Rum's Real Flavors

Why is it so hard to get Americans’ to drink fine rum?Rum Cocktail

It’s not that they are drinking bad rum – it’s just that the way we drink the sugar cane spirit more and more resembles the way we drink vodka.

Bartenders certainly have tried to change that, though the recent interest in Tiki seems to have crested somewhat, at least in terms of the many drink menus I see from across the country. But while the many fine Caribbean and Central and South American rums have plenty of room to grow in the US, none can be considered break out brands, especially in light of the way the many new spiced rums have exploded onto the market. In fact, virtually every rum in the top ten list of most popular brands have a significant spiced or flavored presence, and only a few sell much highly aged juice.

Top seller lists aren’t everything, of course, especially when it comes to craft cocktails, where the bigger the brand, the less likely the usage. But the phenomenal growth of spiced rums, and the continuing expansion of the sub-category through proof, flavor profiles and price, is really just the industry responding to consumer interest.

That’s why the recent announcement from Diageo of the new limited edition Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish Spiced Rum seemed so interesting. The sort of barrel-finish innovation long practiced in the Scotch whisky business and sometimes tinkered with in Kentucky made the leap right over the super-premium end of the rum business to land smack at its premium spiced heart. Whatever the new iteration tastes like, I’m sure it’s meant to appeal to a slightly more sophisticated spiced drinker, who, as I’ve been told by any number of rum marketers, just consider spiced rum to be rum, even just another brown spirit, and that those brands with traction intend to compete to keep the spiced rum drinker as he or she becomes more sophisticated in their spirit choices. That also helps explain the less sweet and more reserved flavor profile of Bacardi Oakheart and Cruzan Nine – they’re looking for drinkers who want more flavor without more sweetness.

Of course, that doesn’t explain newer, confectionary flavored rums that seem to be heading toward the lowest common denominator trail-blazed by vodka. Beside the potentially dangerous possibility much discussed lately that these strong spirits are so heavily flavored that an inexperienced drinker may not actually realize they are over doing it, too much flavor makes a spirit too basic, too much like an alcohol delivery substance. Most distillers - rum makers and whisky makers and even vodka makers – would hate to hear that said about their products, as nearly to a person, the people I’ve met who make spirits believe that responsible consumption is an important component of life.

While I’m sure the underlying trend has more to do with the easiest home mixability possible – if rum and cola are good, banana caramel rum and cola must be better! – it’s too bad the sweet-craving American palate is missing out on what sophisticated sweetness in the form of aged rum really is like. Banana, pineapple, guava, marshmallow, toasted coconut, grilled papaya, caramel cream, tobacco, clove, cinnamon, coffee, butterscotch, rancio – these flavors all can be found in various aged rums, occurring mysteriously and naturally, rather than by the injection of natural and artificial flavors. All it takes is some tasting to see.

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