What’s old is new again in the rum category. Much of the growth these days is driven by a traditional Cuban cocktail favored by Hemingway and once again enjoying star status—the Mojito. Last century’s Tiki phenomenon is also seeing a resurgence with a more serious approach to rum-based drinks like the Mai Tai and Zombie. And the Cocktail Renaissance has refocused attention on rum classics like the Daiquiri and Cuba Libre, as well as an appreciation for the sipping qualities of superpremium products.
The spirit is gaining a more sophisticated reputation. “Rum has a lot to offer in classic cocktails,” explains Michael Shea, owner of the Rum Club in Portland, Ore. “Our customers are moving up from that Rum & Cola or blender Daiquiri they drank in college. People are starting to see that rum is a great spirit that has a lot of possibilities.”
The classic, top brands—Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Malibu, Castillo and Admiral Nelson, according to 2011 Beverage Information Group data, Cheers’ parent company, still rule roost and continue to be mixed up in a wide range of drinks.
Nearly 80 percent of Rum Club’s sales are from cocktails. Even standard drinks get sophisticated tweaks. The house Daiquiri ($8) is made with Bacardi 8 Aged Rum, lime, maraschino, Demerara Syrup, Angostura Bitters and absinthe; the Rum Club Old Fashioned ($9) is a mix of Bacardi 8 and Smith & Cross Rums, bitters, sugar and orange peel. “With light, gold and dark varieties, I think rum has great range and flexibility in cocktails,” adds Shea.
“A lot of our drinks are heavy on the rum base, which is why we sell quite a bit of rum at Red Robin,” exclaims Jill Helmerick, food and beverage manager for the 460-unit, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based casual-dining chain. “Not only are our guests interested in rum, but it is a growing spirit, and we are seeing a lot of pull-back into this category.”
What’s Old is New
Observing continued growth in the tropical cocktail category, Red Robin decided to reemphasize some of the drinks that had been on the chain’s menu for years. The menu was reengineered with a “Drinks that Made Us Famous” section and colorful photos on the menu to reintroduce guests to those signatures—all three are rum drinks. The Screaming Red Zombie ($6.99) is a colorful mixture of light, Myers’s Dark and Bacardi Select Rums, orange juice, grenadine and sweet and sour; Flat on Your Beak ($6.99) is a mix of light rum, Bacardi 151 Rum, sloe gin, orange juice, grenadine and sweet and sour; and the T.N.T ($7.29) is a play on Long Island Iced Tea, made with Beefeater Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, Bacardi Superior rum, triple sec, sweet and sour and Coca Cola.
A “Tiki Tropical” section on Red Robin’s menu highlights those bright and fruity drinks, including the Tropical Mai Tai ($6.99), which is a blend of Myers’s Dark and Bacardi Select rums, Curaçao, fruit juices, grenadine and sweet and sour, served in Tiki-style glassware. “Since we have reintroduced these classics as well as the menu engineering we did around them, we’ve seen positive growth in alcohol sales, an increase of 50 basis points in beverage alcohol sales during fiscal 2011, with a 90 basis point increase during last quarter,” points out Helmerick.
Mojito and Tiki Drinks are Key
“Rum is among our top-selling spirits, mostly driven by cocktails,” says Melissa Davis, director of adult beverage for HMSHost. The Bethesda, Md.-based airport foodservice company operates about 400 bars and restaurants serving adult beverages in about 85 airports in U.S. and Canada. Although HMSHost operates various concepts, including Chili’s, Carrabba’s and On the Border as well as single-location restaurants, most of its rum sales come from its Bacardi Mojito Bars. The concept also offers standards such as Daiquiris, Cuba Libres and Piña Coladas (prices vary by location), the star of course is the Mojito, made with Bacardi Superior Rum, lime, mint and club soda. “We sell a ton of Mojitos,” comments Davis. The HMSHost operations in Hawaii are also having a lot of success with rum drinks, adds Davis. “They have ready access to all the fresh tropical ingredients there, and guests are on vacation mindset, ready for a rum drink.”
Rum is still the focus of the bulk of Tiki drinks. “Rum is the spirit of Tiki: many drinks mix light, gold and dark rums—the classic tiki trilogy,” exclaims Michael Thanos, owner and manager of Forbidden Island in Alameda, Calif. Open for six years now, Forbidden Island was a pioneer in the new wave of Tiki bars. “There were very few Tiki places around,” recalls Thanos, “and many of those weren’t making good drinks.”
Nowadays that’s changed with the tiki resurrection in full flower, says Thanos, citing examples from all over the country. With the cocktail revolution, adds Thanos, people now appreciate a well-made, well-balanced drink; and those are the kind he serves at Forbidden Island, drawing from original recipes, using only fresh juices, big brands and top-shelf spirits. Drink prices range from $7 to $11.
Hands-down the most popular drink is the Island Mai Tai, made with Cruzan Dark Rum, Curaçao, orgeat and pineapple and lime juices, garnished with a cherry, pineapple wedge and a parasol. Another popular cocktail falls under the bar’s “Grog” section; referencing the British Royal Navy’s custom of a daily ration of rum and water for its sailors. Navy Grog is a strong potion: a mix of Cruzan White and Dark rums and El Dorado 5-year-old rum with lime juice and honey; bruised mint leaves top off the drink adding their fragrance. The Scorpion ($25) appears under Forbidden Island’s “Bowl” section, but the most popular bowl drink is the Virgin Sacrifice ($35 for six guests). For this spectacular presentation, the bartender mixes ample amounts of mango, lime and orange juices with Whaler’s Dark Rum, Cruzan Dark Rum and falernum; the volcano-shaped bowl is set before guests and a shot of Cruzan 151 Rum is set ablaze in the “crater,” shredded cinnamon bark scattered over the flame creates “sacrificial” sparks, then the drink is poured into the bowl. “We regard ourselves as mixolgists, as a serious rum bar, but at the same time the Tiki spirit is about fun,” quips Thanos.
With a few exceptions, most of the rums used in cocktails are light colored and mid-tier priced. The high-end rums, darkened and mellowed by barrel aging, are meant to be sipped neat and savored.
“We’re seeing more people sipping rums, our client base understands good rums that are meant to be sipped not mixed,” remarks Tracey Carithers, owner and partner of Front Street Grill at Stillwater, Beaufort, N.C., which includes Rhum Bar, an outdoor covered bar and two decks on the water. The waterside bar stocks a dozen high-end rums for sipping, priced $9 to $15; boaters who stop in en route to the Caribbean are also knowledgeable about rum, notes Carithers.
The Rhum Bar, of course, specializes in rum drinks, featuring a dozen, such as the Painkiller ($8.25), with Cruzan Dark Rum, orange and pineapple juices and coconut cream; and the Rhum Bar Punch ($6.75), a mix of rum, pineapple and cranberry juices and grenadine. But Mojitos are a specialty as well, made with seasonal fruits such as strawberry, melon and peach.
Red Robin restaurants offer a core list of seven rums, but operators can add more if there’s demand. Customers can trade up from the well rum brand (which varies from store to store and is priced at $2.50 at happy hour), to a premium rum ($3.50) or superpremium ($4.50). “At Red Robin, we allow our guests to customize anything and everything, including drinks,” points out Helmerick.
“On our top shelf we have 104 rums for sipping, from 20 different countries,” claims Thanos at Forbidden Island. Prices range from $6 to about $35. “Our mission from opening day was to educate people about rum,” adds the owner. Six variously priced tasting flights of four themed rums help school customers. Advanced aficionados join the Kill Devil Club; as customers drink their way through the premium sipping rums, they write tasting notes and check off. Those who taste all 104 bottles are awarded a commemorative plaque and a bottle of their favorite rum; hundreds are working on the goal, 36 completed it so far, four scholars have accomplished it twice.
“I keep hearing sipping rum is going to be the next big thing,” says Davis at HMSHost, “but we just don’t see a demand for those superpremium products.” But she concedes that the airport environment may not be the best place for travelers to experiment as tables turn fast.
“We don’t stock a lot of expensive rums because they just tend to sit on the back bar and that’s not our clientele,” echoes Shea at Rum Club. His stock totals about 50 bottles, and staffers will custom-design flights for customers interested in learning more.
Flavor in Favor?
Taking a page from vodka’s playbook, more rum producers are adding flavored rums beyond spiced and coconut to their portfolios. The new product churn is attracting attention to the rum category.
Flavor introductions are often the premise for promotions at Bacardi Mojito Bars, which carry all the flavors, says Davis at HMSHost. When Bacardi’s Arctic Grape Rum debuted, flavored Mojitos and Daiquiris were featured. Plans are also in the works for Dragon Berry Mojitos.
Rum Club also doesn’t stock any flavored rums. “They are not for a serious bar,” says Shea, who is developing his own spiced rum infusion for use in cocktails.
The Rhum Bar at Stillwater also crafts its own vanilla-flavored dark rum as an after-dinner cordial. Other house infusions are often on tap, like the current pineapple-ginger rum.
“We see the growth in the flavored rums. New products are pulling interest into the category,” believes Helmerick at Red Robin. “I think it’s because there are a lot of new products on the market.”
It’s clear, whether from well-crafted cocktails or sophisticated sipping, the rum category is seeing more serious interest from consumers these days, and operators are responding to that demand.
At the Rhum Bar at Stillwater, Carithers has plans to expand the operation’s rum selections.
“At Red Robin, watching the influx of new rum brands coming into the market, and creating new drinks that our guests are looking for,” comments Helmerick.