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Spiced Rum is a lot more than a fad

Even if you aren’t a rum geek you have probably noticed that there are more spiced rums on liquor store shelves and in press releases these days. For more than a few years, Captain Morgan has controlled the lion’s share of the spiced rum market but that hasn’t kept others from joining the fray and throwing their hat into the spiced rum arena in the last few years.

Despite the recent popularity of commercially bottled spiced rums the tradition of adding fruit and spice to rum is almost as old Caribbean rum itself. To cool the heat of fresh rum and to add effects, some of which have to be experienced to be appreciated, islanders have been adding spices, and things that range from common fruit to fish, insects and even raw meat to fresh rum for centuries. On almost every Caribbean island today, rumshops woo customers with their spiced concoctions, though some of these ’spices’, as they are commonly called in the Caribbean, are delegated to under the bar status since even in the islands they might contain things that aren’t supposed to be sold over the counter. Among commercially bottled spiced rums, vanilla, clove and nutmeg seem to be the most popular ingredients but in the islands the bark and root of the bois bande tree, a reputed aphrodisiac, is the most popular rum spice.

In the last year, Cruzan has launched their new spiced rum, Cruzan Nine following last years tentative release of Seven Tiki by the rum giant Bacardi. Seven Tiki isn’t being made in Puerto Rico or the other usual Bacardi rum factories but is rather a blend of southern hemisphere rums and spices.

In the last year I’ve also seen the mysterious Kraken Black Spiced Rum come to the shelf at an imposing 94 proof though the brand owner prefers to rely on the mystery of this very dark rum rather than tell potential consumers much about it’s origins. Kraken Rum Co, Lawrenceburg, Indiana doesn’t instill a mental picture of the Caribbean traditions in my mind, except that the only distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is more of a blending operation when it comes to sugar cane spirits than an actual distillery, is owned in large part by the largest rum company in Trinidad. Since the label states that this is imported rum,  I would stake my reputation on this being a blend of Trinidad rum and natural flavors. Kraken is one of the few new entries to follow Sailor Jerry’s 94 proof spiced rum in the higher than usual 80-96 proof category.

I’m told Don Q will be launching a new spiced rum from Puerto Rico in the coming months and if you think this would be a departure for one of the larger distillers in the Caribbean, they have had quite a lot of experience making Captain Morgan over the last few years under contract with Diageo, who is building a new distillery slated to open next year on St Croix.

The Lash is another new entry into the spiced rum market and even at the lower 35% abv, the same alcohol proof as Captain Morgan and others, The Lash is full on flavor and there’s nothing wimpy about this spiced rum. Unlike most other spiced rums with which I am familiar, The Lash is made by steeping spices in hot water and then using this spiced tea, if you will, to dilute the aged rum used in this blend of spice and rum.

At one percent more alcohol is the July 2010 Rum of the Month, Shipwreck Spiced Rum, from the St Kitts Rum Company. This is the latest in a portfolio of flavored rums blended and bottled in St Kitts for the US and Caribbean markets. Shipwreck is unique in that it is blended with 4-year-old rum, the oldest aged spiced rum in the Ministry of Rum database today.

Among the spiced rums that have been around a while, though they may not be sold in your area, are Voodoo Spiced Rum, Tortuga Spiced Rum, marketed by the people who make the most famous rum cakes,  and Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Louisiana Rum, a blend of cajun spice and aged rum from New Orleans. Made with real cajun spices, Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Louisiana Rum is one of the spiciest rums I’ve tasted. Add some jumbo and you’ll be ready to hit the road to New Orleans.

In addition to what some might call spiced rum there are a few more rums flavored with spice and other flavorings that I would suggest you put on your wish list. Rum Jumbie, made with orange flavor, spice and aged Panamanian rum is gaining distribution in the US. Kilo Kai from Curacao is another spiced/flavored rum that is gaining ground in the US as is Horne Spiced Rum.

But wait, there’s more. The good folks that import Chairman’s Reserve and Castries Rum Cream from St Lucia are launching their new spiced rum from St Lucia this year at Tales of the Cocktail. And more than a few of the newly licensed micro-distilleries in the US are working on spiced rums as I type.

So are these new rums worth pursuing or are they just low-end line extensions designed to crowd your favorite rum off the shelf at your liquor store or behind your bar? The easy answer is yes and no. I don’t discount the spiced rums from the big producers like Cruzan, Bacardi and Don Q. After all these distilleries have all made millions of liters of spiced rum, Cruzan’s Clipper Rum was discontinued a few years ago in spite of the fact that it had a good following in the Virgin Islands. but it didn’t fit into the expansion plans for the brand when Cruzan was controlled by V&S, the Swedish parent of Absolut that sold Cruzan to Pernod who sold the Caribbean rum label to Beam Global a little more than a year ago.

Bacardi discontinued their Bacardi Spice about the time Captain Morgan became a household name among the generation of new rum drinkers, read those who wanted more than x-time distilled vodka at a premium price that had less to do with the quality of the drink than the cost of marketing over-hyped fresh spirits.

I have high hopes for Don Q’s spice, they have, as I mentioned above, been making Captain Morgan since before Diageo bought the brand after the Seagram’s meltdown and withdrawal from the business on which the family made a large fortune before the younger generation blew a large part of their inheritance in Hollywood. Say what you will about Captain Morgan, it is made with rum aged at least a year and is one of the most successful brands in the industry. On the other hand, I’m confident that the people who have been making Captain Morgan have been thinking about how to make a better spiced rum after their contract runs out. And don’t forget that Don Q is the number one selling rum on Puerto Rico so they are a lot more than a contract distiller and bottler.

Most of the spiced rums I see coming to the market fall loosely into two groups, those with an overpowering vanilla flavor component – designed to be mixed with Coke, and those in which the natural vanilla flavor is less conspicuous. After all everyone uses natural flavorings, right?

And while I understand that a lot of people who want to get into the rum business write a business that sounds easy -  capture 2% of Diageo’s Captain Morgan market share, the truth is that it’s a lot harder to do that than you might think. If you’re new to the business and don’t have an established distribution network, or a supply contract that allows you to bottle and ship your product for a small fraction of the shelf price you’re going to have to do something different. So what do you do? A. Make a better product? B. Compete on price and then sell out to a greater fool before you go bankrupt? C. Make something different and create a new market for your unique product?

If you chose A, and are going to try to make a better tasting vanilla/spiced rum and are planning on competing with Diageo, you probably need to go back to the business plan writing chapter of your new business, unless you are already selling at least a few hundred thousand cases of rum and own your distillery and have an established distribution network.

If you chose B, you’re probably going to be divorced and bankrupt, so I’d suggest taking your spouse on a long vacation and soaking some sense into your sunburned head. On the other hand, it you can count five companies that have succeeded in that plan in the rum industry in the last three years, you’re ahead of a lot of people. They may be out there but I haven’t met them, I’m writing about the people who can count five successes, not people who have chosen choice B.

If you chose C, chances are you’ve done your homework and unless you spend all of your money before you get your product out to your audience, you have a chance of success. And if you work hard into the night you might find enough people to buy your product to stay in business.

As I have written before the overall quality of the rum segment of the alcoholic beverage industry is improving. I’ve tasted it over the better part of the last two decades. Sure there are some great rums that are no longer available, but fortunately, there are also a number of rums that have gone away because they couldn’t compete on the higher bar that is being set across the country and the world. In the spiced rum arena, there are more better spiced rums coming to the market than worse ones.

A few years ago I was approached by more people who just wanted to source rum than wanted to source better rum. Today the  first inquiry sentence usually contains the word quality. How you define ‘quality’ is at the mercy of the person doing the writing, but I’m seeing more and better rums coming to the marketplace including the spiced rum category. But before you delve into the spiced rum business you owe it to yourself, and your investors, to try all of the spiced rums mentioned above and then decide what is going to make your rum stand out among the crowd.

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