Is Sipping Rum the New Bourbon?
A number of brands are betting that aged rum will be able to challenge whiskey and Cognac for the attention of American drinkers.
“This is the year rum is really going to take off.”
If I had a quarter every time I’d heard that over the past dozen years, I wouldn’t be writing this story. I’d be sipping something delicious next to my exceedingly large pool while pointing at increasingly small motes and instructing my pool boy to fish them out.
While the sales of premium rums have outpaced mass-market rums in recent years, rum hasn’t yet rocketed into the stratosphere. It often remains saddled with a beach party, tiny umbrella reputation. That’s compounded by the fact that it’s an elusive spirit: It’s made in numerous countries and under varying regulatory regimes—unlike Cognac, Armagnac, Scotch or bourbon, each of which are made under a single government entity and oversight, which yields a certain consistency. In some places rum makers can add sugar, and in others they can’t. Sometimes it comes from a pot still, sometimes a column. The sugar cane juice can be boiled down and caramelized, or fermented fresh. The variety is part of rum’s charm—it’s thrilling to tightrope across the chasm between funky white rhum agricoles of Martinique and the dry, crisp rums of the better American craft distillers.
One place rum hasn’t gained access to is the upper echelon of the smoking- jacket crowd, that rarified lair reserved for those Cognacs and Armagnacs and Scotches. And, now, even bourbon, a spirit once tarred as a rough, blue- collar tipple. (No more, as can be attested by the cult of single barrels being bought by private clubs and bars. And that’s not to mention the cult of Pappy Van Winkle, whose bottles can go for thousands.)
One importer, however, is betting that aged rum’s time has arrived in North America, and that the sugar cane spirit is ready to sit at the adult table with best of the sipping spirits. Habitación Velier, a wine and spirits importer based in Genoa, Italy, is opening an office in New York this month. Daniel Biondi is heading it up. His mission: to educate Americans—starting with those in the liquor industry—about the glories of top-notch, barrel-strength rums. “The idea is to think about a long-term presence in the United States,” he says. He’ll be working with established distributors on getting the products out and about, “but in terms of building the market, I will creating a team for that.”
Velier is new to the United States, but not to rum. In the 1980s, a 27-year-old spirits entrepreneur named Luca Gargano partnered with the small family firm founded in 1947, which then focused mostly on importing wine and spirits to northern Italy. Gargano, who had previously worked with Saint James Rum in Martinique, brought a love of fine rum to his new job, and started prodding the company in new directions.
Beginning in the 1990s, Habitación Velier began bottling full-proof versions of vintage Damoiseau agricole rum from Guadeloupe; soon after, Gargano made connections allowing him to raid the rick house for quality casks at Demerara Distillers in Guyana.
His passion grew from there. Velier now sources its rum from 15 distillers in several locations, including Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, and Marie-Galante. Rather than blending for consistency—a common practice in the rum world—Velier lets each cask stand on its own by bottling age-dated, barrel-proof rums. At the same time, he’s worked to educate European consumers about why these aren’t standard-issue rums.
In moving into North America, Vellier is taking a dual approach in educating, starting with the trade, then working to make the styles of rum more accessible to consumers.
Biondi, who was instrumental in introducing the European market to clarin (an artisanal agricole rum from Haiti), is tasked with educating those up and down the supply chain—from distributors to retailers to bartenders—about these quality rums, so they can convey solid information to you, the tippler.
The second task is more ambitious: to revamp the classification of rum such that you, the tippler, will be able to understand what’s in the bottle more readily, and in turn educate your friends and family more easily.
Rum has historically been sliced and diced in varying ways, some helpful, most not. There’s the “white-amber-dark” taxonomy, which tells less about flavor than optics—some white rums have been aged and then filtered to be clear; some unaged rums are colored with spirit caramel to give them look of age. It often provides general guidance to the taste, but just as often not. There’s also the “French-Spanish-British” breakdown, which reflects varied approaches and cultural traditions over the centuries. But the lines between these have become blurred in recent decades, making these designations also somewhat arbitrary.
The Velier system—often called the Gargano classification—has five basic categories: pure single rum (made from molasses in batches in a pot still), pure single agricole rhum (same as the preceding but made with fresh cane juice), single blended (a mix of pot and column still rums), traditional rum (made on a column still), and modern rum (made on a multi-column still).
This essentially carves out a smaller category of artisanal rums (“pure single rum”), and puts more distance between it and the mass-market rums (“modern”) produced in quantity by distillers such as Bacardi and Cruzan.
Velier isn’t alone in the “pure single rum” category—Hamilton Rum offers rums from pot-still producers in Jamaica, St. Lucia, and elsewhere, and Plantation Rums have released age-dated rums, although most of those have been shipped to France for additional aging in Cognac casks, where they become a sort of hybrid Old World/New World spirit. (That will change in the coming months.)
Gearing up for the North American push, Velier has been broadening partnerships with noted distillers, including Richard Seale at Foursquare in Barbados, and Worthy Park in Jamaica. Of note to rum aficionados: Velier also acquired virtually all the aging stock from Hampden Estates in Jamaica, an antiquated and assertively old-school distillery known for producing heavy-ester rums. The distillery was acquired in 2009 by a prominent Jamaican family, which soon after started laying down casks for aging—a first in modern times for this distillery, which had long been supplying unaged bulk rum to brokers in Europe, who in turn sold it to bottlers for blending. Velier has so far acquired Hampden stock from 2010 through 2012; look for it to appear on American backbars and retail shelves in the coming months.
Is America ready for the uncommonly robust taste and super-premium prices for artisan rums, as they have been for bourbon? “I am really curious,” says Biondi. “The market is there for tasting whiskey like this—vintage, and sold at full proof. But to be honest, I don’t know if the perception of rum can be compared to whiskey.”
There is one easy way to find out: Put it on the shelves, and see what happens. The market will have the final word.