The Bore Behind the Bar: Can Rum Join Its Hipster Friends?


Melissa Ostrow

Over the last 20 years American bars have seen a renaissance in high-end liquors across almost every category: bourbon, vodka, gin, tequila, even mezcal. Missing among the list, though, is that old standby, rum. There are good and bad rums, but there is little innovation within the rum world itself, and little competition in quality.

Instead, there is consolidation. It's partly a consequence of geography: The vast majority of the world's rum supply is produced by small Caribbean island countries; rum exports represent a significant amount of their GDPs. As the global liquor industry has consolidated, so too has the rum sector: Today several countries are down to a handful of producers, which either age and market their product, or sell it in bulk to middlemen. Nor does it help that the sector overall is dominated by Bacardi, Diageo (makers of Captain Morgan), and Pernod Ricard (makers of Havana Club), which together account for over 30 percent of the market and largely dictate its direction.

The Caribbean is full of Captain Morgan clones—call them Midshipmen Morgans. The result is a staid product that's for great mixed drinks but not much else.

At the same time, local consolidation has gone so far that each island's producers dominate their own markets; there is no way you'll find Guyanese rum in Barbados, and vice versa. The West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers Association is fairly weak, meaning that new ideas and techniques, let alone products, are rarely shared—unlike in, say, the Scotch world, where barrels and ideas change hands frequently, resulting in a constant procession of new flavors and techniques.

Lacking local competition, these companies rarely innovate; instead, they follow the big guys' lead when it comes to exporting. In other words, the Caribbean is full of Captain Morgan clones—call them Midshipmen Morgans. The result is a staid product that's for great mixed drinks but not much else. One of the fastest-growing subcategories is rum-based alcopops, hardly the path to quality. The Captain, who probably swilled his rum straight from the tankard, is rolling in his grave.

Such stagnation is what makes Banks Five Island Rum so interesting. Under the stewardship of Arnaud de Trabuc, a master blender and spirits consultant based in Geneva, Banks is the first rum to incorporate spirits from different countries. Mr. de Trabuc bought aged and unaged barrels of rum from 20 producers on five islands (well, four—Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and Java—plus Guyana) and blended them in Europe. They were then aged briefly, resulting in a premium white rum that tastes unlike anything available on the market today. Thanks to the Javanese rum (technically Batavian arrack, a rum-like distillate), it has the complexity of an aged spirit but it retains the freshness of a newborn. "I included a bit of Javanese rum because I thought it brought out flavors in other rums," Mr. de Trabuc says.

Like most liquor categories, unaged, or white, rum is usually a sign of commercial impatience—the need to get large quantities out the door quickly. White rum is particularly common, since it usually ends up in crowd-pleasing cocktails like a daiquiri. "The premium white rum market is nonexistent," Mr. de Trabuc says.

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He's counting on Banks to change that. I've made a few simple rum cocktails with it, and it's pleasant on its own, too. The liquor clocks in at a pretty standard 86 proof, though it has a smoothness that makes it seem much lighter. There's a bit of pepper and some sourness, but also a long finish.

Banks and Mr. de Trabuc aren't alone. There are a number of artisanal rum producers and blenders setting up shop across the country these days. Given the dominance of Bacardi and its ilk, it won't be an easy sell. But if they can get even just a small foothold in the market, they could make rum as exciting and innovative as the rest of the liquor world has become.