Sun, sand sea and a rum punch. It’s all part of the Caribbean experience. But there’s rum . . . and there’s rum. Each island has its distinctive taste — or rather, its distinctive range of rums, from white to dark, heavy to light, mass-market to premium quality.
Outside the region, a few big non-Caribbean brands capture most rum sales — and they’re quite acceptable, especially for mixing in a big glass of rum punch or rum-and-coke. In Europe at least, most are blended from Caribbean rums, exported in bulk by regional distillers.
Caribbean rum producers have traditionally enjoyed a special position in the European market. Duty-free status gave them a cost advantage over large-scale bulk rum producers such as Brazil or India, Thailand or the Philippines. But EU import rules kept the Caribbean producers relatively small. Until 2000, market access was capped by a quota, making investment in expansion unattractive.
The quotas have now gone. But so has the Caribbean’s privileged market access. From February next year, everyone can sell to Europe duty-free — including countries where scale economies, low wages and hidden subsidies keep costs ultra-low. Caribbean producers will still benefit to some extent from established market relationships with the blenders, who know and like their product. But bulk rum prices — and profit margins — will come under pressure.
That could matter. Rum exports earn the region US$260 million a year — that’s as much as the total combined exports of Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent. With around 50,000 jobs, the region’s rum industry employees outnumber the total population of St Kitts and Nevis.
Increased competitive pressures, however, may be a blessing in disguise. The real profit potential is in branded rums, bottled, labelled, and shelf-ready. Wine and whisky drinkers enjoy picking over the fine points, and are more than happy to pay for quality. The market is out there for sip-and-savour rums. The problem, says one regional distiller, is the cost of brand development. It can take US$30 million, spread over five to 10 years, to get recognition in a major market for a single brand. But Caribbean travel helps create a taste for quality rums, which have not until now been easy to find overseas. Most of the region’s big rum producers are now exporting a premium product:
Thanks to its world-famous bitters, Angostura, with 90% of the Trinidad and Tobago market, benefits from a brand name with worldwide recognition — and a distribution network to match. Rums like VAT 19, Black Label and Royal Oak are also well known in the region, and Angostura’s bulk rums are widely used in the major international blends. The company has received Trinidad and Tobago’s Exporter of the Year award four years in succession. But Angostura’s branded rums have not until now been well-known overseas.
Angostura has now launched its own new premium brands in the Caribbean, North America, and several European markets. Top of the range is Angostura 1824 — named for the year when Angostura aromatic bitters was first manufactured. Blended entirely from rums at least 12 years old, 1824 sells for around US$60 a bottle. With production limited to 60,000 bottles a year, it’s certainly not aimed at the mass market. Next in quality is Angostura 1919 Premium Rum — the name echoes the well-established VAT 19 and Fernandes 1919 brands. It’s a blend of rums at least eight years old, and has a distinctive taste, with hints of molasses, caramel, cocoa and vanilla. Then there’s a five-year old Gold rum, closest of the premium range to the company’s traditional blends; a five-year old Dark rum, similar in some ways to a Latin añejo; and a three-year old White, light and dry.
El Dorado rums, produced by Demerara Distillers of Guyana, have exported their premium range for close to 10 years. Starting from the top, there’s a 15-year old Special Reserve selling from upwards of US$23, duty free; a 12-year old; a five-year old; a spiced rum; as well as gold and white non-premium rums. They’re sold across the Caribbean, in North and South America, in the UK and in Europe — Spain and Finland in particular have been marketing successes.
The distinctive El Dorado flavour comes in part from the two wooden stills at its Diamond distillery south of Georgetown — the only ones still in operation in the world today. There’s a wooden “pot” still, which produces rums in batches, making a heavy-bodied, strongly-flavoured, aromatic rum; and a wooden continuous still, which produces light, clean-tasting rums. Other continuous stills produce nine distinctive types of rum, each playing its own role in the company’s blends.
Cockspur rums — the brand dates from 1884 — are produced in Barbados by the West India Rum Distillery for Hanschell Inniss, a division of Goddard Enterprises. Five Star is their widest-selling brand, both locally and on the export market, supplemented by two premium rums, “Silky” Old Gold and VSOR (Very Special Old Reserve), which is smooth, rounded and velvety, with a plummy colour and a woody bouquet. Cockspur derives its character from the use of both pot and continuous stills. So far, most export sales have been to Britain and North America; but the company is now exploring new avenues for international distribution.
Mount Gay, also Barbados-based, and celebrating its 300th anniversary next year, exports its flagship Eclipse brand, first developed in 1910, and a premium Extra Old, a well-balanced blend with notes of spiced fruitcake and molasses. Both are blended from rums produced in both pot and continuous stills. The company is majority-owned by Rémy-Cointreau, a French company with high-profile cognacs, armagnacs, wines and liqueurs in its portfolio, and which forms part of the Maxxium alliance along with Highland Distillers, Jim Beam, and Vin & Sprit, the makers of Absolut vodka. Links like these make international marketing for Mount Gay a relatively straightforward operation. The yachting fraternity are a target market.
Wray and Nephew in Jamaica began to move away from bulk rums in the 1980s, and are now in 45 international markets — they’re strong in Mexico and Peru, as well as both ethnic and mainstream markets in Britain and North America. They’re distilled using the traditional Jamaican method, producing small batches from a double pot still — fermented “wash” with an 8% alcohol content passes through two retorts into a collector, reaching 80-90% alcohol. As everywhere, blending matters — supervised in this case by Joy Spence, the first female “Master Blender” in the 400-year history of the Caribbean rum business.
The company’s flagship range is Appleton Jamaica Rum, starting with the 21 Year Old, which retails at close to US$70 a bottle duty-free, with production limited to 12,000 bottles a year. Estate VX is a blend of five- and ten-year old rums (hence the Roman numerals). Extra is a blend incorporating rums up to 18 years old, and Special is the standard product, well established on the local and overseas markets, and good in a piña colada or with a range of mixers. Wray and Nephew White Overproof is part of Jamaican culture, revered by uptown socialites and rumshop denizens alike. It has 63% alcohol — most rums are around 40% — so treat it with respect. Coruba is a heavy, dark rum whose flavour comes through well in punches, including the traditional Planter’s.
HOW CARIBBEAN RUM GETS ITS CHARACTER
Most Caribbean rums are made from molasses — the dark syrup which is a by-product of the sugar industry. The molasses from each island has a distinctive flavour — Trinidad’s is unusually sweet, and commands a premium price. Water is added to make a “wash”, and yeast to start the fermentation which converts sugars to alcohol. The yeast also influences the end product — Angostura has used its own strain since 1949.
During distillation the fermented liquor passes through four distillation columns, gaining purity in each pass. Heavy rums are drawn off early in the distillation process, leaving the rum with more body, more flavour and aroma-bearing “oils” and esters, which create a fruity, floral taste, sometimes compared to honey. Light rums are drawn off later, and are closer to pure alcohol.
Some rum is exported in bulk for blending overseas. The rest is aged in oak barrels, usually once-used bourbon whisky barrels. Air can permeate the wood, so the rum experiences a gradual process of oxidation. Compounds in the oak also play a part in maturation. Rum reaches maturity more quickly in tropical conditions than in temperate countries, because the higher ambient temperature speeds chemical reactions.
The French islands also produce rhum agricole, which is produced from fresh cane juice, not molasses, with a distinctive heavy-bodied aromatic taste. Then there are spiced rums; a well-known example is the Captain Morgan brand.
THE ANGOSTURA RUM STORY
An old-fashioned bottle with an ill-fitting label — a familiar fixture on bar shelves from Fiji to Florida. The fine print tells the story: Angostura has earned Royal Warrants of Appointment as suppliers to the Kings and Queens of Britain, Prussia, Spain and Sweden; medals from the great international exhibitions — London in 1862, Paris in 1867, Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia in 1876, Australia in 1879; and some hard-fought early intellectual property battles with a host of shameless imitators. The carefully-preserved Secret Recipe, locked away in bank vaults. And the signature of the inventor, Johann Siegert.
Siegert was born in 1796 in Silesia, then part of the German kingdom of Prussia (now part of Poland). He studied medicine in Berlin, and fought with the Prussian army of General von Blücher against Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, in alliance with Wellington’s British troops. The war over, he sailed with a group of German offices to Venezuela, and joined the army of Simon Bolívar — liberator of most of South America from Spanish rule. He was posted to the town of Angostura on the Orinoco river (now known as Ciudad Bolívar) as the liberation army’s surgeon-general.
In 1824 he developed Amargo Aromático, or aromatic bitters, as a cure for the stomach ailments which plagued the troops. But, like the 19th-century anti-malarial quinine-flavoured tonic water, bitters soon moved out of the medicine chest into the drinks cabinet. Pink gin, sherry-and-bitters, Manhattans, champagne cocktails . . . a few drops of Angostura became an essential ingredient.
There’s a whole range of other uses. An Angostura bottle may last a generation in an English household, but in a Trinidad kitchen it’s emptied in a couple of months. A dash of Angostura is used to enhance fruit juice, ice cream, desserts, and for some cooks it’s an essential ingredient in marinades and stews. True to its origins, bitters and soda is still a popular cure for an upset stomach or a hangover. And Down Under, designated drivers take a Lemon Lime and Bitters as a standard quencher.
Dr Siegert’s sons moved the operation to Trinidad after their father’s death in 1870, taking the secret recipe with them. In 1949 the company diversified into rum, which became the company’s main business by the 1960s. Since then Angostura has developed further, acquiring the dominant rum companies in St Lucia and Suriname; North American drinks and condiments subsidiaries, Todhunter and World Harbors; interests in Scotch whisky; companies in Canada, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands; and a major tourism venture, Tobago Plantations Ltd.
The history is strong. Angostura’s museum, located at its plant just east of Port of Spain, illustrates an important side of Trinidad and Tobago’s history and folklore. (It also houses the Barcant collection of butterflies, with 8,000 carefully mounted specimens.) You can see the room where Angostura is made. There’s a strong and familiar smell. But don’t ask for the recipe.