Spirit of unity

Can the golden age for Caribbean rum get any sweeter? Producers have now banded together to form a marque system that promotes quality and provenance. Graham Holter reports
27 August, 2008
Page 36 
These are heady days for rum, a spirit that is enjoying a new sense of confidence as export markets begin to understand the quality and provenance of the product.

In the US sales are already booming. Rum accounts for 18 per cent of all spirits sales, achieving revenues of US$2.1 billion in 2007, an increase of 8.9 per cent on the previous year. Only vodka does better.

Rum now stands a chance of repeating some of that success in the EU, a market where domestic spirits such as Cognac and Scotch whisky have traditionally been more concerned about the threat posed by vodka - a product that has gradually been naturalised as the union expands and production is exported.

The new Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque has now been launched by the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers' Association, which will mean bottles are branded with an internationally recognised stamp to show the product is genuine and meets quality standards.

There are three versions of the marque, based on each brand's maturation length and premium positioning. Products that are a blend of rums will display a black and white version of the marque, while a silver and black version will be used on brands that have been matured for a minimum of one year, with the logo featuring the word "matured" and an image of three barrels.

A gold and black deluxe classification will be used on brands that have been matured for a minimum of five years - and this will be indicated by an image of five barrels.

According to Neil Morris, the association's head of marketing: "With the popularity of rum increasing year on year, there is no doubt that consumers are not only looking to explore brands, but are also seeking some help in the selection process. The new marque will help meet both these objectives and give further weight to the development of a distinct Authentic Caribbean Rum sector within the rum category."

The launch will be supported by a marketing campaign that includes ads in trade and consumer press, PR activity, bartender training and attendance at trade and consumer shows.

Caribbean rum is now strictly defined as "fermented and distilled from sugar cane or its by-products" on a number of West Indian islands, with the notable exception of Cuba.

Why should the marque and the marketing campaign suddenly happen now? And more pertinently, why should it be funded by EU money when Europe has plenty of spirits producers of its own that could use the cash?

Essentially it comes down to a trade agreement between the EU and the US dating back to 2000 that liberalised the trade in white spirits. The Europeans had previously pledged to consult with Caribbean rum producers on trade deals that affected their product, and when it was agreed this bargain had not been kept, they agreed a compensation package. As a result, e70 million has been made available for a range of initiatives, including the marketing drive in the EU's own back yard.

An integrated front

The Integrated Development Programme for the Caribbean Rum Sector granted in 2002 was expected to end on June 30 2007, but has

been extended to June 30 2010. This extension gives producers more time to upgrade their distilleries and clean up their environmental act, through energy efficiencies and better effluent disposal systems.

Producers will perhaps be more excited by the prospect of appointing marketing managers in the key target markets of the UK, Spain and Italy.

Dr Frank Ward, chairman of WIRSPA, said in the Scottish press: "We were quite insular and inward looking, but the trade liberalisation forced us to re-examine ourselves and we are slowly getting better. One of the studies has indicated that there is a need to raise awareness of Caribbean rum across Europe. Now we are out to show that we produce the best rum in the world."

The Edrington Group, the Scotch whisky producer best known for its Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark blends, neatly symbolised the new world order in the spirits market with its recent purchase of a majority share in the Brugal Company, the Dominican Republic rum producer. Clearly it can see which way the wind is blowing. Brugal sells 5 million cases of golden rum annually, has an 80 per cent share of its domestic market and is one of the fastest-growing rum brands in Europe.

In some EU markets, such as the UK, rum producers may find they are pushing against an open door, particularly if they are marketing golden rum, whose sales rose 12 per cent to £66 million in the 12 months to Feb 23 2008, according to figures compiled by Nielsen. This makes it easily the fastest-growing sector of the spirits market. Although white and dark rums both experienced small declines, total rum sales value in the UK is slightly ahead of gin - something that would have been almost unthinkable a decade or so ago.

Julien Gualdon is one of the best-known rum aficionados in the UK thanks to his Mahiki cocktail bar in the heart of London. "We have 36 cocktails and three-quarters of them are rum based," he says. "I sell twice as much rum as vodka. I've really pushed the rum category on my cocktail list and people love it."

Peter Martin, European manager for Appleton supplier J Wray & Nephew, says rum-dominated cocktail lists are "not unusual" in London these days. "If you go to Nobu or Zeta, or any of those style bars, they're probably more rum-based than anything else," he says.

"Some people say it's because rum makes superb cocktails, which of course it does," says Martin. "Rum lends itself to cocktail-making probably better than any other spirit, if you look at the depth of flavour you can get. Cocktail bars are in a boom. Rum is an extremely versatile product. That's a good thing and a bad thing - bad because you get labelled purely as a cocktail ingredient."

Katherine Abram, spirits buyer for Tesco, the UK's largest grocery retailer, says the off-trade is getting its impetus from the on-trade. "There's the popularity of the mojito, which is almost mainstream now, and also the popularity of dark & st ormy and other rum-based cocktails has helped quite a lot," she says. "It's more golden and dark styles that benefit."

Source matters

"I think it probably is capable of sustaining the growth. With the rise of other spirits like Tequila and so on, where people are looking for a lot more provenance and a story of what's behind it. People are starting to look around for something a bit more interesting and rum has the potential to provide that.

"People are willing to trade up, but they really need to understand what's so great about the product. It's an exciting category that consumers are willing to explore and buy into."

The new campaign will doubtless help producers and retailers get that message across, but rum's huge reliance on white styles - designed principally for leisurely and uncomplicated drinking - is unlikely to end any time soon, even if sales do appear to be in gentle decline.

The current economic climate will also hinder efforts to move consumers up the quality ladder - 2008 is unlikely to be remembered as the year in which any drinks category achieved a successful transition into premiumisation.

But even if all the campaign achieves is a better understanding of this most misunderstood of spirits, the EU's money will have been put to good use.
----=== First rums off the marque ===International brands under the WIRSPA umbrella include Angostura 1919, Appleton Estate VX Jamaica Rum, Banks 10 Year Old XM Royal Gold, Barbancourt Réserve Spéciale Five Star Rum, Barceló Imperial, Borgoe 8 Year Old, Brugal Extra Viejo, Chairman's Reserve, Clarke's Old Grog, Cockspur Fine Rum, Doorly's XO, English Harbour 5 Year Old, El Dorado 15 Year Old, Macoucherie Red, Mount Gay Eclipse and Mount Gilboa.

Rum from 15 territories are included: Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago.