A dozen years ago there were two American craft distilleries focusing on rum: Celebration Distilling in New Orleans, and Prichard’s Rum in Kelso, Tennessee. I visited both while researching my book, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. And when the book was published in the summer of 2006 I could rest well, knowing I had done my homework and had included everything anyone could possibly need to know about modern American rums.
It was the best of timing. It was the worst of timing.
Good timing because the book came out just as the cocktail renaissance blossomed, and as the craft spirits boom was gaining momentum. A new crop of bartenders, distillers, and serious tipplers wanted to know more about rum, and, lo, here was a book for them. It sold steadily and well.
But it was also the worst of timing: the final chapter, which focused on modern rum, instantly became a yellowing snapshot of a distant era. Two craft rum distilleries? Quaint! Zacapa as the most premium of rums? Well, when I wrote that Zacapa was still largely a cult rum aged 23 years—before it was acquired by Diageo, which dropped the age statement and turned it into a mass-market, super-premium rum.
So last year my publisher and I agreed that the book could use a refresh. (We also agreed that “refresh” could be used as a noun.) So I combed through the book, brushed out the burrs, and recast the last chapter such that it was relatively up to date, circa late 2017. The revised version just came out.
In the original edition, I laid out a story arc I thought neatly tracked rum’s history through its first four centuries. It was essentially the story of rum’s rise (1640-1800), its fall (1800-1920), and its return (1920 to 2006). At heart, this was the classic hero’s journey, wherein our hero (rum) sets off from humble circumstances on 17th century islands and with a rusting sword in hand to take on the bigger world. Rum faces many challenges and setbacks along the way (pirates, Prohibitionists, whiskey), and eventually comes home to the islands in a somewhat diminished state, but poised to regain power in the 21st century.
So I wondered: what was rum’s story over the past dozen years? How did the tale turn out? What’s emerged is a subplot built around another archetype: the heroic search for an elusive elixir.
This elixir saga has been surprisingly epic—a whole army has since been conscripted. The ranks of rum-producers have swelled hugely since 2016. The two producing in 2006 were artist James Michalopoulos, who had had founded Celebration Distilling as a celebration of Louisiana sugar cane, and Phil Prichard, who launched his Tennessee rum in a quest to define an all-American rum, as distinct from its West Indian relatives.
And now? A couple of months ago I compiled a list of American distillers currently producing rum. I came up with 217 distillers, although I’m sure I overlooked quite a few. I turned up rum distillers in 42 states plus the District of Columbia. Leading the pack was California with 25 rum makers, followed by Florida with 18 and Pennsylvania with 15.
While the West Indies still dominates rum production (hello, Bacardi!), the search for the elixir has lured out recruits in unusual places that might make you scratch your head in confusion. Mountainous Colorado had 11 distillers making rum, and far-from-the-Caribbean Washington and Oregon had 20 between them. I recall speaking with one aspiring distiller in New Mexico, and asked him how he was going to market a product associated with tropical islands when he was in the high desert West. “Well,” he explained, “the Rio Grande begins near here and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. So the way we see it, it took 400 years for rum to return to the headwaters.”
In other words, an epic.
In the past dozen years, the styles of rum available have also grown significantly. That includes the funky rums traditionally made in Jamaica, brimming with a high ester content, like Smith & Cross, Hamilton Rums, The Funk Jamaican Rum, and the new high-end aged variants imported by Habitation Velier. Even some craft rum distillers have embraced the quest for dunder-funk, like Roulaison Rum in New Orleans, creating powerfully aromatic rums with a 55-gallon drum and more than a passing knowledge of microbial fermentation.
Agricole rums—traditionally, French-style rums made from fresh sugar cane—were a curious anomaly a decade ago, hard to find and regarded with suspicion. Today, they’re sought out in the American market by those eager for a taste of the cane field. Again, American craft rum producers have followed along in the last few years, experimenting with this style in cane-growing areas like Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii. This is not something I could have predicted 12 years ago.
Other rum styles that have expanded in recent years include what might be dubbed American-style rums—made stateside, and drier than their island cousins, designed to appeal to bourbon drinkers. And spiced rums continue to grow, with some of the better, newer entrants less dependent on the big vanilla notes that dominates the mainstays, and instead drawing on local flavorings and spices, such as citrus peel and hot peppers. I find it harder to be dismissive of spiced rums.
Every advancing army attracts camp followers—a cadre of hangers-on seeking easy profit along the margins. Of the 217 rum distillers, I found fifty that focused either solely or largely on rum. The others often produced rum as an adjunct to their main focus of gin or whiskey or vodka, and I often find these secondary rums of questionable quality—harsh, hot, scarcely fit to be mixed with Coke, yet still priced like a premium product. These makers have usually carved out a local niche, sell directly to their friends and neighbors, and count on regional consumer pride to sustain sales. It’s easy to sell the first bottle. It’s the second bottles that’s tough. We’re just beginning to see fallout from this, as the quest for the elixir invariably involves sacrifice as lesser characters perish from starvation.
For all this swashbuckling and adventure, rum remains on the cusp of a more epic battle. Numerous craft rums have been assembling outside the gates of the Legacy Rum Castle, occupied by the large, longtime producers, sending occasional arrow over the parapets of the old-line producers, harrying but not yet invading.
The well-established rums don’t seem terrifically worried. They know the ramparts and fortifications will keep the usurpers at bay: volume, economy of scale and competitive pricing, and longstanding connections with distributors, who are fewer in number than they were in 2006.
The average craft distiller, according to the American Craft Spirits Association, makes around 3,600 cases annually. Let’s generously assume there are 300 rum distillers each making that much. That totals just over a million cases of rum a year. Impressive, but still Lilliputian when compared with the hemisphere’s largest rum maker, Bacardi, which sells 17 million 9-liter cases each year. (Captain Morgan moves 10 million.)
And while the big distillers may not have boiling oil to pour on the invaders, they have something more effective: lawyers who sally out against the best positioned challengers with fistfuls of cash and acquisition agreements.
Who’s winning? I’m pretty sure I know the answer—it’s the rum drinker. Not in generations have fans of sugar cane in a bottle had so many options—whether rums produced by large, little or medium sized makers, in all styles and qualities.
The search for the magic elixir, it turns out, doesn’t require much heroism these days. Just a trip to your local bar or liquor shop.
And that, my friends, is the rest of the story.