The Next BIG Thing

In the 12+ years that I’ve been a retail spirits buyer, one sliver of marketing speak sticks out. Not because it rang true, but because it's so wildly flawed. I remember when I first started, a Hawaiian shirt clad sales person bringing this no age statement dark as night sugary slop into my office to talk about all the Gold Medals it had won. “This is made just like they used to do in Cuba,” he babbled. It had a big number that corresponded to absolutely nothing relevant and some combination of the letters’ “V O P X R or S” slapped on the front to imply that it was REALLY old. Add a big meaningless numeral and gold stopper, who could say no?

This was in an era when Patron and Grey Goose were kings – that’s not to say that those brands aren’t huge, but back then they had real swagger. People in the industry still couldn’t believe JP DeJoria was getting a rich second time on Tequila. He'd built that brand on a very high quality product and good old fashioned ground game, shaking hands, changes minds and palates on the way. From an insider's point of view though, it was clear that the future was dark brown and had a Kentucky twang. Yet this guy was convinced his rum was going to break the mold. He uttered the one line that I think I've heard more regularly than any other over the last ten years, "rum is going to be the next BIG thing!" How wrong he was.

Bourbon was already hot, but you could still buy ridiculous things off the shelf for next to nothing. Skeptics still couldn’t fathom the impending explosion, but aficionados already new things we're about to burst. Scotch, which has always been top dog in the brown spirits world, was reinvigorated by incredible new tools that allowed consumers to learn, communicate and participate in the intricacies of that special spirit like never before. The big producers in Scotland realized that in the face a massive online movement to explore, evaluate, discuss, and deconstruct the world of whisky, they couldn’t hide behind the fairytales any longer. It was time to embrace not ignore. Even big brand cognac was heating up, selling millions of cases thanks to rap videos and the booming Chinese economy. Brown was big and growing, but rum was being left out of the fun. It remained the realm of tiki geeks, party kids, and cigar smokers.

Year in and year out, I’d have some broey kid or grizzled old timer walk into my office, “rum is going to be the next BIG thing!” Absolutely convinced. There are many of reasons why this statement is downright inane, least of which is the fact that rum is already HUGE. Mostly the fact that exactly zero percent of these people (save for Ed Hamilton – who has never actually uttered this phrase to me personally) understands the category well enough to make any predictions about its future. As if forwarding me an article from the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America newsletter proves the point. 

Believe me I'm not trying to stand in rum’s way. I love rum. I love its history, its diversity, and it wild versatility. I love the way rum takes some of the best parts of every other category and injects them with an a fun Island aesthetic. I also hate rum. I hate the way it’s marketed. I hate fake numbers and meaningless bottling designations. I hate the additives. Adjustment isn't inherently bad, but there’s no question that most rum blenders are out of step with the palate of the modern spirits consumer. Yes, sweet sugary things "taste good." But so does maple syrup and if you want me to consume more than a drop, you’re going to need to get me some fried chicken and a waffle.

So I simply stared blankly back, as the regular ritual unfolds and say, “ya think?” 

10 years later, finally the first tiny whiffs of change. Rum is still huge. Bacardi sold nearly 60 million liters of rum in the US last year. Not a single one of them at our shop. Our customers are taking rum seriously though. They’re thinking about how to make the best Mai Tai (that’s gonna equal parts aged Jamaica & old Guyana with a splash of Agricole. Yes, three rums to do it properly). They’re starting to learn about the ultra esoteric differences between various Islands, blends, styles, stills and marks. Their starting to understand that the rum market is dominated (outside of the big distillers in the Caribbean) by a small Dutch firm that’s responsible for 90%+ of all the new brands and blends out there today. The increased knowledge is filtering down from the consumer and up from a sparse few rum blenders who can truly see a future where rum is taken as seriously as brandy, whisk(e)y, or agave.

It might have started with a few intrepid bottlers in Scotland and Italy, inching their way into this market. They've had success with the high-end market in Europe for years, but have never been able to gain a serious following with connoisseurs and collectors in the states. The person who had $200-500 to spend on a bottle in our store almost never used to ask for Rum. But, things are changing. Whether it’s thanks to some of the big guys launching luxury lines, connoisseurs turned off by the high price of whisk(e)y, or simply a more educated and engage consumer, there’s no question that the high-end rum market has changed significantly in that last year.

Next, Richard Seale and his militantly honest style of rum making. Heralded by some as the Van Winkle of rum, the Foursquare distillery represents the future for the category and the path forward for attracting serious drinkers to rum. The comparison, while not totally out of line, I think diminishes what he’s accomplished at his gorgeous distillery on the south side of Barbados. Now every release blows out of here in minutes. Although we always have his wonderful Real McCoy rum, including last year's excellent Virgin Oak special release.

Then the Rhum Agricoles, that most nuanced of spirits, filled with a purity and depth that’s unparalleled in the spirits world. Made fresh pressed cane instead of an industrial waste product, we begin to see a story of terroir unfold, a story of place, soulful, authentic and absolutely enamoring. The only thing standing in the way of Agricole is the cost of production is extremely high. Using fresh cane as opposed to molasses (an industrial waste product) is wildly inefficient. It must be crushed and fermented immediately after harvesting or it will begin to rot. Production is seasonally limited, just like grapes, and maturation excepetionally costly. The Islands' Angels are very very thirsty.

Finally, the high-ester Jamaican rum, the Islay of the Caribbean, might be the world’s most bold spirit. While large producers use this extreme flavors as a blending element, we're starting to see unblended potstill rums become more available and popular. Whether using the traditional muck pit process or long slow fermentations, these funky rums distilled on small pot stills in the most traditional style are nearly undrinkable when young (without the aid of fruit juices or other liquors), but put them into a barrel for a decade or so and the blinding intensity transforms into a deep profound complexity that's rivaled only by the great old malts of Islay. This is what the revolution looks like.

And then Gino walked in.

David Othenin-Girard