It’s equally enjoyable in a Collins glass with muddled mint and lime as it is in a rocks glass with ice and cola. The category’s affinity for fresh fruits, juices and syrups speaks to its tropical origins. And aged, complex versions are slowly assuming their rightful place next to other serious brown spirits sipped solo. As result of the spirit’s flexibility many sugarcane-friendly operators around the country say that rum sales are running.
Operators’ guest perceptions about the rum category cover a broad spectrum. Rafael Ortiz, director of beverage marketing for the two hundred and two locations of the Cypress, California-based Real Mex Restaurants, believes many guests recognize that “rum is fun, easy to drink and tastes great with fruit flavors. It also brings a great value.” Rum is essential in many tropical cocktails, so its appeal for some comes not only from its flavor, but also from the easy-on-the-palate, often sweeter components with which it’s mixed. Each location offers at least seven or eight rum drinks in the $7to $8 range.
But it’s not all sunshine, pineapple and coconut. “Pirates” and “harshness” are two words that come to mind to Adam Kanter when asked why a patron may not gravitate towards a rum-based beverage (he thinks Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t actually help the market for rum, either.) The owner and chief mixologist of Rum Bar in Philadelphia, which touts two hundred and eighteen brands on its back bar shelves priced from $7 to $250 per 1.25- to two-ounce serving, believes the key to rum’s success on a drinks program is to show the spirit’s versatility—neat, on the rocks, used with mixers and in punch or in cocktails.
Top Brands Remain Popular
A handful of the top brands dominate the category. Puerto Rican powerhouse Bacardi Superior Light Rum still reigns the rail and using it in the sublimely simple Rum and Coke is still immensely popular—not to mention quick to produce and serve. “Bacardi is our highest selling single liquor spirit during happy hour, accounting for 18 percent of our total happy hour single liquor sales,” notes Monica McGill, vice president of beverage and training for the Paradise Restaurant Group, the Tampa, Florida-based chain which runs thirty locations of the Jimmy Buffett-owned chain Cheeseburger in Paradise. The majority of those sales are the light-bodied, clear ubiquitous rum mixed with either Coke or Diet Coke, though locations stock sixteen rums, which start around $4 depending on the market.
Ortiz cites Bacardi and Captain Morgan as the two most popular rum brands at Real Mex locations, both ordered equally as often in the Rum and Coke. Over at Rum Bar, staff often offers up alternative rum recommendations. “If you like Bacardi, we may suggest El Dorado 3 Year Old,” explains Kanter; while Captain Morgan drinkers may opt for Kilo Kai Spiced Rum.
A lime wedge in the glass is optional, but add it and the drink unequivocally becomes a Cuba Libre. “This was the cocktail of choice for Cuban soldiers during the Spanish-American War,” muses Robert Gallo, director of operations for the Washington, D.C. location of Cuba Libre, which also has locations in Atlantic City, Philadelphia and Orlando. “During the war they toasted to ‘A Free Cuba,’ hence ‘Cuba Libre.’” It also happens to be a great choice for a guest looking to try a few different rums over the course of an evening in an approachable way. The Cuba Libre Especial ($10) uses Cuba Libre five-year-old rum, a proprietary bottle produced by Guayana’s El Dorado.
Cuba Libre locations stock sixty to seventy rum brands, priced from $8 to $89 for a two-ounce pour, and the spirit accounts for 75 percent of alcohol sales. Seventy percent of that amount is used in cocktails including fourteen variations of the Mojito, ranging from the Classic Mojito ($9) to the Mango Mojito ($10), one of the only versions that utilizes flavored rum. The inclusion of both mango rum and puréed mango ups the drink’s flavor intensity, explains Gallo.
Flavors in the Mix
Many operators advise that carefully choosing the style of flavored rums used is essential for creating balanced drinks. The Cuba Libre staff reaches for flavored rums from Bacardi, Cruzan and Parrot Bay for other cocktails on the list, but Gallo is quick to point out that it’s crucial to thoroughly taste through flavored rums before adding them to the menu. Some, he says, taste, “insanely sweet.” One of Cuba Libre’s most ordered offerings, the Havana Iced Tea ($10), uses both Bacardi O and Razz flavored rums, along with Cuba Libre dark rum, Triple Sec, sour and cola. (Bacardi, by the way, has partnered with Cuba Libre to produce proprietary rum for the bar’s upcoming ten-year anniversary.)
At Real Mex locations as well as at The Napoleon Cigar Club in Scottsdale, Malibu Coconut Rum rules the flavored rum scene. “Malibu is still king, with most of the popular nightclub-style shots using it,” notes Real Mez’s Ortiz, who goes on to point out that other flavors don’t really factor into their drinks program, since staff relies instead on fruit juices, purées or infused syrups. Still, flavored rums do offer an easy way to create multi-layered concoctions without adding extra ingredients, notes McGill. The Napoleon stocks five rums priced from $9 to $11.
Bartenders also reach for Malibu at Dave & Buster’s fifty-six Dallas-based locations, where rum accounts for 20 percent of alcohol sales, and flavored versions are most often poured in Mojito variants. Vice president of beverage research and development Peter Czizek also cites the use of Cruzan Black Cherry Rum in the restaurant’s Cherry Berry Mojito and Cruzan Mango Rum in the Tropical Mojito. The chain carries nine rums, priced $4.39 to $5.69 based on the market.
Tiki is Still in Vogue
The propensity towards tropical drinks like the Zombie and Mai Tai and the Tiki revival have also translated to increased interest in and sales of rum, at least in some markets and locations. Rum Bar recently started Tiki Thursdays, where staff serves drinks in Tiki mugs, like the Painkiller No. 2 ($13); Zombie ($14); Walnut Street Hurricane ($11); and also features a Polynesian-inspired food menu with dishes like slow-roasted Stiki Tiki ribs with a honey hoisin sauce ($7) and Kalhúa Pig, a fat-braised pork shoulder finished with garlic and lime ($9.) The promotion proved to be so popular that the bar dedicated an entire page of its drinks menus to these tropical tipples.
Czizek also points out that tropical beverages like the Hawaiian Mai Tai ($6.79) and the Walk the Plank ($7.50), made with Captain Morgan, Malibu Coconut, peach schnapps, pineapple and orange juices and a Myers’s Rum float, continue to be Dave & Buster’s top sellers next to Margaritas.
When it comes to this style of cocktail, the setting often secures the sale. “Tiki cocktails make you feel like you are on a tropical island, and dining at Cuba Libre transports you to Havana, Cuba circa the 1950s,” notes Gallo. Of course, Tiki, as a concept, hasn’t taken hold everywhere: The Napoleon hasn’t embraced it and Real Mex Restaurants is just starting to investigate how to incorporate it onto their menus.
Indisputably, rum works with a variety of ingredients and mixing techniques: frozen, on the rocks or up. And today, more fans are discovering the complex nuances of darker, aged rums—in cocktails as well as neat or on the rocks.
The Napoleon’s bar manager Steven Blume has been noticing a small, growing trend of guests appreciating higher-end rums all by themselves, like Appleton Estate and Zaya. Cuba Libre’s selection of premium brands includes those that cost $30 to $40 per two-ounce pour. Though he says darker rums were quiet for the past year and a half, which Gallo attributes to the sluggish economy, guests are more frequently asking for aged spirits like Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Year and Ron Pampero Aniversario Rum, as well as Cuba Libre’s 15 and 21 Year Rums.
“Consumer knowledge and preference [of rum] has increased over the past few years,” concurs McGill. Venues recognizing this will continue to capitalize on rum’s seemingly infinite versatility and appeal to the widest audience. Rum, notes Ortiz, is bringing back the fun.