Sales of golden and dark rum are booming, thanks to its mixibility, and it's not just for fancy cocktail bars, says Nigel Huddleston.
The recent performance of the on-trade drinks market has been a bit like the old football joke about the team who were lucky to get nil.
Overall on-trade alcohol sales are flat-lining and getting any positive growth seems like something of an achievement for any category - and that makes the boom in sales of golden and dark rum seem nothing short of phenomenal.
A generation of bartenders in the cocktail world has declared rum to be more characterful than vodka, but just as versatile for long drink-making - and some of this seems to be rubbing off on the mainstream pub market where drinks such as golden rum and ginger ale are starting to challenge the orthodoxy of a gin & tonic or vodka & Coke.
Nick Yates, channel director of the on-trade spirits at Havana Club supplier Pernod Ricard UK, says: "Rum's not a new category, but it is one the UK consumer is exploring more and is seeing increased investment.
"It's leading to more awareness, but the rum category is still relatively small. A lot of the interest is due to its versatility in a number of cocktails and spirits-mixer combinations."
Golden rum's on-trade sales value was up 15% in the year to March, according to Nielsen, with dark rum ahead 6%. While vodka brands haven't been shouting about it, their category fell 3% over the same period.
It's still early days to call the growing trade and consumer interest in rum a revolution - vodka still outsells all shades of rum combined by a factor of four, at £1.5bn versus £389m — but clearly something's going on.
Though it's something of a chicken-and-egg situation, sales growth in rum is being matched by increased brand investment.
This ranges from high-profile TV campaigns like that for Morgan's Spiced to carefully-targeted events such as Pusser's commemoration of Black Tot Day, the last occasion the brand was routinely served to Royal Navy personnel on board ship.
"We've seen the category growing year-on-year for the past four years and it doesn't seem to be coming to an end," says Kathy Roe, senior brand manager at First Drinks. "The companiess investing in it are doing so for the long-run. With Sailor Jerry and Mount Gay we have spent more by threefold on the previous year with consumer and trade activity."
Opinions are divided on which other categories are feeling the impact of the growing interest in golden rum and dark rums the most.
A drop in sales of white rum by 11% over the year suggests there's at least some direct switch.
Ben Pick, marketing manager for Pusser's at Cellar Trends, says: "Without question, there's been a decline in white rum. Consumers associate darker rums with quality spirits and are trading up. Some rums, such as our 15-year-old, are getting more into the single-malt territory, with incredibly complex flavours."
But Yates at Pernod Ricard says: "It's too simple to say that consumers are switching from white rum to golden rum. They're broadening their repertoires and drinking different spirits on different occasions."
Sue Beck, senior brand manager for Lamb's at Halewood International, says innovation in areas such as spiced rum is driving growth in the category.
"Spiced rums are seeing new serving suggestions and twists on classics driving consumer interest," she says. "Golden rum drinkers appear to be discovering the brand from many different directions. Sales of vodka have fallen as a probable result of the surge in interest in golden and spiced rums."
Roe at First Drinks agrees. She says: "Growth is coming from all different types of mixable spirits. A lot of Sailor Jerry consumers are coming from Jack Daniel's and other American whiskey, while brands such as Mount Gay might be picking up consumers from vodka and gin."
In August, First Drinks is launching Mount Gay 1703, a super-premium rum, named after the year the brand was founded, principally into high-end and prestige accounts.
Much of the rediscovery of rum has been fostered by outlets with classics such as mojitos and daiquiris generating interest in the spirit's versatility.
But while top-end bartenders have the insight to experiment to their hearts' content, pub staff may need more coaxing along the rum trail.
Yates says activity for Pernod's Havana Club brand in particular has a strong focus on staff training and consumer education, including rum clubs for serving staff alongside Cuban nights to get people into bars.
"It's not just about style bars," Yates says. "We have quite a lot of quality pub outlets where we put a lot of focus. It's all about quality serve and knowledge about the product, which can be about giving the consumers a great experience with a simple serve such as rum & Coke.
"It's as much about giving pubs ideas and inspiration to help them develop their own offering as it is about telling them what to do.
"If you do have a wide range of rums, staff have to be able to understand the difference and ensure that their own customer tastes are met."
Roe at First Drinks adds: "Rum doesn't have to be about complicated serves. When we sample Sailor Jerry in the on-trade, the two big ones with consumers are ginger, which about 60% choose, and Coke, which about 35% go for. Anybody can make those drinks."
The next big thing
David Smith, global brand director for Cockspur, says the brand has tried to steer clear of "large-volume cocktail lists", instead focusing on service and visibility in work with Geronimo Inns and the Mint Group, plus the pub estates of St Austell, Batemans and Marston's.
"With big lists, it's the mojito or other finished drink that is selling, not the brand. We'd rather shift one bottle to people who've asked for Cockspur than a lot where the brand doesn't get noticed."
Smith adds: "For 20 years rum has been tipped as been the next big thing, but eventually it's moved out from the top-end and into the mainstream. There's a lot more to come in rum from pubs." And that's no joke.
Sailor Jerry changes polarise opinion
When brand owner William Grant and distributor First Drinks relaunched Sailor Jerry earlier this year they got a more dramatic response than they could have bargained for.
The spiced rum was given a new look and liquid — and it was the latter that drove some fans of the old one to form a Facebook group in protest. It now has 26,000 members and counting.
First Drinks has stuck to its guns, resisting what must have been a very tempting move to revert to the original formula by popular demand.
Kathy Roe at First Drinks said the relaunch had aimed to take Sailor Jerry back to "an authenticity of liquid", which in practice meant "less sweet and allowing the lime and vanilla to come through".
Roe said: "We had a lot of positive feedback that they thought the new liquid was more versatile, but there were some consumers who were loyal to the previous liquid and didn't prefer it. We believe we've done the right thing and are committed to the launch and increased investment behind that liquid.
"Where we've done on-premise sampling, the response has been incredibly strong. The key is to get consumers to experience the liquid for themselves."
The episode has raised questions about the role of brand loyalty in the spirits market and whether this is about what's on the inside or the outside of the bottle.
Sue Beck at Lamb's says: "Brand loyalty is important and this is intrinsically linked to the quality of the liquid."
And David Smith at Cockspur adds: "It's been very interesting because it shows just how much interest and passion there is in this category. Consumers are incredibly loyal and any change has to be very carefully managed."