It’s not far from the U.S. to rum paradise in the Caribbean. Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica practically float on America’s doorstep. Despite that proximity, though, American rum lovers don’t receive much of the best boozy bounty from these islands. In fact, they need to travel much farther to acquire many of the most sought-after bottles in the world. They need to go shopping in Europe.
Due to colonial legacies, modern legal hurdles, bullish brands and cultural misconceptions, the rum markets in Amsterdam, London and Paris have completely outstripped their American peers, providing all the funky Jamaican pot stills and grassy Martinican agricoles Europeans (and American visitors) can drink.
Distiller Richard Seale has garnered a lot of popularity among Americans for the rums he produces at the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. But he has released several bottlings exclusively in Europe, not because he can’t import to the U.S. but because it’s simply easier and more economical to send new rum across the ocean to Europe. In the time it takes to get label approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and register a product in each American state (which can sometimes take months, says Seale), he can ship a rum to Holland and transport it to several major cities immediately. Europe’s capitals are geographically close together, and the EU expedites distribution by checking labels after they go to market, instead of before, as in America. Especially with smaller releases of a few hundred bottles (like the cult releases rum geeks fawn over), state-by-state approval in America just isn’t worth it.
Seale also points out that America fails to protect rum the way it does bourbon, scotch or even cognac. The EU upholds the strict regulations Martinique imposes on rhum agricole under its AOC, for instance, protecting traditional brands from cut-rate competitors. But the TTB doesn’t distinguish between rums made from molasses or sugar cane, rums with sugar added after distillation or rums blended from distilleries on different islands, let alone the complex distilling traditions native to different island cultures. Until those protections are in place, there’s little incentive for distillers to bring artisanal products to market in America, since they will seem arbitrarily expensive to consumers.
Europe’s Historical Advantage
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the triangular trade of sugar, rum and slaves dominated the economy of the British colonies of the Americas. Slaves imported from Africa worked in the sugarcane fields of English, French, and Spanish colonies in the West Indies. This sugar, often in the form of molasses, was brought up to the American colonies, particularly New England, where it was distilled into rum. Rum was the spirit of choice up until the end of the American Revolution, when the declining availability of molasses led the newly declared United States of America to shift its focus to homegrown hooch, such as rye, bourbon and apple brandy. While rum held on until the early 20th century, rum historian and Cocktail Wonk blogger Matt Pietrek says Prohibition effectively killed the original rum industry. When the spirit emerged on the other side, it was never the same.
Europeans shifted away from rum too, but the three main Caribbean colonial powers—England, France and Spain—always sustained strong cultural and economic ties to the islands they once ruled, setting the stage for a modern rum resurgence.
English colonies like Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica gained independence in the 1960s, and they remain within the Commonwealth under the British monarchy. Until around that time, says Pietrek, British merchants were still bringing in massive quantities of rum to dedicated import docks in London and Liverpool, supplying the British drinking public with “London dock rum,” as well as rations to the Royal Navy. While those traditions have since faded, they remain potent touchstones of drinking culture in the U.K.
Similarly, Guadeloupe and Martinique remain insular regions of France to this day. Cane Club Co founder and Boukman Rhum national brand manager Dani DeLuna says that while older French drinkers remain loyal to continental spirits like cognac, Armagnac and calvados, younger generations are rebelling by adopting new spirits like whiskey, gin and rum. But they’re not drinking rum from Barbados or Jamaica. French drinkers, even those without personal connection to the French Caribbean, gravitate toward rhum agricole from Guadeloupe and Martinique, says DeLuna.
While the rum market in Spain isn’t quite as strong as its neighbors, the same holds true, with many Spaniards showing passion for rums from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala or Venezuela, says DeLuna.
Even drinkers in countries that don’t have cultural history in the Caribbean have shown increased interest in rum. Daniele Biondi of global spirits distributor La Maison & Velier says it’s harder to sell rum from Guyana in France or rum from Venezuela in England, but he has no trouble selling any style in Italy. He says there was very little traction from rum in Italy before the 1980s. “When we started, we started without cultural barriers,” says Biondi. “Nobody really knows what’s [rum from] Jamaica or Martinique. They drink it because it’s nice.” He adds that this curiosity extends well beyond historical rum-making areas. “Everyone is crazy for the next one. Now we have rum from Japan, Thailand and Australia that nobody has in the other markets.”
Where Brokers Go, Bottlers Follow
Caribbean distillers make most of the rum that ends up on European shelves, but over the last century, a system of independent bottlers has formed around the export market. These third parties don’t distill or ship the rum themselves but instead buy it in Europe and resell it. They emerged from a similar tradition of middlemen in the scotch industry in the 19th century. “In the late 1800s, as with any spirit category, you didn’t see brands like we see today,” says Pietrek. “People bought from different distilleries and sold under their own brands. From there, the independent bottler came as an idea.”
According to Pietrek, many large rum brands buy unaged or aged rum in bulk from E&A Scheer, a Dutch trading company that has been operating since 1762 and is now the largest rum broker in the world. Meanwhile, Scheer’s partner, The Main Rum Co. in Liverpool, supplies many smaller, independent bottlers with aged rum. Inside the vault-like Main Rum warehouse sit rows of rare casks, many decades old, some from little known or defunct distilleries. Independent bottlers snap up these exceptional casks and resell them to the thirsty public, filling in the gaps left by major producers with niche releases and long-aged bottlings.
While many bottlers do try to buy directly from distilleries when possible, Main Rum makes it that much easier to purchase and sell exceptional, rare and otherwise impossible-to-attain rums. It also enables many new brands to enter the market that would otherwise be unable to afford transporting casks across the ocean.
Today, independent bottlers dot nearly every country in Western Europe. There are Compagnie des Indes and La Maison du Whisky in France, Bristol Classic Rum and Mezan in England, Rum Nation, Samaroli and Velier in Italy, Kill Devil in Scotland, Cane Island in the Netherlands, and The Rum Cask in Germany, just to name a few. And they’re all bottling casks that may otherwise never see the light of day. There are a few bottlers in the U.S., notably Hamilton, by rum icon Ed Hamilton and Golden Devil (Kill Devil’s alter ego in America). But they simply can’t compete with the companies snapping up casks from Europe.
Big Brands Dominate
Bacardí and Captain Morgan aren’t just ensconced in American culture but in the nation’s tax law. Biondi cites the Rum Excise Tax Cover-Over as one small but significant deterrent to non-American rum makers. The tax on all distilled spirits made inside or outside the U.S. is $13.50 per proof gallon, but since the 1990s, Congress has extended a year-to-year remittance on that tax for companies in Puerto Rico (where Bacardí owns a billion-dollar facility) or the U.S. Virgin Islands (where Diageo, the owner of Captain Morgan, constructed a new facility in 2009 and global powerhouse Beam Suntory operates Cruzan).
The tax received renewed attention in 2017, when watchdog groups called out Bacardí, Cruzan and Diageo for using natural disasters to lobby to make the Cover-Over permanent. While the rum makers would argue these funds help islands ravaged by storms and neglect from the Trump administration, they also allow industrial distillers to lower prices and undercut competition. Much of that revenue winds up flowing back to the rum companies to lure in business and incentivize existing companies not to relocate, but the act also provides money to the local governments of PR and the USVI, bringing jobs and funds to the islands.
America Is Catching Up
Despite the challenges, the global economy has slowly homogenized rum markets around the world. The internet has also buoyed American demand, helping consumers access information about rums far from home. Even as he recognizes the market forces pulling him to Europe, Seale admits, “We now have such a fan base in the U.S. The demand is potent and growing. We will have to repay their loyalty.”
Rising demand in the U.S. has also driven a broader effort to recast rum culturally. DeLuna has noticed whiskey aficionados coming to rum as their next passion project, bringing rum away from its barbarous past and into the 21st-century craft spirit zeitgeist.
Meanwhile, there’s one area where Americans clearly have an advantage: rum distilled in the United States. Distilleries like Maggie’s Farm in Pittsburgh are reviving distilling traditions in New England, while others elsewhere are creating new traditions of American rum. “The American rum market is so young it hasn’t formed its own national identity yet. There are so many people doing different things,” says Pietrek. As this movement comes to fruition, the American market can only improve.
It’s an exciting time to be an American rum drinker, but it’s still better to drink in Europe. Change comes slowly. Even as distillers, brands and advocates work to bring more rum to American shelves, for now drinkers should plan their next vacation across the Atlantic. And they should be sure to pack plenty of bubble wrap for souvenirs.