Remember the time you had your first cocktail? It was a very specific rum mixed with Coke or Pepsi. For most Indians, their love for Old Monk is as real as their first love affair during their college days. But as they grew up and their tastes evolved, they moved to more expensive spirits.
All that’s changing now with a slew of homegrown rums such as Maka Zai and Segrado Aldeia launching in Goa this year at four-figure price points closer to gins and vodka rather than three-digit prices of Old Monk. No longer is rum just cheap or affordable alcohol—and a determined set of entrepreneurs and blenders is hoping to reinstate India’s position as the original home of rum.
Our generation’s affair with Old Monk might be spirited but rum has been playing bad boy for generations. “In earlier times, rum was given out as ration to sailors, it was known as the drink of the devil because it warmed you up in cold places in India and this whole idea that rum is a drink of voyagers, pirates and the Navy played against the spirit,” Pankaj Balachandran, industry veteran and ex-brand ambassador of Diplomatico Rum, says.
“India just got the wrong part of information about rum. We made a stronger, darker navy-style rum and because of our history with the British, it just became a winter drink. Elsewhere in the world, from Barbados to Mexico to Philippines, rum is a hot climate drink,” says Arijit Bose, who has worked with bars in Delhi, Mumbai, Singapore and now Goa and launched The Lover’s Rum in India in January.
Balachandran goes on to say that the world’s first cocktail isn’t an Old Fashioned as many believe. “There was a drink called Old Glog which was basically rum mixed with sugar to make it more palatable and lime to prevent scurvy among seafolk.”
This would eventually become the Daiquiri and put Cuba and the Caribbean front and centre when it came to rum. Here again, India got a raw deal. “We haven’t explored industrial rum or rhum agricole, a style of rum distilled from sugarcane juice. This is despite the fact that we’re among the top three producers of sugarcane and the first to use sugarcane in the world. Sugarcane has travelled from India to the Caribbean via the Portuguese and its sad to see that rum is called an international spirit from the Caribbean islands,” Balachandran says.
With history failing rum for Indians, it was up to international rum brands to elevate the experience of the spirit. A decade ago, rum lovers finally got a chance to taste different rums from around the world with brands like Ron Zacapa, Mount Gay, Havana 7 and Pyrat coming to Indian bars.
“I remember working at a five-star hotel and these brands came in about 10 years ago. People asked for these rums but eventually the excitement and consumption died down. The registration fees and the consumption were so lopsided that the brands pulled back from the Indian market,” Balachandran says.
So we went back to Old Monk and Bacardi for dark or white rum respectively. It was only around 2016, when Venezuelan rum brand Diplomatico and then Kraken came to India that rum once again started finding its way around bars and bartenders, and along with gin was set for exponential growth.
What gin did a couple of years ago, rum is doing in 2021. With homegrown companies finally releasing their rum brands, there is palpable excitement among rum lovers.
Kasturi Banerjee, the founder of independent distillery Stilldistilling Spirits, launched Maka Zai, a premium white and gold craft rum, early this year. She says we shouldn’t be surprised to see homegrown rums considering the abundance of sugarcane in the country. Banerjee cites the example of gin. “For a long time, we only had Blue Riband gin before homegrown gin brands came on the scene and took the gin movement mainstream. They’ve shown us the path for rum,” she says.
It also helps that customers are now happy to experiment. “It’s like music. In my time, people were listening to Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. Today, everyone listens to everything. The same trend is happening with drinks where people want to try everything. All that matters is who you’re with, what kind of event it is, and what time of the day it is,” Bose says.
Balachandran has a word of caution though and wonders if the current craze is just for show. “Many brands get picked up for the first time because everyone wants to try the new kid on the block and post it on social media. So having a cool label and story is good but the real survival for brands starts after that.”
And so, the question is: Will Indians pay premium prices for rum, which they’re used to seeing as a cheap drink? Stakeholders say that eventually it will come down to choice. “You must realise that making rum is very labour intensive. If you buy something for ₹500, it’s going to be cheap but a similar product for ₹1,500 can be great, if you know what you’re looking for,” Bose explains. It takes at least three years to age the spirit, then there’s angel’s share (liquid lost to evaporation during the ageing process), labelling, bottling, corks and excise laws that make rum expensive to sell. “Eventually, you get what you pay for,” says Bose.
With Indian rums making a noise, all that’s left is for the international brands to come back and turn the rum party on its head. As Bose says, “International brands won’t survive without homegrown ones, and homegrown brands need competition from international brands, and both wouldn’t survive if Old Monk and Bacardi weren’t around.”
Priyanko Sarkar is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer covering the beverage industry.