Wrong motion, right discussion

on 12 May, 2014

Hamish Smith was at The Distillers City Debate, where the future of rum was the topic of discussion

A good debate is normally predicated on a good question. But not always. At the Worshipful Company of Distillers City Debate on the future of rum last week, the motion put to the floor of 100 or so observers, to be carried or opposed was thus:  “The future of rum lies with connoisseurs not clubbers”. 

Perhaps it's a pedantic observation, but the motion felt facile from the start. Thirty nine percent of rum's consumers are Indian or Filipino, buying bottles for £2-£3 a go. How many of these rum drinkers fall under either of the clubber or connoisseur consumer groups? 

The rum category almost entirely exists in the value to mid market segments, so any journey to super premium enlightenment would be a long one. Analysing  IWSR figures, around 25% of Scotch is sold for over $20, while 97% of Cognac sells in this premium/super-premium bracket. These are true connoisseur spirits. In contrast only 3% of rum sells for $20+.

In the pre-debate vote, I opted to oppose the motion. Not on the basis that connoisseurs won’t be part of the category’s future, more so this is a category that will continue to be many things to many people. As Lucy Britner wrote three years back in her Drinks International piece,  "rum is the  liquid equivalent of a mullet hair cut (business up front and a party in the back)”.

But despite the questionable motion, the debate got off to an informed start with Melissa Earlam, a city analyst at UBS, laying out the hard numbers, and pointing out the volume-dominance of Asia. She also highlighted the key brands that loom like skyscrapers over the category: Bacardi, McDowell’s No.1 Celebration, Tanduay and Captain Morgan. It’s fair to say none of which you are likely to find in a connoisseur’s cabinet (...although perhaps one or two higher-end expressions of Bacardi).

Proposing the motion was Ed Pilkington, marketing and innovation director for Diageo’s Western Europe business, who gave a lively advocacy of rum as a quality, sipping spirit. He made the points that probably the room had expected to hear, but expressed them with passion and eloquence. He said that rum is “the next big thing for the industry” that we need to “tell rum’s stories”, that “the category has been lost in a dark night-club” and that “rum tried to be vodka but vodka is more successful at being vodka”.

Though his pitch was Western markets-centric, Pilkington gave a measured assessment, and wasn’t blind to the truth that the high-value segment of rum is currently the small head of a rather large diplodocus. Instead he said that the small super-premium segment could drive the category forward and said rum could have “the best of both worlds” being “fun and premium” at the same time.

Chris Seale, a rum lifer who retired from Bacardi just this year, put forward the opposing argument, but also did not take an absolute view. He ventured that “connoisseurs are few while clubbers are many”, that “clubbers are aspirational and are going global” and warned that “connoisseurship can be a con”.

As the debate opened up to the floor and the pair descended into more informal discussion, they agreed that the category is multi-faceted, with multiple drinking occasions, one of which is social and high-energy, another is is solitary and more considered. But there are many more.

Whether rum's fragmented nature is its curse, or its strength, is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the big groups have it sussed. Diageo, with the likes of Captain Morgan Pampero, Bundaberg, Cacique and Zacapa, and Bacardi with its staircase of brands from the value Castillo through to the Facundo collection, both have portfolio approaches.

So how did the room vote at the end? Well, the majority ended up u-turning and opposing the motion. Though that could well have been down to the realisation that the motion was flawed rather than the debate that ensued, complex and well-fought as it was.

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