Rum ambassador Ian Burrell says the spiced rum sector is finally coming of age. 

In my role as an ambassador for rum, over the years journalists have often asked what my favourite spiced rum is. For fun, or merely avoidance, my answer would always be: “I’m too old for spiced rum.”

But pressed on the subject, I would point out that the category has two very different faces: real rums bottled at 37.5% abv and higher that had been spiced, and spiced rums that were less than 37.5% abv, and were no more than vodkas with caramel, vanilla, sugar and other spices added.

Unfortunately, it’s the latter style that has in recent years made its mark. And it is actually the lack of definition of what spiced rum is that has contributed to this. Any spiced product in a bottle with an exploitative Caribbean theme or some form of nautical connection on its label could be (and still is) sold as a spiced rum. Even worse, sold as pure rum. Just take a trip to the local supermarket and look at the rum shelf to see how many spiced non-rum products are labelled as rum.

So the fortunes of spiced rum have been a double- edged sword for the rum sector. On one hand, spiced rums are seen as a gateway into ‘real rum’ as its popularity and increased sales have helped to drive the rum category forward. But on the other, it is seen as detrimental to the category, giving consumers the wrong impression of what rum should taste like.

This is compounded by misinformation. Google ‘top 10 rums’ and you‘ll likely find some blogger or writer’s lazy or misinformed list, mostly made up of spiced rums, rum liqueurs and spirit drinks (a legal description of spirit product bottled under 37.5% abv or containing over 20g of sugar per litre).

To understand the frustrations of ‘unadulterated rum producers’, you just need to look at what flavoured gin is doing to the premium gin category. Innovation in gin has attracted hordes of new customers to the category, but then you arrive at Bubble Gum gin...

The two categories do share some similarities. But when people tout rum as the new gin, I like to qualify it: spiced rum is the new gin. Why? Well gin is made from neutral spirit, flavoured with herbs and spices – and so are many spiced rums.

Similar to gin, the economics make sense for fledgling spiced rum brands. The spirit doesn't have to be aged – so there are no angels stealing their share of the liquid as it evaporates through wooden barrels, losing you time and money.

But the use of young spirits doesn’t automatically mean they aren’t good. There are some tasty well-made spiced rums out there, which is sometimes lost among the spiced rum charlatans trying to make a brand in the space of a week, with crap spirits doused up with cheap flavours.

Coming of age

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But things are starting to change – there are now enough good products out there to say spiced rum is coming of age.

Even distilleries here in the UK that make good gin are now looking to increase their turnover by using those same ‘craft gin’ ethics to make ‘craft spiced rums’. They are buying sugarcane molasses, fermenting, distilling and some are even ageing their rums before they infuse or macerate local or natural spices into their blends.

We are also seeing a rise in ‘botanical’ rums, which some may say is a marketing gimmick, but the technique of redistilling rum with natural flavours and spices, and/or blending this with infused flavoured rum to me is potentially a good one, resulting in subtle flavours and even more opportunity to create quality, clear spiced rums.

Not least, a tool for bartenders to make great cocktails too.

There is also now a conscious and economical decision for new brands to lessen the amount of sugar in their blends. Many of the new craft spiced rums emphasise that they are sugar-free or low in sugar and that their ingredients are as natural as possible. This craft or boutique trend is slowly but surely driving up the retail price for some smaller brands, resulting in a new premium category for spiced rums.

Not all will own a distillery, of course, but that doesn’t stop new brands from purchasing authentic rum, from a blending house or direct from the Caribbean, that has been ‘tropically aged’ for up to three years. Into this quality, authentic rum base they can then infuse spices.

So, spiced rums are maturing, and while there are cheap products with cheap ingredients, rushed to market to take advantage, a new premium class has also emerged, where provenance, craft, unique botanicals or spices, dryness, a great story and packaging are driving sales.

With more than 10.8 million flavoured and spiced rum bottles sold in the UK in 2020 and even more predicted for the end of 2021, spiced rum has a big part to play in the future of rum – it’s our job to showcase the ones that are doing things properly.