The vision of sunny, sparkling beaches reach their zenith in late winter, which in the spirit business only sets the stage for the yearly battle between rum and vodka as the drink of choice when it comes to summer.
And this year, like with vodka, a variety of flavors are calling the tune. For centuries, rum was white, golden or dark. Some aged barrels were favored by connoisseurs, but average drinkers stuck to rum and juice or cola. The appreciation of barrel-aging yielded single-barrel varieties and aged rums, but flavored rums didn’t emerge until the 1980s; now the power of spiced rum (Capt. Morgan), lemon rum (Bacardi Limon), coconut rum (Malibu) and now orange rum (Bacardi O) are undeniable. Three earned prestigious Adams Beverage Group Growth Brand designation this year: Bacardi O as a Rising Star, Capt. Morgan as a Fast Track, and Malibu as an established Growth Brand.
Other makers offering even more flavors are also emerging and growing fast with vanilla, banana, pineapple and cherry variations. The freshness of the flavored rum category is matched with aggressive marketing efforts from such companies as Cruzan, Cabana Boy and Whaler’s, along with the big guys like Bacardi, which reportedly put 10 million ad dollars behind the launch of O. The real question with flavored rums, though, is this: will they grow as fast as flavored vodkas and boost the whole category, or are flavors just a fad?
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“When Bacardi Limon hit, it was the biggest thing,” says Charlie Irons, the food and beverage director of Asia de Cuba in New York City. “A lot of people are asking for the Bacardi O, but if you’re a rum drinker, you’re going to look at the list and try something different because you want to taste as many different varieties as possible.”
Rum is a liquor that is delivered to consumers in a multitude of guises, each with very unique flavor characteristics, he says. “Rum can be almost as intense as wine. If you’re a rum drinker, you drink it straight and you rarely order anything else,” says Irons. “If I’m drinking something from Barbados, I’m not going to mix it and put Coke in it. It’s like having Chardonnay with ice. You just don’t do that.”
But the flavored rums, like Cabana Boy (produced by White Rock Distilleries in Lewiston, Maine), can be perfect complements for soft drinks or in Daiquiris. “The reception has been good. We’re seeing growth every month this year and we expect an increase in business during the summer months,” says White Rock vice president of sales and marketing, Bill Dabbelt.
“Nationally, our leading flavor is pineapple coconut, but in the Midwestern states it’s cherry rum. I think part of the success is due to the fact that flavored spirits are becoming more popular in other categories of spirits, like vodka, and consumers are showing a real interest and they’re the ones that ultimately decide,” he says.
If any one drink is most singularly responsible for the current concentration on flavored rum, it must be the new twists on the classic Mojito (rum, lime juice, sugar and mint), which these days isn’t always served classic-style. Chef/owner Randy Zweiban at Chicago’s Nacional 27 (which serves more than 15 rums by the glass), now serves a Bacardi O Mojito that accounts for many of the 150-160 Mojitos he moves across the bar on a given Saturday night.
“Instead of lime and sugar, we muddle oranges into the glass and use an orange syrup with the Bacardi O,” says Zweiban. “Then we actually make a couple of our own rums, a citrus one in which we soak lemons, limes and oranges. We offer that for people having any kind of mixed cocktail. It makes a great rum-and-coke. Then we also do a lime rum, which we use with our Mojitos. We take Bacardi Silver and slice limes and let them marinate in the rum for a few days, then once the fruit starts to wilt we pull it out and it gives the rum a nice little tang.”
Producers and distributors hate to hear bar managers say this, but rum drinking is primarily a seasonal business, and summer is that season in most of the US. “We just added the flavor line, because once summer comes around people are just flat-out looking for refreshing-style drinks,” says John Hurst, bar manager at Trocadero in Milwaukee, WI, which carries about 15 rum products including mango, banana and coconut flavors, among others).
“We make a Mango Rum-and-Sour, and a Pi