Article By: ROBERT BRADFORD
Last year saw total volume sales move above the 23 million 9-liter case-sale plateau in the American market for the first time ever. Looking down a category’s performance listing of the some 5O measurable volume brands, starting at the top with the #1 almighty 9-million-case category-colossus, Bacardi, you can find only six of them in negative sales territory, and all of these are in the unglamorous low-end commodity-rum price sector, sometimes called “the bottom shelf”.
Everywhere else, you see moderate to remarkable growth-rate percentages, including the Big Three over-one-million-case giants, Bacardi, Captain Morgan and Malibu, who keep consistently chugging upward and onward like blue chip stocks. And a couple of the small volume, high-end, recently-launched, luxury-priced brands like Moet Hennessy’s new and different Trinidadian 1O Cane, an anomalous rum style made with pure sugar-cane juice and no molasses, and Pyrat, the brandchild of the luxury-tequila producer, Patron Spirits Company, are seeing truly astonishing sales performances of 8O% and above. So, what’s it all about, Bobby?
“For one thing, the proliferation of the flavored rum sector continues to move the category ahead nicely,”observes Bob Epstein, the president of Horizon Beverage Company, and one of the most astute rum distributors. One of the great success stories in the entire drinks industry over the past 25 years is Bacardi’s continuing launch of flavors, he feels. “Fact is, I think this even led to the flavor explosion in vodkas,” Epstein contends. “Bacardi still has a commanding lead in this segment, with Bacardi Limon still the biggest single flavored product in the rum business. And the flavors they try that don’t make it, they simply kill ’em off before any damage is done.” Of course, many other key players like Malibu, and especially the other early rum-flavor pioneer Cruzan, have all had considerable success jumping on this bandwagon, too, he points out. And let’s not forget that high-flying Captain Morgan Original Spiced and the new up-and-coming 92-proof brand from William Grant & Sons, the spicy Sailor Jerry, also have to be considered a primary part of this flavored rum segment, he emphasizes.
“And I’d have to add this,” says Epstein. “Any category needs a good leader, and rum couldn’t ask for a better leader than Bacardi. They just do such a professional job. We’re talking about a remarkable juggernaut here. Everyone can chase them, but no one’s about to catch them. They’re never asleep when it comes to marketing, and Bacardi will almost undoubtedly remain the now and future King of the rum world.”
But something else even more significant and exciting is increasingly driving the category, Epstein says. “Higher-end rums have finally started to get some real momentum with truly aged super-premiums. Bacardi and Captain Morgan, Malibu, and Cruzan products continue to move, but once younger rum consumers start to get to a certain age they might drift away from the category into what they perceive as more sophisticated spirits.
But, today, rum producers have been hitting upon ways to keep them in the category. And, now, you’re seeing super- and ultra-premium brands like the Ron Zacapa Centenario 15-year and 23-year-olds, Coyopa oak-aged 1O-year dark, Pyrat Planter’s Gold XO Reserve and Cask 23, Gosling’s Old Rum from Bermuda, Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados, the Appleton labels from Jamaica, Pampero Aniversario from Venezuela, Cuban-style Ron Matusalem, and many others. They’re all starting to get some significant and growing consumer attention.”
“Bacardi tried to make a move quite a number of years ago with their aged Puerto Rican Anejo,” Epstein goes on. “But they were all by themselves. Maybe rum consumers just weren’t ready. But now Bacardi’s back with a very good 8-year-old, and they’re getting help from the competition all over the place. Major companies are investing serious money behind higher-end rums as never before. And why? In this business, there’s method to all the madness, of course. Producers have finally realized that there’s a growing consumer recognition out there that rum is a drinkable sipping beverage unto itself. Sure, it makes a great mixed drink, but it’s also a stand-alone as fine cognac at its higher levels. So the rum category is very quietly expanding its identity, and is now proving to be the sleeping giant we’ve all been anticipating for some time. Slowly but surely, the rum aficionados, if you will, are finding these brands, although still in small volumes. But what it does is give legitimacy to an older fine rum consumer and a real sophistication to the category.”
Still another appealing dimension is working for rum, and it’s all about romance. In many ways, far beyond any other spirit, the category incorporates a travel agent’s dream of island getaways, tropical climates, fun in the sun, Calypso, sexy parties in bathing suits, young Brazilian beauties and the beaches of Ipanema, fancy yachts and cruise ships, adventurous seadog sailors, and a by-gone era of swashbuckling Caribbean pirates all looking like Johnny Depp – anything not to like about this picture? And in all the frames, you will also find a bottle of rum lurking prominently in the minds of beverage consumers, which makes it all relevant.
Travel experience is indeed a driving incentive for rum sales, agrees Tony Anthony, Kappy’s Liquors store manager in Peabody and a noted rum aficionado by choice. Rum is an exploding category, and people are becoming more and more aware of its many offerings, he points out, through lots of travels to the Caribbean where they are discovering these small little rums and then trying to find them back here. “It’s around this time of year,” he says, “when people start returning from these winter vacation trips, and they start looking for exotics in the category from various locations they discovered down there. One of them that’s been doing a great job and creating a lot of interest in my store is the Gabriel & Andreu Plantation rums lineup. This is a product of the Pierre Ferrand fine cognac producers in France, who’ve been so successful with their bottlings of single district cognacs. And, now, in the rum category, what they’ve started to do is trade their barrels for different distinguished and well-aged small batch rums of various styles and national origins. I mean, they’ve got bottlings from places like Trinidad and Panama, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Barbados in their brand portfolio. It’s an altogether fascinating collection for educating my customers. And you’re seeing a lot of small batch rums really growing in popularity.”
“In the upper premium category for our store,” Tony continues, “Mount Gay Eclipse is still the old dependable, upper-premium consumer favorite, and I feel there’s a lot of room for extension with this brand. They’re just launching a Mount Gay Silver, for instance, and it’s quite likely because of the great success you’re seeing with blancos in the tequila field. You’re also seeing the same kind of crossover you have when people get into fine spirits. Whether it’s cognac, bourbon, scotch, whatever, they get into the same stratosphere. It doesn’t make any difference what they’re drinking as long as it’s of genuine premium quality. This is the niche Mount Gay is going for with a white rum, I have no doubt about it.”
Tony has also been seeing a much greater trade-up mentality developing in his store customers. They’re now so much more aware of critical write-ups on high-end rums in influential publications like new york times and consumer’s digest, and it’s definitely been impacting the Boston market, he observes. “We’ve been noticing a distinct increase in rum trade-ups with our customers for a couple of years now, especially in this store where we work very hard on our premium end spirits. The people who come here expect to find something, and if they can’t find exactly what they’re looking for, it’s up to one of our qualified trained sales people to be able to help them find something very similar. Let’s just say a whole lot of significant hand-selling goes on in this store. Educating our customers is what we’re all about.
“And, as far as consumer trends go,” he continues, “I just see with the high ends, that people are less afraid to spend the extra bucks. Great example is Gosling’s Extra Old. It ranks as probably one of the finest rums I’ve ever had in my life. It’s an incredible 16-year-old and people aren’t afraid to spend $65 for it. But quality rum producers themselves are still so locked into that $2O to $4O price range. They seem to be the ones afraid to move into the stratosphere to ask people to pay for the product. Anyway, I’m seeing more and more people willing to reach and pay a higher price for top quality in this category, the way you’ve seen it with what scotches, cognacs and other spirits have move into, including Canadians like Crown Royal Reserve. Rum hasn’t quite gotten there yet. It’s still a very affordable drink and you can get a lot of unusual bangs for the buck for very significant drinking quality.”
One of the producers that’s been notably successful in creating a new prestige for its portfolio is the Absolut Spirits-owned Cruzan brand, produced in the British Virgin Islands, and traditionally noted as a leading innovator in the light tropical-flavored rum segment. Says Ernie Buonaccorsi, the Massachusetts Division Manager of Future Brands, who work accounts throughout this market, “I certainly have to be bullish on the Cruzan flavors segment of the brand’s portfolio. They’re all 1OO% natural and they got an orange, a coconut, a banana, citrus, pineapple, vanilla, mango, raspberry. And they’ve recently launched a new black cherry, which has been an instant home run.”
But it’s the Cruzan Estate aged rums in the brand portfolio that gets Ernie truly excited, and it’s this part of the brand where he sees the brightest opportunities for the immediate future. “When I started handling the Cruzan lineup, two years ago,” he explains, “one of my big objectives for 2OO7 was establishing the two standard Estates rums, a 2-year-old light and a dark, where I wanted to build a strong brand base. The price point is about $19 to $2O for 75Oml, and this is really where we saw a lot of immediate growth. This is the picture I was hoping for. Once you’ve got that base growing, everything else can grow around it. But you’ve got to have those anchors set.”
These are very competitive premium rums and it only goes up from here, he points out. There’s an elegant Cruzan Estate Diamond 5-year-old, priced around $24.99, which is a blend of five- and 1O-year-old rums. It’s more of a medium-bodied, mellow rum, with a little bit of oaky notes in the nose, and comes from the Diamond Estate distillery in St. Croix. Another Estate rum is Black Strap, also price-positioned around $24.99, and quite unique in this portfolio with a dark molassesy heavy body. “In fact, it’s the old authentic Navy grog rum style,” Ernie explains, “which can mix into a lot of cocktails, and would be a particularly good rum to use with ginger beer for a tall-glass Dark ’n Stormy type of drink.”
“But the ultimate product in this portfolio,” he enthuses, “is a remarkably fine super-premium Cruzan single barrel rum, selling for about $3O. It’s a blend of five- to 12-year-old rums, and, as far as I know, it’s the first single barrel rum ever to be produced. This baby is so complex and smooth in a snifter, it’s almost scary in the best possible sense. I’d never before tried drinking rum in snifter until sampling this one, and I was frankly startled at how good it was.”
“And, with what we’re seeing going on in the category today,” he adds, “both the range of lighter lower-proof flavors and the high-end Estate rum line-up present a very healthy consumer balance for this brand. The truth is, I can now honestly say that Cruzan rums have the strongest upside of any brand in my portfolio. And this is no small statement considering the size and number of total brands I’m involved with.”
Flavored rums do not necessarily fit well in all brand portfolios, however, as dramatically evidenced recently by prestigious Barbados rum producer, Mount Gay, who launched two flavored brand extensions in 2OO3, but have now decided to phase them out entirely.
“The flavors were launched before I came aboard with Mount Gay,” says Todd Schuessler, the new Mount Gay Rum Brand Manager with Rémy Cointreau USA. “These were a mango and pineapple and actually phenomenal flavored products which many people loved. However, what became apparent was that it shifted focus away from the parent brand to support these new flavor launches. Also, the flavored bottle was an entirely different shape and a brand disconnect for consumers. Of course, the flavor trend in rum is huge, and you see flavors coming out left and right. But in terms of a rum like Mount Gay, consumers think of it in a traditional sense, which also reflects my own views as a the present marketing director. So it was my direction to sort of shift the focus back to where it truly belongs, because of the liquid we have.”
Todd observes that people really care about authentic brands, and one thing you can never take away from Mount Gay is its authenticity. It’s certifiably the oldest rum brand in the world, which celebrated its 3OOth anniversary in 2OO1. The obvious marketing message is, if you want to enjoy rum the way it was invented, you want to drink Mount Gay. It’s molasses based and made with a double-distilled process, unique to the brand. The present portfolio, excluding the flavors, is anchored by the premium flagship Eclipse label, positioned at a premium price point around $15.99, and there’s also the aged 86-proof Mount Gay Extra Old that sells in a $34 to $4O super-premium price range. Both these rums have been consistently growing double digits for a number of years. And the brand has long become the cult-like #1 rum of choice for sailing communities and regattas all over the world.
What was the thinking behind the new Silver label extension, being officially launched in Massachusetts in March? “It’s part of our foray into the general market,” Todd explains. “One of the limiting things about this brand has been its color. And in Barbados, we already have a popular white rum label in the local market there. So, it just made sense when I looked at the brand, to conclude that if I’m focusing on rum the way it was invented, we’re missing one thing here in the US, and that’s a white rum version of the parent brand. It will have the same premium price-positioning as our Eclipse”
But no more experiments with flavors, right? Categorically none, Todd declares. “I’ll be honest in saying, we’re not continuing to support any flavor program. Fact is, we’re now phasing it out entirely, and have chosen to put our energies and limited marketing budget entirely behind the main brand rums that we have.”
“It’s a matter of evaluating your strengths and brand objectives,” he observes candidly, “and next to vodka, this rum industry is one of the most highly competitive categories there is. The best-selling spirit brand is Bacardi. And you have to give them their due. They have pioneered the flavored rum segment for many decades, and they’ve done just a masterful job of marketing. No one can ever take that away from them, and also no one is ever going to catch them. So, as a brand manager, I have to ask the simple question, ‘Do we really want to be a Bacardi? And does it make any sense for this brand to compete on their same playing field?’ What we have is something of high-end uniqueness and products of super-premium quality. We are richly historic and brand authentic. So, let’s focus on that and grow it with a range of rums that reflect a true brand character that’s relevant to all consumers. Why stray from something we’ve got that’s so great?”
Flavored rums, of course, are the entire product concept behind Diageo’s phenomenal Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum brand, now the #2 category leader in volume sales, doing over 5 million 9-liter cases, annually. And when you talk with the Captain’s Brand Manager Brad Essig, the conversation sounds a bit like a well-programmed commodities sales discussion at a board meeting. There’s no doubt this all about business, and we’re talking really big business here, that’s arguably one of the most astounding success stories in spirits industry history.
“We like to call Captain Morgan a 25-year overnight success story,” observes Essig, with a sly chuckle, “and it really is an enigma that has shown explosive growth since the beginning, and we really haven’t seen it slow down at all. Just to give you some numbers, we’re now up over 5 million cases and are actually the third largest spirits brand in the US by volume, and actually the seventh largest worldwide with 6.5 million 9-liter cases sold. These aren’t Bacardi numbers, of course, but the truth is we’re not worried about Bacardi, since we’re doing so well in our own right. Our latest IRI for 52 weeks, ending Decemer 2, 2OO7, indicates we’re actually up another 7.5% by volume.”
Can there possibly be any downside to any of this? Not really, it seems. “We attribute the brand growth to three things,” Essig continues: “Number one, the great taste of spiced rum, which consumers keep telling us about over and over again. Original spiced rum, especially with cola is actually the #2 branded bar call in America right now. Number two, the brand is synonymous with legendary good times. Time and time again, consumers talk about all the great party times when they get together, reconnecting with friends, and Captain Morgan is what they were drinking.And number three, perhaps the third growth factor is that so many guys consider Captain a premium trade-up from beer drinking. We’re hearing more and more from these younger consumers that when they get-together they’d rather choose Captain and cola.”
What possible opportunities lie ahead for this brand, we ask? “Well, Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum (aka OSR) is still the engine brand driving the train, without a doubt, because it’s still seeing such tremendous growth. And we still think there’s a massive amount of upside with this brand. Yes, it’s extremely large, but we also see so much white space ahead. The growth is coming from all over. It’s very much a national brand, so you can’t pinpoint regional markets. But what we can point to is the huge consumer base support coming from the LDA to 24-year-old male audience.”
Essig also reports on the brand’s Parrot Bay line extensions of lower-proof tropical flavored rums such as coconut, pineapple and mango, and priced around $13.99 They’re great for mixing with juices,” Essig enthuses, “And we’re finding these flavors complement OSR quite nicely. We also have a Captain Morgan Private Stock, priced around $23.99, which is super-premium brand and showing fantastic growth. It’s proving to be a very successful trade up for our OSR consumers, when they want something for special occasions. OSR sells at around $14.99. And we also have Tattoo, which is a black rum with a spicy kick and a hint of jalapeno. It’s really for when you want to step it up in the evening, and is a distinctive change of pace from OSR.”
Turning to a few other smaller, but seriously-regarded high-premium and luxury brands in the Diageo rum portfolio – Myers’s, Pampero Aniversario and Oronoco – Essig also expresses keen optimism for growth opportunities. “We entered Pampero into the San Francisco Spirits Competition last year and it won double gold and Best of Show. Seen as one of the better rums in the world, it is a true ultra-premium product with a strong cult following. It’s getting a lot of momentum from word of mouth and reputation right now and is presently showing fantastic growth. We’ve priced it in the $3O to $35 range.
Oronoco is the first super-premium white rum made from fresh cut Brazilian mountain cane, Essig explains. It’s nothing to do with cheaply-produced, harsh Brazilian cachaça, which is also made from sugar cane juice, but mass-distilled in tall columns. Oronoco is triple-distilled in small batches using both pot-stills and column. “With this unusual rum style, we’re going after a 25- to 34-year old independent thinkers looking for a more sophisticated cocktail occasion,” Essig explains. “These would be people who want the versatility of an ultra-premium vodka cocktail, but a taste with more character. Something smooth enough to drink neat, but also something clean for cocktails like a mojito. The spectacular packaging is wrap-around recycled leather and French cosmetic glass. It’s still in test market, at around a $34.99 price point.”
Diageo, of course, is delighted also to carry Myers’s Traditional Dark, he indicates. It’s a brand that seems to have been around forever. Some people almost consider it synonymous with the rum category. Others can sometimes take it for granted. “What’s truly incredible is how many bartenders and people in the trade have such an affinity for this brand,” Essig marvels. “It’s a staple in virtually every bar in America, and almost every store. It does over 3OO,OOO cases annually and keeps growing. Traditional Dark sells around $19.99, and it’s been getting a considerable amount of new momentum from the resurgence of classic cocktails like Pina Coladas and Daiquiris, where bartenders like to use it as a float that really allows a rum taste to come through. There’s also a Myers’s premium white, by the way, and a very very small ultra-premium Myers Legend, aged 1O years. But it’s all on allocation and so little of it to be had. Suffice it to say, were seeing a whole new era for rum popularity with enormous upsides for so many brands. Right now, it’s the fastest growing category in the drinks industry, and we don’t see that changing.”
One of the most interesting rum brands to appear recently, and certainly one of the most new, different, and, dare we say, eccentric styles in the entire category, is Moet Hennessey’s ambitious $36 luxury-priced 1O Cane, which has also been seeing remarkable nearly 1OO% annual sales growth and immediate success in connoisseur drinking circles and with bar chefs at the most upscale on-premise cocktail establishments.
We contacted the man primarily responsible for building the brand, 1O Cane Vice President Rob Bryans, who turns out to be a jolly Brit with a head office in the South Beach section of Miami. This is the place, he observes, “where the Central Americans meet the Caribbeans, who meet the Latin Americans, who meet the Cubanos. They’re all here.” And if ever there was a massive gathering spot for knowledgable rum aficionados in America, this is likely it. So, what’s the concept behind his own unusual 1O Cane rum brand, we ask him, and what was the opportunity he foresaw in the US market for undertaking such a costly venture?
“Well, it really goes back to Millennium time,” Rob explains. “And what the highly-paid suits in Paris were doing was looking at the entire spirits industry. Moet Hennessy has mostly built on its portfolio through acquisitions, and many of our brands sort of go way back to 18th century origins with lots of heritage and background. And as they looked at spirits, most categories had one outstanding leader in the top-end luxury tier. Cognac has its Hennessy, vodka its Belvedere and Grey Goose, and so it goes on. But in rum, there’s always been this association as sort of a spring-break category, lead by two or three players who were mainstream brands. So what M-H decided to do was a rather daring venture. Because if you’re trying to put a luxury brand into a category not associated with luxury, one of the major hurdles you have to overcome is creating a whole new mindset. Thus, part of the challenge has been education and changing people’s perceptions of what rum is.
“M-H looked around at buying a rum,” Rob continues, “but nothing was available that would be perceived as a fresh luxury rum with all luxury packaging and image. Yes, there were a number of particularly good aged old rums out there, but that’s not what we wanted. We wanted a rum that was, first, a good cocktail base, but also one that could be sipped straight. All those quality aged rums are really too heavy as a cocktail base. So, we had to create a rum from scratch that was fresh, and adaptable to a daiquiri, a mojito, all the way through to a rum and coke.”
So, what’s different about 1O Cane? “The real point of difference,” says Rob, “is that we use pure cane juice and not molasses. We grow cane for the express use of producing rum. Within 3 hours, the harvested cane is at the cutting plant in Trinidad. Our master distiller insisted, after doing all the research a couple of years ago, that to get the true taste of cane juice, you couldn’t cut the corner and go straight to molasses. We had to take the first pressing of cane juice. And that, in itself, before even the distillation and fermentation process, was the key to producing a high quality sippable rum. Then, in our five-day fermentation process, the critical key is making sure it’s carefully temperature controlled. Otherwise you lose taste resolution. Then, our distillation process uses small-batch alembic pot-stills from France used for finest cognac production. Likewise, we only use the heart of the distillate, the sweetest part of the juice. Our master distiller, Jean Pineau, is the main man behind Hennessy cognac production, so we’re using the Hennessy know-how in our distillation and applying that to the rum.”
Once the cane juice is distilled, the aging process is also quite unique, Rob points out. “It needs to age long enough to give it a depth of flavor, but not for too long when you start getting an aged product, which we didn’t want. The best length of time, we found, was four months in French oak barrels.
A major challenge in building this brand, Rob re-emphasizes, is trying to educate Joe Public about this new rum concept and not just offer 1O Cane in a beautiful bottle and put a heavy price tag on it. “We’ve taken a very proactive approach to our marketing. Why does a pure cane juice rum taste better or so we contend? This is the key question in all our sampling programs and events. It’s a long term strategy. And we’re finding that once people get to know and understand the difference, it becomes a very strong selling point. More and more, I’m overhearing consumers saying things at bars, like ‘Hey, have you tried 1O Cane? It’s this new rum made differently, ’cause it’s cane juice, not molasses.’ Nothing makes me feel better, because it tells me we’re getting our marketing programs right. We have to let our consumers figure out what they want and everything, but there’s no doubt we’re presenting them with a smoother and more refined rum experience.”
Of course, lots of companies put that “smooth” word in their advertising, he admits with a laugh, and so does he. But the proof is in the drinking, and “smooth” is a descriptor that consumers keep telling him. “When we taste 1O Cane up against any others of the mainstream rums, you really don’t have to tell people what the differences are. It’s so apparent on the palate and infinitely more complex than most other rums out there.”
Rob explains that for his educational and marketing strategy initiatives for the brand, he has something like six sampling teams that run around key states, setting up a specific bar, about 2O bars per city in about 15 metro-markets. And, on the bar, they’ve actually bought in a mini cane-juicing machine, about the size of your coffee machine at home. They’ll bring in a six foot cane from the marketplace and crush the cane right there on the bar and create cane juice. “If you’re trying to educate consumers about the distinctions between cane juice and molasses,” he asks, “is there a better way to do it than to literally show them? It’s actually pretty simple, but the effective result has been absolutely fantastic. Last year, we had at least 5O,OOO people doing exactly this. They tasted pure cane juice on the spot and then tasted our brand. Response was remarkable from a marketing point of view. So, it’s not just a sampling program, but also a little bit of theater and great deal of fun! It also creates a word-of-mouth story. And first person consumer stories are what marketing is all about. Otherwise, people get quickly bored being marketed to. What we’re trying to deliver is less bullshit, and something that’s real and authentic. You could call it pragmatic marketing at its best. And it sets well for us, because it’s far more real and energetic for our brand.
“In all our marketing,” he adds, “much as Moet Hennessy is very proud of its heritage and all the historic background, I keep reminding people that 1O Cane is a rum, and rum has a very different connotation to some of the cognacs and champagnes of this world. Rum needs to be fun. It’s associated with good times and fun, whether you’re on a holiday, living in Florida, having a Mai Tai punch or a Trinidad cocktail. It’s not an overly austere, serious category. So, I keep telling my team people, we can be luxury and upscale, top-shelf, and expensive, but we must also be fun!”
Upscale, fun, and also pricey, are apt descriptors for perhaps the most ambitious rum bar cocktail lounge in America. This would be the new hip hot spot called RUMba, which opened in November 2OO6 and is located in the Intercontinental Hotel in the Downtown heart of Boston. The brains behind this singularly creative rum cocktail establishment is René VanCamp, Corporate Beverage Director for Intercontinental Hotels all across the US. We managed to catch him in one place, sitting down for a rare moment, to find out more about his rum bar concept, not to mention some of his ideas for exotic rum cocktails.
René explains that he has created a number of specific spirits bars at various other Intercontinental hotels, including an XO bar based on cognacs in Atlanta, a bar based on grappa in San Francisco with that metro-markets large Italian population, also a vodka bar in Toronto, and one with tequila in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I’m the guy who heads up all these concepts,” he explains, “and it seemed logical to create a rum bar concept in your town, because of Boston’s a very deep historical association with rum. I mean rum was the #1 trade object for arguably the US, but definitely for the northeast – we’re talking centuries – and of course Pilgrim rum produced in Boston. The whole rum trade from the Caribbean went through Boston. They brought the molasses in, stored in huge molasses tanks, and they made the rum in Boston for the Caribbean. What better way to target a consumer audience, no? And our real objective is educating people while they drink.”
People don’t just go to bars anymore to drink, René contends. They want to learn. Sure, they want to have fun and enjoy that bar experience and good conversation, obviously, but, at the same time, they want to learn something. “That is why wine has become so big,” he feels. “People aren’t satisfied asking for a just glass of chardonnay, anymore. They know what they want and are more educated. They know differences of taste and quality. And we want to be in the forefront of enhancing this drinking knowledge. It’s the main reason behind why we’re doing this.
“We have a lot of the see-and-be-seen customers,” he explains, “and many after-work patrons, because we’re a hip and happening spot. But this mixes in with our enormously cosmopolitan hotel guest population in the 6OO rooms upstairs. So, it’s always a mixed bag. Some of it’s DINK, as we call it – double income, no kids. So, anyway, we brought in a top mixologist, Francesco Lafrangoni, a true bar chef, to create cocktails based on rum which could truly reveal the beauty of the product. By using fresh ingredients, in terms of fruits, cooked up mixers and things like that, we wanted to pair these with rums that had certain flavor profiles, and make a cocktail that is perfectly in balance.
“You can make a Mai Tai, for instance,” he illustrates, “and put all kinds of rum into it, but it makes all the difference as to what kind of rum you use. You go to all kinds of bars. At one place you try a cocktail, and you say ‘Not so good’. At another place, after the same cocktail, you’re saying, ‘Wow, just awesome!’ The difference? It’s all about the products and bar chef talents used to make it. It’s the same thing as hearing the same music played by different symphony orchestras. One performance can be mediocre. The other is a standing-ovation masterpiece. Billy Joel singing a Michael Jackson song just doesn’t work, right? It’s the same with cocktails. It’s got to be right. Just like a chef cooking a fantastic meal, you have to have the right chef making a cocktail.”
Among RUMba’s signature cocktails, the first and most famous is the Rumbullion. René explains that it’s made with Bacardi 8, and an undisclosed spicy, slightly sweet ingredient from the Caribbean. “It has a bit of that swashbuckling Pirate character in it,” he laughs, “but nothing to do with a commercial spiced rum flavor. Our tangerine mojito is another hit. Forget any flavored rums. We use fresh tangerine juice. We juice the tangerine and muddle it with a little sugar and a tiny bit of lime. For this we use the pure sugar cane 1O Cane rum.
“We’re not into the mass-produced spiced and flavored rum segment,” he explains. “Not that these aren’t fun and legitimate products, but it’s just not what the upscale rum drinks experience at RUMba is all about. What we also don’t do is any of those standard resort rum drinks like daiquiris, Pina Coladas, and all those Scorpion Bowl and Zombie-type Polynesian restaurant drinks. Our cocktail prices range between $1O and $15. We of course get calls for popular rum drinks like the mojito, but we’re really more into creating our own versions of rum cocktails like, for instance, a fantastic Mai Tai, using two old rums, a 15-year-old Appleton Jamaican blended with Haitian Barbancourt Estate Reserve, and Dekuyper Curacao, along with Orgeat rock candy syrup, which has an almond-like flavor, plus fresh lime juice. Orgeat is a type of nut and you have to have a bit of nutty almond taste in a Mai-Tai or it doesn’t work.”
What rum brands is he fond of? “As I mentioned, 1O Cane is awesome. I love another recently-introduced pure sugar cane luxury rum product from Brazil, Oronoco. These are great for creating totally original rum cocktail recipes from our top bar chef/mixologists. Pampero Aniversario from Venezuela is another fantastic brand. Bacardi 8 is a very decent mixable brand for an upscale bar. I have great respect for the Pyrat Cask 23, one of my favorite rums. Mount Gay Eclipse is also big bar favorite, and the Extra Old a truly fine aged rum. And, actually, we have Mount Gay’s top of the line extreme rarity, the Tricentennial, if you really want to splurge. They produced it for their 3OOth anniversary in 2OO1, and we managed to acquire the only five bottles still left in the US. Of course, you’d be instantly crucified if you tried to mix this with anything. It’s served in a snifter just as you’d do with the finest of rare cognacs. And another rare treat is Gosling’s Old Family Reserve. A snifter price on these guys is in the $75 to $1OO price range, right up there at the extreme Louis XIII cognac-type price level.
“What we’re really having here is a lot of fun,” René concludes, “and we’re proving that on-premise opportunities for rum are simply huge. We are doing fantastically well with this. People love it. Reactions from customers, the press, everything has just been incredible. And the most important thing is that WE love it. Our bartenders are totally into it. After the intensive five-day training they get that’s all about rum, they know everything there is to know about this spirit. People get excited about it, and they should!”