Mitch Wilson grew up in Australia where he was familiar with rum from Fiji. It had been available since the 1980s, and was common in local stores and bars. He thought of it as a middle-of-the-road rum: fine for cocktails, but not destined for the snifter.
“There was nothing that was jumping out and making us say, my god, we’ve got to get to Fiji and check this out,” he says.
Fast forward a couple of decades.
Wilson was by then employed by Plantation Rum, a French company that bottles and blends rums from around the world. He was visiting Fiji with an eye to finding a Pacific rum to export to Europe and the U.S.—it would be the company’s first. The island distillery he visited was enchanting. It had pink fermentation tanks, banks of old-school dials and gauges, and “rickhouses” that consisted of tin roofs and walls of chicken wire.
“It was very colorful and lovely, like something out of a Wes Anderson film,” Wilson says.
The fermentations tanks were closed, but he was told they were once open to the elements. The problem? Flocks of mynah birds perched on the rims to drink, got overcome by alcohol and carbon dioxide, and keeled over into the mash. “Every month, they were scraping out dozens of these mynahs,” he was told. (Paging Wes Anderson!) “And at one point they said, yeah, let’s just close those off.”
Wilson tasted some of their flagship rums, and they were much as he remembered — tasty but lacking in fireworks. But then distiller Liam Costello said, “now let me show you what we don’t release.” He brought out rums from 15- and 17-year-old casks. “And we just went, wow, this is incredible,” Wilson says.
These older, richer rums didn’t fit into the style or price point that the Rum Co. of Fiji had been shipping to the Australian market. So the barrels lingered untapped and unloved.
Since 2018, at least five different Fijian rums have made their way across the Pacific to the U.S. For some Americans, discovering Fiji rum has been like happening upon an unknown element in the periodic table.
So some education may be in order. The first thing to know is that all Fiji rums are the same. The second thing is that all Fiji rums are different.
They’re all the same in that they share a similar flavor profile. The rum tends toward the bold and brazen, layered with a honeyed funk. It won’t be confused with estery Jamaican rums—although it also has a high-ester profile. The deep “roundth” is tempered with brighter tropical elements, including an aroma that suggests roasted pineapple.
This collision of familiar and unfamiliar was nicely summed up by an unnamed blogger at Singlecaskrum.com in a recent review of Plantation’s Fiji release. “In the nose we can find bio waste, old soil, coffee dregs, vegetables that slowly start to rot and behind all of that a wall of burnt plastic…” the review noted. “Sounds awful, right!? But it’s great!”
Fijian rums all are made from Fiji sugar, and share the same island terroir, the same South Pacific climate and the same local yeasts. And that’s not to mention the same long and roundabout shipping route to Europe and North America. All of this is said to contribute to Fijian distinctive rum’s flavor. But there’s another major reason for the similarities.
There is only one distillery in the archipelago that produces all Fijian rums. Given the tropical exoticism that Fiji conjures in the minds of many—lush mountains, colorful coral reefs, splashy dive resorts—it grieves me in no small measure to report an additional fact: Fiji’s sole distillery is owned by Coca-Cola.
Well, in large part. Here’s the backstory.
Fiji grows a lot of sugar cane—it ranks 52nd worldwide in production, which puts it ahead of Guyana, Jamaica and Martinique, with about 22,000 sugar cane farmers spread across the dozens of islands. In the 1970s, sugar’s value in the global commodity market was sinking. So in 1980, the Fiji Sugar Corp founded what would become the Rum Co. of Fiji to add value to its harvest. The company built a distillery around a pair of venerable John Dore & Co. pot stills from England (that produces funkier, heavier rums), as well as a modern column still that makes lighter rums. (The two styles are often blended here, as is done in Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere.)
The distillery has been sold more than once since its founding four decades ago. For a time it was in the portfolio of the makers of Foster’s Lager. In 2011, the distillery changed hands again when it was acquired by Australia-based Coca-Cola Amatil, about a third of which is owned by the U.S.-based Coca-Cola Company.
Rum, meet Coke.
Despite changes in ownership, not much has changed. For most of its existence, the distillery chiefly produced bulk rums—an anonymous spirit destined to be blended with other rums to add character and depth. But in 2016, the distillery rolled out its own brands, Raku and Bati, for export to Australia (including spiced and flavored variations). It also started to test the market in the United States.
Which brings us to the part where all Fiji rum is different, despite coming from the same island and the same distillery.
Raku and Bati vary in flavor since the former is wholly from a column still, and the latter includes 20 percent pot still spirit. Others bottlers have bought these rums from European brokers and created their own proprietary blends, including Vanua Rum ($25), a blend of rums aged from three to five years and released in the U.S. in 2018.
The same year the Transcontinental Line’s Fiji rum showed up on American shelves. (It has been available in Europe since 2016.) “One of the main purposes is to let people discover the great rum diversity of the world,” says Johann Jobello, trade and marketing manager with La Maison & Velier in France. It’s first aged in casks in Fiji, shipped in steel tanks, and then rebarreled for additional “continental” aging in Europe. It’s priced at about $50 a bottle.
Rums from those stashed-away casks of aged Fiji rum have also been finding their way to the U.S. Last spring, Holmes Cay, a New York-based curator and importer of rare rums, released about 2,000 bottles of the cask-strength 16-year-old pot-still rum from Fiji, priced at $150. (It’s currently available in New York, Arizona, California and Florida.)
“It’s hard to put Fiji rum in the same category as anything in the Caribbean,” says Eric Kaye, who founded Holmes Cay. “It’s got its own personality. So when I was able to source some primarily tropically aged Fiji rum, I jumped at it.”
Plantation Rum acquired 23 barrels of 14-year-old rum in Fiji, which it finished for an additional year in French oak casks in France. This was bottled at 100.4 proof, and priced at about $90 a bottle. It sold out quickly.
Yet of all the importers, Plantation is positioned to be most closely associated with Fiji rum. Alexandre Gabriel, Plantation’s founder, first became aware of Fiji rum in the early 2010s. He “became more serious about it around 2015,” said Guillame Lamy, vice president of the Americas for Maison Ferrand, the Cognac producer that owns Plantation.
Gabriel has since visited Fiji three times. He found in distiller Liam Costello a fellow traveler, someone who understands both mass-market rums and the lure of regular experimentation in distillation and aging. “It’s fascinating to see them evolve as two producers,” says Lamy. “They exchange ideas like kids exchanging baseball cards.” (The pair is now working on a project to age rum in a barrel that is partially made of toasted mango wood.)
Last year, Plantation struck an agreement with Costello and his firm for exclusive rights to most of the island’s rum, likely drying up the supply that would otherwise have been sold to brokers and onward to other bottlers. Fiji will continue to market its own brands—Raku and Bati are now in California and looking to expand to other states—but supplies of Fiji rum outside those two channels may dwindle sharply, leaving Plantation as the dominant importer.
Plantation’s flagship Fiji Rum is aged two to three years in former bourbon barrels on the island, then is shipped to France in barrels (adding what Lamy calls “dynamic aging”) and finally receives an additional year in French oak before being bottled at 80 proof. It hit the U.S. markets last July (and European markets in April). It’s priced at a budget-friendly $25 a bottle, and is widely available.
“We’re not trying to modify the rum or make them taste different,” says Lamy. “I mean what would be the sense of doing this? It’s about taking it to incredible levels.”