signature Blend and Reserve Blend, Rare Blend 12 Year Old, 21 Year Old and 50 Year Old—make the statement that aging and sippability as well as cocktail readiness are essential to understanding their approach.

Jamaica's rules for aged rum go up against the freewheeling lack of transparent rules in other producing countries, an issue as some rum makers attempt to upgrade their image. At Appleton and other Jamaican brands, age statements must reflect the age of the youngest component, much as in whiskey production. Added to the way consumers and trade connect the understanding of aging as communicated by Scotch and Cognac producers, Jamaicans, like other tropical climate spirit producers, have a hard time explaining that fewer years in a barrel in hot weather speeds aging.

Still, the response from the rum specialists in the trade and the avid group of rum collectors in the U.S. to the Joy anniversary, 25 Year Old and 50 Year Old expressions has been almost universally positive. With other producers like Plantation, Flor de Caña and others focusing on quality and sophistication as opposed to beach time revelry, perhaps the commitment to Appleton holds out some promise for bar and restaurant operators looking to up their rum games.

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