Is Rum the Next Big Thing After Bourbon?

Is Rum the Next Big Thing After Bourbon?

While bourbon fanatics go to extremes trying to score a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle or drive for miles to complete their array of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, a quiet surge in rum as an alternate spirit of interest is underway. As such, some collectors and admirers of fine spirits are beginning to ask, “Is rum the next big thing after bourbon?”

A Long and Problematic History

Rum was colonial America’s favorite spirit, and the mainland produced a great deal of it. But there’s a sordid history of slave labor and piracy behind the production of rum. The abuses inspired early abolitionists to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought enslaved people from Africa to work on sugar cane plantations in the early 1800s. It took many nations much longer than that to abolish slavery entirely. After America’s own bourbon rose to prominence, rum’s popularity faded except in the ranks of Britain’s Royal Navy. The daily ration of rum-based grog didn’t end until 1970.

Sneaking Into Sipping

Most casual drinkers think of rum merely as a base for mixed cocktails or the background spirit in a Tiki bar. However, a recent surge of interest in this “other” spirit has resulted in a boost in the production of premium sipping rums. Served in flights or by aficionados to their friends, rum is coming into its own as a flavorful spirit without the heat of bourbon, but with just as much character. Rum bars are opening in many cities, including New Orleans.

Rum Has a Broad Spectrum

Rum’s broad flavor spectrum, from white to very dark, offers a range of flavors to try. Drinkers devoted to brown whiskey find a friend in rum, with a flavor palate every bit as complex yet familiar. Notes of vanilla, caramel, and spices abound. Bourbon snobs may scoff at the age labels, or lack thereof, on bottles of rum. Jamaica and Barbados, along with Martinique (the only producer of Rhum Agricole), have stricter label requirements. In the case of Martinique, there are specific production requirements. Other rum producing countries are much looser about regulations.

In tropical climates, rum ages more quickly, and those who don’t do their research may wrongly determine that a bottle is too “young” to be of good quality. They’d be wrong. The variances in production can also stymie newbies. Rum can be distilled from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice or molasses (cooked, caramelized cane). Some white rums start out dark, but filtration turns them light again. Some young rums have added caramel coloring, and some producers add sugar.

Without standard regulation, it can be hard to tell what’s actually in the bottle. Nevertheless, rum enthusiasts put as much work into educating themselves about their spirit of choice as bourbon boosters, and rum sales generated $2.3 billion in revenue in 2019. Sales of ultra-premium rum grew more than 6 percent year-over-year in 2019, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

While it’s unlikely that rum, as the potential next thing after bourbon, will attain the heights as a collectible that bourbon has reached, hard-to-find rum will increasingly take its place among collections maintained by those who appreciate fine spirits.

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