“Rum is enjoying a Renaissance,” believes Tiberio Lobo-Navia, who opened Rumbar in the 42-location Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne as the manager (he is now a Ritz-Carlton sales manager). He cites the increasing number of new rums on the market as an indicator of that popularity. Rumbar now carries 53 rums, priced from $10 to $25.
Operators report that on-premise rum sales are growing, driven mainly by the spirit’s mixability and new products in the flavor category. But rum is also experiencing a transition, much like Tequila’s evolution, from ubiquitous mixer to sophisticated sipper, according to Lobo-Navia. “Cocktails like the Mojito are still extremely popular, but we’re seeing a move towards finer aged rums for sipping.”
There’s no question that the sugarcane spirit is popular on-premise. Total rum volume was up a respectable 1.6 percent last year, according to Cheers’ parent company the Beverage Information Group’s Handbook Advance 2010. Brands showing the biggest gains were all spiced varieties (and interestingly, seafaring themed) and most often employed in cocktails—Diageo’s venerable Captain Morgan, (up 3.9 percent), Luxco’s Admiral Nelson (plus 29.4 percent) and William Grant’s Sailor Jerry (16.3 percent). Other leading brands according to Handbook Advance 2010 statistics include Bacardi, Malibu, Castillo, Captain Morgan’s Parrot Bay, Cruzan, Ronrico and Myers’s.
“Our rum sales are definitely growing,” reports Adam Kanter, owner of Rum Bar Lounge & Restaurant in Philadelphia. Rum used to be about 50 percent of Rum Bar’s mix, now it accounts for 70 to 80 percent of spirits sales. “Mixability has been driving that,” he says. Rum Bar carries more than 160 rums, priced from $4 for an once and a quarter pour to $130 for a two-ounce pour. This latter is for a rare Mount Gay Tricentennial.
The eponymous Rum Bar Mojito, priced at $10, is one of the most popular drinks. It’s a standard Mojito but made with house-infused cucumber rum, explains owner. There’s such a demand for cucumber infused in Angostura Old Oak White Rum, that Kanter bottles the stuff by the case for use in the bar, going through as many as 18 bottles a week in the summer, when the vegetable-flavored rum finds its way into a number of cocktails.
“The Mojito caused a stir in the rum category when we introduced the cocktail four or five years ago,” says Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for Chicago-based Morton’s, the 78-location steakhouse chain. Morton’s offers a standard Mojito and a signature Morton’s Mojito, with pomegranate juice added to the mix, priced from $8.50 to $9.50, depending upon location. Morton’s restaurants carry five different rums, ranging in price from $6.50 to $8.50; the well brand is a Bacardi product. The steakhouse chain is best known as a wine destination, says Field; rum represents about four percent of its spirits selection, which is dominated by vodka and gin. “But rum plays an important part in Mojitos, which remain very popular drinks.”
“Rum is the easiest spirit to get creative with—it’s easy to mix,” notes Lobo-Navia at the Ritz-Carlton. Rumbar’s list contains half a dozen Mojito variations, including the Black and Blue (made with blackberries, blueberries and Bacardi Razz, $14) and Mango (which mixes mango purée and Cruzan Mango, $14). “The Mojito is sweet and citrusy everybody can enjoy it,” points out Lobo-Navia.
“We did a lot of research in Cuba on Mojitos and resurrected it here,” says Bob Gallo, director of operations for Cuba Libre, a four-location Caribbean restaurant chain based in Philadelphia. When Gallo and partners founded Cuba Libre 10 years ago, the cocktail wasn’t well known; now the concept boasts pages and pages of variations, including the Grilled Pineapple Mojito for $10, which muddles pineapple, and a modern-day take the Energy Mojito, menued at $15, which substitutes Red Bull for the soda. Instead of sweetening cocktails with simple syrup, each restaurant has a guarapo machine that extracts juice from sugarcane. It complements the rum, which is also derived from sugarcane.
The chain boasts its own Cuba Libre brand, in white and 5-, 15- and 21-year-old expressions, ranging in price from $8 to $32, in partnership with El Dorado Rum through Demerara Distillers Ltd. The house brand, created to give Cuba Libre a point of differentiation, is the single best-selling rum at the chain. Rum selections vary from unit to unit at the discretion of the managers, but Cuba Libres stock 60 to 70 rums, priced from $8 for an once and a half pour up to $72.
Few cocktails mix two types of gin or whiskey, but many rum classics employ two, three or more kinds of rum. The Mount Gay Mai Tai features both light and dark rum, priced at $14. Ritz-Carlton customers will often request a float of dark rum atop their Mojitos, menued at $13 to $18. “Besides adding flavor, the float looks dramatic in the glass,” points out Lobo-Navia.
Flavors to Savor
Although the Mojito is far and away the most popular rum-based mixed drink these days, with dozens of variations, a few other rum cocktails are proving popular. Many of these cocktails rely upon the growing number of flavored rums appearing on the market.
“Sales of spiced and flavored rums are driving sales in the category overall,” declares Gallo. “The flavored rums are following in vodka’s footsteps,” he adds, “because they make for great cocktails.” As an example, Cuba Libre’s Tropicana is made with Parrot Bay Mango Rum, Bacardi Coco Rum, Cruzan Banana Rum, pineapple juice and grenadine, priced at $12.
In Philadelphia, Rum Bar’s take on the Zombie, priced at $11, is made with Appleton Estate V/X Rum, Bacardi Superior Rum, Mount Gay Eclipse Rum, passion fruit and orgeat syrups, pineapple, lemon and orange juices, and a float of Bacardi 151.
Kanter says he is also stocking more flavored rums as new ones debut. “More spiced rums are appearing on the market, jumping on the bandwagon of Sailor Jerry,” observes Kanter. “Bacardi Torched Cherry just came out and I really like it, but it’s too early to tell how it will sell.”
“The popularity of rum continues to grow, mostly in easy-drinking cocktails,” opines Gallo. He cites a Spiced Cuba Libre, priced at $9, as an example; made with Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, cola and fresh lime juice. “The spice makes it approachable, especially for younger drinkers,” says Gallo. “It’s an introductory drink, like the flavored vodkas are for that category.” When drinkers are ready to move up to something more sophisticated, the chain offers richer, more complex rums made for sipping rather than mixing. These older rums are served in a snifter for sipping like a single-malt Scotch or Cognac.
Sip and Savor
“Rum is not just for cocktails,” asserts Gallo. He reports that sales of aged rums have definitely picked up over the last six to eight months at his restaurants. Why? “Rum can also be rich, full bodied and complex with characteristics reminiscent of Scotch and brandy. It’s making inroads among those categories.”
“I think that aged rums can compete with single-malt Scotch, Cognac and Bourbon,” agrees Kanter. Rum has an edge over those spirits when it comes to price. “At the same age and quality levels, sipping rums are much more reasonably priced than Scotch or Cognac.”
More customers are sipping fine rums at Rumbar, reports Lobo-Navia. “Rum has found a niche that is taking off,” says Lobo-Navia, “like Tequila, with high-end products. Unlike Tequila, rum is relatively inexpensive, especially the aged rums compared to other aged spirits.” An increase in the number of quality rums on the market has helped accelerate this trend, he adds. Kanter agrees. “When I first opened three years ago, we had only 36 rums,” he recalls. Rum Bar now boasts more than 160 rums.
Unlike most spirits there are few definitions as to what constitutes rum. Distilled from fermented molasses, rum can be and is produced in many places in the world, although most comes from the Caribbean and the “Spanish Main” coast of the Latin and South Americas; each island and country contributes its own nuances. The newly popular rhum agricole category is made from fresh cane juice rather than molasses, giving the spirit an herbal quality. Then there’s an entire subcategory of spiced and flavored rums. With that freedom comes an amazing range of varieties.
“Our guests are usually at the Ritz-Carlton for a few days and they can try a different rum every time they walk into the bar,” says Lobo-Navia.
Training staff and introducing customers to new rums are essential parts to progressive rum programs. At Rumbar, they educate customers about rum’s range with four different flights of three 1-oz. samples for about $30. “Flights are very popular,” reports Lobo-Navia. Staff will also customize flights at a customer’s request, and for special events, Lobo-Navia offers Mojito tasting flights as well. Prices for these flights are negotiated per customer request. Regulars can rent a rum locker at Rum Bar, to stash their special bottles. Actor Andy Garcia, for example, keeps his favorite bottle in one.
At Rum Bar in Philadelphia, Kanter takes advantage of rum’s extensive range to hand-sell, suggesting, for example, light white rums to vodka drinkers or dark aged rums to whiskey fans.
Cuba Libre offers a flight of its proprietary branded 5-, 15- and 21-year-old rums for $18. A bartender walks customers through the flight, “just like a sommelier,” according to Gallo. The rum-centric message is chiefly communicated via Cuba Libre’s eight-page rum menu, which lists all the available varieties with flavor profiles, as well as page after page of Mojitos and other cocktails.
Although the Mojito will undoubtedly continue to reign as the most popular rum cocktail, the influx of spiced and flavored rums is sure to spark more creativity among mixologists. However, while mixability continues to drive on-premise growth, more sophisticated consumers will recognize rum’s great sippability and call for fine aged rums as well.