Rum: Join the Dark Side

The dark rum category is benefiting from some tender loving care. Dominic Roskrow looks at how it’s targeting whisky and brandy as a premium spirit


TEN YEARS AGO BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY WAS STILL BEING DESCRIBED AS AN OLD MAN'S DRINK and it was viewed with a mix of suspicion and contempt by the glitterati. Now it’s so fashionable that even David Beckham is associating himself with it.

Ten years ago cognac was going downhill faster than Chris Froome in the Pyrenees. Now it’s down with the kids in the hood, Lord of the Bling and a rapper’s delight, know wha’ I’m saying?

And 10 years ago the only rum deal to be done was for light or white rums. Now, big bold dark rums are back in vogue.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a decade after Macallan was introducing its light coloured Fine Oak range of single malt whiskies and telling everyone that that’s what consumers wanted, it’s all change. We’re not quite back in black, but nevertheless darkness isn’t just on the edge of town any more, it’s now in every city centre high street too.

And of all spirits categories, the most surprising renaissance is that of dark rums. Rum is in a unique position in that, while other spirits are overwhelmingly dark, light or white, rum can be all three. 

Throw in category distractions such as spiced rums and you’re looking at one very versatile spirit drink. Trouble is though, you can’t please all the people all the time and if one category is catching the public imagination more than another, inevitably there will be a straggler.

Heritage and history

For a long time dark rum was it. Where in most cases heritage and history count for a great deal, for a long time back the heavy imagery associated with dark rum was a millstone round its neck. 

The old British naval associations looked at best quaint and outdated, and at worst hinted at something just a little bit unpleasant, with the faint whiff of grog, sweat and brutality. 

While trendy partygoers turned to white rums, lighter rums and spiced rums, dark rum just seemed to sit there, festering, and metaphorically dreaming of better days when there would always be an England.

Something, though, has changed, as Matthieu Delassus of West Indian rum distributor Spiridom explains.

“Our view is that the general outlook for rum has never been so good,” he says. “In each of our markets, lights are turning to green, with a surging interest from professionals and individuals, and more especially for premium and super-premium aged rums. 

“Evidence is easy to find for this developing trend simply with the multiplication of rum festivals all over the world. We have recently participated in rum festivals in London, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Copenhagen, Lucerne, Hong Kong, as well as several major cities in the United States such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and one upcoming in San Francisco.” 

Delassus continues: “In each of these places, people gather in rum societies to share their knowledge of and passion for their favourite brands, just as whisky fans do.

“Of course, most professionals have spotted this new trend and are progressively upgrading their rum selection in order to offer a complete range of rums to their customers. 

“The rum category, which used to be a value category driven by an oligopoly of three or four major brands, is progressively extending to an exciting selection of fine brands from all over the world. People are eventually starting to understand the difference between the different styles of rum, rhum and ron. 

“The most important thing for us is that, with more information at their disposal, our customers are slowly moving away from the price criteria to discover new brands and new styles of rum.”

Certainly the trend towards dark rum seems to have global appeal. Talk to rum producers and suppliers and they will all talk about growth in Germany, France, Italy and some parts of the US. Some mention Spain, and Pernod Ricard, which markets Havana Club, points to the ‘premiumisation’ trend in Asian markets.

So why has this happened?

Partially the change is that there has been a rehabilitation of dark spirits, as outlined at the beginning of the feature. Partly it’s because people are seeking out bigger and bolder flavours and, rightly or wrongly, they make a link between taste and colour. And partly it’s because people are drinking less but better, and are seeking out premium drinks with a story to tell. Rum has spotted a market in the premium sector.

Somewhat ironically, history and heritage are major factors in the dark rum renaissance, as drinkers seek to discover the nuanced differences between rums from Antigua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba or Venezuela.

Gonzalo Medina García de Polavieja, marketing manager of Bodegas Williams & Humbert, says: “Heritage and history are extremely important, given that they help you build an identity for the category in general and for your brand in particular.  

“It is vital to differentiate and for the consumer to identify with the history of the brand. In our case it is something upon which we place great importance. 

“We ensure that the consumer is aware of the origin, production process and added value of the product. We even do this directly by means of our packaging, where we include a detailed explanation of the ageing process. The consumer has to know what they are drinking and the history behind what they are drinking.”

Consumer education has become key. Perhaps belatedly, the rum companies have taken a leaf out of the whisky textbook and engaged the customer more fully. Hence the number of rum shows. It would seem the category is still playing catch-up though.

“I would say it is happening, and is probably one of the main reasons of its fast development in recent years, although at the moment it can’t really be compared to the level of education of whisky consumers,” says Patrick Rabion, export director at Diplomático Rum.

Time and resources

“Premium dark rum brands have invested a lot of time and resources in consumer education and professional training. Diplomático is present in most rum festivals and industry trade shows around the world. 

“The brand also organises masterclasses in the countries where it is distributed – close to 50 countries to date. We also take industry professionals to our distillery in Venezuela and explain every step of Diplomático’s production process.”

Nick Blacknell, marketing director at Havana Club International, agrees.

“There is a strong community of loyal rum enthusiasts and connoisseurs who understand the outstanding, incomparable quality that Havana Club’s range of dark rums offers and what makes these rums so distinctive and prestigious,” he says. 

“That said, the ultra-premium and above segment of the rum category is still in its infancy and has significant room for continued growth. Education is a vital element for us to ensure more and more discerning drinkers over the world see that Havana Club Icónica Collection dark aged rums are amongst the finest luxury spirits available today.”

It seems that, with the education and the launch of products at the top end of the market, the profile of the dark rum drinker is shifting. Where once it was polarised between cheaper mixing rums favoured by the party crowd, and those who sipped it over ice at the high end, the category is broadening its appeal in general.

“We are seeing an evolution in dark rum,” says Jordi Xifra Keysper, marketing manager of Beveland. “The consumer is more mature and less likely to mix it as they might with white rum. We have a premium Dominican dark rum aged seven to 10 years, which can be drunk alone or with ice.”

Delassus at Spiridom points out that it is important to make a distinction between aged dark rums, and coloured and spiced rums, which may be coloured by caramel and are aimed at a totally different market. Focus on the aged rums, though, and there is definite growth.

“A few years back, dark rum was either consumed in a Cuba Libre by young party people, or neat with an ice cube by a niche of rum connoisseurs alongside a good Cuban cigar,” he says. 

“But time has changed and between those two extremes, more and more consumers are attracted by dark rum via a new angle. 

“Those new dark rum consumers are usually former cognac or whisky drinkers who are willing to experiment with a new spirit category, or former drinkers of white rum who now want something more complex. Thankfully, dark rum is really versatile (in taste and consumption methods) and can satisfy consumers from many different horizons.”

Which begs the inevitable question: have dark rums got single malt whisky drinkers in their sights? There are a mixture of views among the producers, but they all accept there is some way to go.

Single cane estates

But certainly Bacardi thinks there is mileage here. It has just launched two single cane estate rums (see page 10) which are designed to further segment the rum category, accelerate the move to ‘premiumisation’ and which will inevitably be seen as a step towards the single distillery world of malt whisky.

“As the world leader in rum, Bacardi has a unique ability to drive rum category premiumisation, the credibility to deliver new perceptions of the rum experience, and the insight and innovation to create new categories within rum,” says Mike Birch, managing director of Bacardi Global Travel Retail.  

“Only 24% current rum sales in global travel retail are high value compared to 76% total spirits, and we are confident there’s a major opportunity in travel retail for this exciting and energetic category. Single cane estate rums are a key component in Bacardi’s strategic drive to create category differentiation.”

Karina Hermansen, global brand manager at Berry Bros & Rudd, which markets Penny Blue rum as well as a range of Scottish single malt whiskies, says that because rum does not have some of the stringent regulations that the scotch whisky industry has to adhere to, there is less restriction and room for more flavours.

“Some of the historic dark rums were produced by rubbing molasses in the barrels to give dark colour,” she says. “This was once common practice, especially in Guyana. The majority of golden rums are matured in ex-bourbon barrels which give subtlety. White rum is really the target for being mixed with cola. 

“There is a thirst for education from consumers, but although the rum trade has a long heritage there is often a severe lack of information about the legacy and production techniques compared to what is available for Scottish products.”

It would seem that the future for dark rums is a good one, then, with strong growth, a growing interest from consumers and vast potential through education and diversity. Undoubtedly, says Spiridom’s Delassus.


“Dark rums will blossom,” he says. “People are discovering rum with a new angle and are pleased to find out it is as complex and interesting as whisky and brandy. There is so much to explore, an amazing diversity of origins, tastes and experiences. 

“Also, dark rum is usually more affordable than other brown spirits. One who likes aged spirits can find amazing rum that will blow their mind the same way a rare single malt whisky or a very old brandy could, but for far less money. 

“More and more people have noticed this great asset and now are taking advantage of it. 

“The future for dark rum has never been brighter.”