The rum report: Jamaican rum

16 June, 2014

Jamaican rum is a reference point of the rum taste spectrum. Hamish Smith looks into its past, present and future

Springing from the sugar industry that fuelled colonialism in the 17th-18th century, Jamaican rum was an early English archetype, but once unshackled it went its own way, carving out its own inimitable style. 

“The English were the first to begin making rum from fermented sugar cane but the product was an intoxicating, rough and unpleasant liquor, initially used to trade with the American colonies for salted fish, pork, beef, timber and livestock,” says Andrea Conzonato, chief marketing officer of Gruppo Campari, which owns Wray & Nephew and Appleton Estate. “As techniques improved, rum became a much more palatable and popular beverage.”

Jamaican rum is characterised by its big body and even bigger flavour. Those of a Scotch persuasion liken Jamaican rum to Islay whisky, such is its assault on the palate. 

Copper pot distillation, long fermentation and an emphasis on ageing certainly have their roots in the Scotch industry. And those unsure of what esters are only need take a whiff of a Jamaican rum. This is the closest you get to bananas and pineapple without a banana or a pineapple. 

Two brands stand out from the Jamaican crowd – Wray & Nephew and Appleton Estate. It is said every household in Jamaica owns a bottle of Wray & Nephew Overproof. From cradle to grave it is used – and not always for drinking. Its 63% abv makes it quite useful stuff around the house. Overproof is exported to the likes of the UK, the US and Canada, but has become the world’s leading high-strength white rum because of its entrenched domestic support. 

Appleton is Jamaica’s leading export brand – its top markets are Canada, Mexico, Peru, the US and the UK – and it is also widely available in Jamaica, where it is the major aged rum. According to Conzonato, Gruppo Campari is looking to expand its footprint: “There are a large number of markets in both the developed and developing world where the rum category is growing quickly, and this is where some of the opportunity lies.” 

According to Tina Ingwersen-Matthiesen of Borco, which owns Old Pascas rum, “the most important historical event for Jamaican rum was the origin and dissemination of tiki culture”. “Jamaican rum became an important component of several cocktails. Among them, of course, Mai Tai, Zombie and Hurricane. But even simple rum long drinks with tropical juices became internationally en vogue,” she says.

Old Pacas comes in Jamaican and Barbadian styles and a lot of its sales are in Germany. It also does well in eastern Europe and south east Asia. “In these regions we have had great distribution partners for many years,” says Ingwersen-Matthiesen. 

In 2012, another brand rose to international prominence – Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum. Jamaica-born Chris Blackwell grew up thinking he would one day take the reins at Wray & Nephew, the business owned by his grandfather. In the event it was sold and Blackwell ended up setting up his music label, the world-famous Island Records. According to its UK distributor Mangrove, the brand is “characteristically Jamaican”. 

Here’s Blackwell himself: “I think Jamaica’s somehow blessed as an island. That’s why I insisted my Blackwell rum be a dark, Jamaican rum, made in Jamaica.”

As far as international growth is concerned, the Jamaican style is just getting into its stride. Campari’s entrance is a positive step for all Jamaica’s export-led producers, so let’s hear what it has planned for its marque rum brand: “Appleton is first and foremost a Jamaican rum. We must therefore capitalise on the brand’s association with this wonderful and vibrant island. We are assessing all its elements including, but not limited to, the positioning, range and packaging.” 

In Campari’s words: “Watch this space.” 

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