Tales of the Tot

Tales of the Tot

Rum is coming for whisky's throne

Rum is coming for whisky's throne
Rum is coming for whisky's throne

Slowly, surely, the spirits world is starting to acknowledge the growing presence of its Caribbean cousin. Once relegated to the lower shelves, adorned with pirates, tattoos, and sea monsters, rum is now making its bid for the top shelf, fueled with transparency, information, and – most importantly – flavour. And while many of you may have found yourself unwontedly left with some renegade bottle of spiced rum spirit from that party you hosted (remember those?), you may nowadays find yourself choosing to adorn your drinks cabinet with these tipples of tropical temptation. With those whose households are still allowed to mix finding themselves under pandemic persuasion to finally invite those friends and family over for that dinner you’d promised you’d always get round to, you may find your guilty secret under scrutiny from the more closed-minded connoisseurs – “Rum? Really? I thought you had taste?!” Well, dear friend, let me introduce you to the real world of rum.


See, for so long, the trouble with rum wasn’t the rum itself, but its misconceptions. Thought by most to be spiced, sweet, coloured, sugar liquid – with plenty of examples on shop shelves to back up these misnomers – it is understandable that most people’s first foray into rum is hardly a good one. And so rum continued its slow and steady journey unabated by the scrutiny of spirits specialists, until finally, quietly, it reached a tipping point….


In the last year alone, we’ve seen the rum market grow in the UK by 7%. Compare this with whisky’s growth of 2.4% and it doesn’t take a master statistician to work out that, at this rate, the sugarcane underdog might soon stand toe to toe with its more cynical, malted matron.


The historical disparity in perception, furthermore, means the upper echelons of the rum world are still within reach – a newcomer to the rum world can quickly educate themselves to the point where they can wade in with even the most seasoned of sugarcane sippers. With more information available than ever, perhaps rum might finally be appreciated on a grand scale for the liquid treasure that it truly is.


Why then, if rum is so good, has it for so long lived in the shadows of its malty brethren? A large part of this was due to lack of education –

archaic and simplified descriptors like white, gold, and dark, meant one’s understanding of rum was never likely to progress past a meagre level. Imagine your most fanatical wine sommelier talking to someone about the nuances of white, pink, or red wine without mention of terroir, grape varietal, region, or process and you can see how ridiculous relying on simple colour terminology would be. Do you like brown whisky or white whisky? Red wine or white wine?


While misnomers like gold or dark are patently to be avoided, some of the more enlightened amongst you may profess that rum is categorised not by colour, but by territorial groupings - English, Spanish and French. Well, not only may you have noticed that 2020 is not a good year to drop colonial descriptors, but they also again tell you next to nothing about the rum you’re drinking. Do you like European whisk(e)y – which one? Try telling a French and an Italian their wines are all ‘European’ and see if you finish your soirée with your outstretched little drinking pinky still intact.


So why is the rum world changing now? Well, like anything, it’s a combination of factors occurring at once, the culmination of which means rum is reaching a tipping point. Within the rum world itself, there has been a revolution. Producers are championing transparency, and consumers in return have demanded it from those that don’t. You’ll now find rum labels with more information detailed than ever before. And whereas category restrictions might limit certain information on other spirit labels, rum has freedom to fully disclose its methods (if it chooses to).


It has been the smaller independent brands within the rum world that have led the charge, tearing away from templates set by larger rum producers and redefining what it is that a rum drinker expects from a brand. What’s interesting as well is that these producers for the most part have made themselves very accessible online and through social media. You, as the potential rum aficionado, now have direct access not just to marketing teams, but to the actual people making the spirit in your bottle. No longer are voices from the tropics lost in the aether of dubious brand mythology.


If there’s anything positive we can take away from the pandemic, it’s that this accessibility to the source has increased even more now. Each week there are seminars and interviews with speakers who previously you would have had to travel around the world just for the chance to say hello to, or hear them speak. Now this information is freely accessible to all at the click of a button (check out our Black Tot Rum YouTube channel for a collection of talks with some incredible rum makers and ambassadors).


Have we piqued your curiosity? If you’re not already a rum lover, but you aspire to throw off the shackles of your three piece tweed suit in exchange for some more colourful attire, you may be wondering – where do I start? Well, don’t throw away your pipe and monocle just yet, first let’s find you a rum. Here in lies the beauty and the treachery in the rum world – there are seemingly infinite countries, islands, distilleries, brands, and styles of rum to choose from. Laced within this plethora of choice are definitions and descriptors that as we’ve mentioned already are uninformative at best, and downright misleading at most. So where should one begin their journey?


Let’s start with flavour. What you like in rum will likely depend largely on what you enjoy drinking already. Presuming you’re already a veteran whisk(e)y or spirit lover looking to convert to the light, we would look to take your favourite tipple and hopefully offer you a delicious sugarcane equivalent.


Bourbon lovers, let’s go to Barbados – the birthplace of molasses rum. Home to four distilleries, you’ll typically find an elegant, balanced, range of pot & column still blends here, which I’ve always found is the quintessential ‘sweet-spot’ in terms of rum flavour profiles. You’ll find tropical fruits, vanillin and coconut notes that will entice your palette far further south than Kentucky.


More of a straight shooting rye drinker? St. Lucia or Fiji might quench your thirst.


Irish Whiskey? Let’s head for a full-bodied Trinidad or aged Cuban.


Intense Islay more your jam? Let’s swap out smoke for funk in Jamaica. Or if you’re not a whisky drinker at all and you prefer a little tequila or mezcal - well, I’d love to introduce you to the world of agricoles and Clairin…


The important thing for any spirits lover to remember is that if you’ve only ever drunk ‘the cheap stuff’, chances are that you haven’t scratched the surface of what the rum world truly has to offer you. Think of the first spirits you ever tried, of any category – most of us certainly didn’t start at the top, and normally had something rough and ready that we regretted considerably the next day. Would you still drink that spirit now, or have you since discovered a huge amount of better quality options? I remember my first taste of rum was a spiced rum with coke. Now, there’s nothing wrong with mixing rum with coke, but if you think rum is only for mixing the chances are you still need to be introduced to some better rums.


Fortunately, there are many great places to do this. Specialist rum-focussed bars around the world have wonderful selections to choose from, and experienced, enthusiastic bartenders to help find your preferred spirit. And if you don’t have somewhere like that in your area, with virtual tastings and experiences available, it’s easier than ever to discover rums from the comfort of your own home. Ask questions, go to tastings, and explore what rum has to offer before you make up your mind. And if you ever get to attend a Black Tot tasting (whether virtual or in real life) I look forward to personally helping nudge the door open to a world of sugarcane spirits that might yet surprise you.

Written by Mitch Wilson, Global Ambassador for Black Tot Rum


Note - This article was first published as part of the Virtual Whisky Show 2020 Showguide, with the sole intention of ruffling some waistcoats and dislodging monacles (the author acknowledges that rum is not the only spirit category that carries with it some dated misconceptions…)

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