Spirits & Liqueurs Rum

Is Rum the Next Bourbon?

Ariel-Dunitz Johnson

There’s no question that bourbon is king these days. Status bottles such as Pappy Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Michter’s 25-year-old are snapped up as soon as, and often before, they hit store shelves. People who manage to snag one often resell them on the secondary market for as much as 10 times their retail price. Though the fetishism has become a bit much, it has certainly helped position bourbon at the top of the booze chain.

Could rum be far behind? After all, it’s arguably America’s native spirit. (There were hundreds of rum distilleries in America well before bourbon broke ground.) The outlook of rum’s future depends on who you ask.

Author Fred Minnick—whose latest book, “Rum Curious” ($25, Voyageur Press), is a tasting guide that provides a brief history of the spirit—believes there are some formidable challenges facing rum.

“In bourbon, the big players put out great products that drive the connoisseur market, while rum has always been content with capturing the masses,” he says. “Making good rum is also harder than making good bourbon. There are so many more variables in rum than whiskey. I think it’s the most difficult spirit to master from the production end.”

Kenneth McCoy, the chief creative officer of Public House Collective and co-owner of The Rum House bar in New York City, says he has seen a shift in consumer behavior in the last couple of years, with many customers coming in and asking for particular rum brands in the way that a whiskey drinker might ask for Four Roses.

“We want a story, and rum certainly has one to tell,” he says. “I’m hearing folks ask for Brugal, Banks, Plantation, Diplomático, The Real McCoy and so forth. People know these are quality brands.”

Ashela Richardson, a brand ambassador for Flor de Caña, believes that premium rum is on the upswing. “We are seeing bars popping up with an identity centered around rum,” she says. For Richardson, the fact that rum is distilled from molasses or sugar cane gives it a leg up on whiskey, which is distilled from grain.

“In whiskey, there’s a much narrower range of diversity and flavor compared to rum,” she says. “Here’s a fruit analogy: The different styles of rum are kind of like apples to oranges to bananas to pineapples. Whereas bourbon is like knowing all of the heirloom varietals of apples and tasting the differences. It’s much more niche.”

Edouard Beaslay, the global marketing director for Diplomático, says super premium rum sales are growing in volume, helping it cross the magic threshold from a cocktail base to sipping spirit.

“Today, rum is competing directly with traditional sipping spirits such as cognac, whiskey and bourbon,” he says. “Consumers are taking note and are now actively seeking out rums that are aged and artfully crafted, just as they would with other brown sipping spirits.”

On the retail side, rum has been gaining traction as well. Adi Pal, the co-founder of spirits purveyors Mash & Grape, believes consumers looking to buy rum are becoming more discerning.

“There were and remain two types of rum drinkers: the ones looking to mix it and the ones looking to sip it,” he says. “The latter category is growing and is behaving in the same way as whiskey drinkers for sure, seeking out more premium rums, experimenting and getting more educated.”

Pal says that while prices are going up, don’t expect to see a run on rum in the immediate future, though aged expressions above 30 years are becoming more rare.

So the future of rum appears to be bright but, like so much in the booze world, uncertain. Aged rum might never attain the lofty cult status of bourbon, but then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it allows rum to be what it has always been: a drink of and for the people.

According to Minnick, it’s difficult to predict just how far rum will rise. “Rum is so frustrating when it comes to trajectory,” he says. “Very smart people have predicted rum would take off, but it remained stagnant. The difference, I believe, is the bourbon consumer is looking for something to complement their bourbon love. Many have migrated to brandy or rum. I think we’re all looking for great flavor, and we’ll taste until we find it. And then taste again.”