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Saturday
Jul082017

Rum(blings)

OK, I heard you.

I promise we won't give up on sourcing unique and interesting rums just yet (as I mentioned we might do yesterday), but you have to understand what it's going to take.

It's going to take dozens and dozens of more Serge Valentin reviews calling Hampden the Port Ellen of rum.

It's going to take more gushing reviews from Whisky Advocate reviewer Fred Minnick calling Foursquare the Pappy of rum.

That's what it takes to build a category. It takes a clear passion and direct analogies from knowledgeable spirits people who aren't afraid to be excited about what they're drinking. 

No one builds enthusiasm for booze through calculated and steady review. You might get a few anal retentive dudes digging that, but it doesn't move the needle in the retail game. Rum needs bold marketing, pure and simple, because that's what it takes to get the word out about anything today. People are too busy to read a dossier about the merits of DDL's incredible distillery. But you call a spirit the Port Ellen or the Pappy of something and they take notice. 

The question is: do they dig deeper? 

Does anyone want Pappy or Port Ellen anymore because they plan to drink it? Or do they want it because they think it makes them look like they know what they're drinking? 

When the new Foursquare Criterion comes out next month will it actually get consumed, or will it be the token rum bottle in a primarily whiskey-dominated collection; the bottle that says "Sure, I'll drink rum every now and again—if it's good."

As I mentioned to my friend Steve Ury yesterday, it's difficult to build a category when the prices for single casks are already reflective of a genre in full swing. That Hampden 24 year we sold last year didn't actually cost $99.99. It was close to double that. I subsidized that price by using extra space in our whisky margins to buy down the cost. I didn't think California was ready for a $169.99 single cask of weird Jamaican rum just yet. That's what it would cost if we did it again. Meanwhile, I'm selling casks of outstanding 20+ year old single malts for under $100. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

We can't subsidize a budding market alone. If the rumblings I'm hearing are true and rum is finally (after all these years) about to get its day in the sun, then it's going to take a lot of work to prevent it from becoming a flash in the pan.

As Fred points out in the article I linked to above, a lot of people went crazy for Weller 12 after guys like us told them it was basically a Pappy 12 substitute. But there are two very important things to remember about that situation:

1) Weller 12 was half the price of Van Winkle 12 at that time.

2) You can no longer get Weller 12 as a result, but you can still find plenty of other great wheated whiskies.

Thus?

I'm not sure telling people they could get "baby Pappy" for $25 did anything for the general Bourbon palate. I think all it ultimately did was start a craze for Weller 12, and all the other Wellers by default. Meanwhile, there's plenty of Rebel Yell on our shelf for $12, a delicious wheated Bourbon at a ridiculous price. But the Bourbon hunt long ago stopped being about finding something fun to drink for a reasonable cost. Today it's about how close you can get to the sun (HINT: the sun = Pappy). 

So I have to ask myself: if we start selling rum by calling it the Port Ellen of this or the Pappy of that, do we actually build an audience for rum? Or do we just create another situation where good rum that used to be readily available is now hard to get? Do we end up dumbing it down so that people just buy stuff without really thinking about it? 

Or do we do the really hard work and begin educating people about what makes great rum great? As I've learned from many years of writing this blog, it's not enough to say something once. It's like teaching: every year there's a new class of students who need to hear you say the exact same things over again. Even though there's a great article from 2015 about dunder, and another one from 2016, someone's going to have to write one again in 2017. And then again in 2018. It takes constant repetition.

That's what I want to do if we're going to build a rum department. I want to be proactive, not reactive. Being reactive means you go out and buy as much Hampden and Caroni as you can because that's what sells. 

Being proactive means you do the really hard work. You build the market. That's what I want to do.

Personally, I don't think K&L can build a market for rum on $169.99 bottles of Hampden or $220 bottles of Caroni. You've gotta start with the Worthy Parks and Monymusks of the world because how many folks are going to splurge for Port Ellen before they've even tried Ardbeg? You can't know what's truly great until you've tried enough of the basic stuff, right? 

I guess it's back to the drawing board. But it's nice to know we've got your attention. Thanks to everyone who emailed and voiced their support.

-David Driscoll