Liquid investment: How a new breed of rum is biting at the heels of whisky
The rise of rum has been predicted for some time. The staggering rise in the fortunes of the whisk(e)y industry – I’ll omit the “e” from now on for aesthetic purposes – over the last couple of decades means many enthusiasts and would-be collectors are now being priced out of that market, and rum is the obvious alternative to soak up the unmet demand.
From the 60s onwards brown spirits faced a period of decline, with younger drinkers abandoning them for beer and wine. As demand dried up, many producers went to the wall, as evidenced by a slew of distillery closures across Scotland in the early 80s. But whisky began to right the ship in the late 90s, partly thanks to education campaigns that taught drinkers about different styles of the spirit, and emphasised the history of particular distilleries, regions, and brands.
More knowledgeable consumers drove demand for more innovative and interesting products, and there was a proliferation of premium whiskies – single malts, single casks, special releases, and the like – which transformed the category into the highly collectable alternative asset class we recognise today. According to the most recent Knight Frank luxury investment index, the value of rare whiskies has increased 428 per cent over the last decade.
The premiumisation of whisky set out a blueprint that producers of other spirits have sought to follow. Like whisky, rum had fallen out of favour and the market was dominated by large, barely differentiated brands. It was seen primarily as a mixer or an ingredient for unfashionable cocktails. While the revival of tiki cocktail culture in the 90s began rum’s rehabilitation, it is only more recently that the industry has really started to engage with the hard work of educating consumers.
Rum has some potential advantages here when compared to whisky. It is an established category with deep historical roots; indeed, the oldest rum distillery – Mount Gay, in Barbados – was established in 1703, 60 years earlier than Glenturret, the oldest whisky distillery in Scotland. Rum has always been a diverse category, too. While whisky makers were compelled to innovate in order to create new, collectable, premium versions of their products – experimenting with maturation, and sometimes running into difficulties with regulatory requirements – the history of rum production means that there are already a plethora of vastly different rums on the market.
This, in its own way, is part of the problem. With so many rum producers, operating in so many countries, using different ingredients and techniques, under different (more or less restrictive) regulatory regimes, it’s a difficult category to navigate. Many drinkers still imagine it to be a simple binary of white rum and dark rum, and even these they might assume to be interchangeable. However, valiant efforts are being made to improve the situation.
For instance, the Whisky Exchange, which stocks 750 different rums, has developed its own six-category system – single traditional column, single traditional pot still, single traditional blended, single modernist, blended traditionalist, and blended modernist – making it easier to understand what you’re purchasing.
These categories are overlaid with six “flavour camps”: light and uncomplicated, herbaceous and grassy, tropical and fruity, fruity and spicy, dry and spicy, and rich and treacly. When joined together, these provide a concise description.
The existence of diversity, of course, has not deterred rum makers from further innovation, with producers like Barbados’ Foursquare achieving cult status through its exceptional selection of casks. Another producer looking to make its mark with maturation is Ron Abuelo.
It’s made by Varela Hermanos, a company that dates back to 1908 when Spanish immigrant Don José Varela Blanco opened the first sugar mill in the newly independent country of Panama. In 1936, Don José’s sons convinced him to begin distillation of their sugar, and Varela Hermanos remains one of the few rum distillers that uses molasses made from cane grown on its own estate. In 1950 it started making Seco Herrerano, a triple-distilled cane juice spirit, which is Panama’s national drink, and the first bottle of Ron Abuelo was produced in 1960. Ron Abuelo is now managed by the third generation of the Blanco family, and he is the “Rum Grandpa” celebrated in the name of its rum.
Ron Abuelo was introduced to the international market in 2001, with a seven year old released in 2005, a 12 year old in 2008, and the solera-aged Ron Abuelo Centuria in 2010, to celebrate a century of rum-making. In 2015, in what looks like a move calculated to capture the attention of premium rum collectors, it brought out the Finish Collection, a set of three rums finished in Cognac, Sherry, and Port casks. But the most recent addition to the family, 2019’s Two Oaks, is perhaps the most interesting.
Two Oaks is column distilled and aged for 12 years in ex-Bourbon casks, then finished in heavily charred virgin American white oak. The result is complex and exceptionally smooth, with notes of vanilla, toasted almonds and wood smoke on the nose; oak, cola, and candied peel, on the tongue; and a long tail of treacly liquorice, best enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
• You can purchase a 700ml (40% ABV) bottle of Ron Abuelo Two Oaks for £47.95, from thewhiskyexchange.com