Two years ago, Raul Raghav, the bar manager at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, Mumbai, launched a rum menu at the latter. However, the menu didn’t work as people were into vodka at that time. However, fast forward to 2021. Two weeks ago, Stilldistilling Spirits co-founder Kasturi Banerjee launched Makazai Rum in Goa.
If we had to do a Twitter "How It Started" Vs "How’s It Going" meme, those two incidents perfectly capture the growth of rum in 2021. So much so that the first month of the new year itself has seen two rum launches—Makazai in Goa and The Lovers Rum in Goa and Gurugram. Even beverage company Svami launched a non-alcoholic Rum and Cola just a few months ago that’s selling on par with their Pink G&T across markets, according to co-founder Aneesh Bhasin.
How It Started
Indians have had a complicated history with rum. Most of us had rum with cola as our first cocktails back in college. It’s what Aneesh Bhasin, co-founder of Svami, calls "the national cocktail of India". Yet, as we grew up, we became fans of other spirits such as whisky, vodka and now gin. Rum became a spirit of nostalgia, with even bars not really taking the effort to popularise the spirit. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Captain Jack Sparrow (from Pirates of The Caribbean) did more for rum than brands like Captain Morgan and the like.
Arijit Bose, co-founder of The Lovers Rum, says we never developed appreciation for rum—until now. “People started off by drinking rum and cola and moved on to vodka and other spirits. This skewed our perception and we never really considered rum as a beautiful spirit,” he says.
Raghav, who’s been with The Bombay Canteen team since the establishment began six years ago, says that while Old Monk was responsible for introducing people to spirits, it was also responsible for giving them their first hangovers and bad memories which is why it takes more effort to convince the audience to try rum cocktails. “Also, many customers feel that rum is just a winter drink,” he adds.
Which is why education is an area that rum brand BACARDÍ has focused on extensively throughout the years. “Our advocacy programme follows the ‘Liquid to Lips’ format and we try to show how you can make the best Mojito with white rum for example. We also have a ‘Rum, Two, Three’ programme where we showcase what drinks can be made with rum and just two other ingredients,” says Harish Acharekar, brand ambassador of BACARDÍ, adding that while whisky masterclasses are popular, people need similar masterclasses for rum “so that it becomes more approachable”.
How Is Going
Today, a younger generation that is well-travelled and more informed is trying to change the rum landscape and bringing it on par with their Western counterparts. Malvika Sahay, director, F&B at The Ritz-Carlton, Bengaluru, that features an exclusive rum bar called RumBah, says people are looking to replicate their rum experience from their travels. “Where the focus was on tiki cocktails and more classic rum cocktails earlier, now we are seeing people ask for sophisticated cocktails like Rum Manhattan, Rum Old Fashioned and Palmetto,” she says.
Raghav’s love for rum is evident from his Instagram handle @yescubalibre that pays homage to the classic rum and cola cocktail. He, too, is excited about the new launches that gives something to bar managers that they never had before —variety. “It’s great to see craft rum in India. Take Makazai for example, you can make delicious cocktails with the White variant while its Gold variant is perfect as a sipping rum,” he explains.
How It Happened
Bose says that three factors came together at the right time to bring rum to the forefront. Customers and bartenders have become more knowledgeable about rum than ever, distributors have figured out how to manage supply of the spirit to bars that have also been well... raising the bar and finally, spending power among customers has shot up considerably too.
There is another key difference with rums today: they are transparent about their ingredients and want to build trust from the audience based on it. This has also resulted in rums finally ditching artificial ingredients and sweeteners. “Adding colours and sugarcane spirits isn’t going to cut it anymore. The conversation now is about character, terroir and describing whether it’s spicy, dark or gold while you sip rum on the rocks,” Bose says.
Banerjee’s brand Makazai is also appealing to those who seek transparency. “We are extremely transparent about our whole rum-making process from our branding to our packaging and everything in between. This allows anybody who is experimental to try our rums and see that it's not a harsh spirit as they might have imagined,” she says.
Goa-based Adinco Distilleries has also launched its export-only Casino Royale Luxury Rum with a complete ground-up approach towards making the spirit. As Solomon Diniz, managing director of the company, says, “The industry is coming of age and we have made this rum from scratch keeping the requirement of the market.” The rum started production in 2017 and is currently being exported to Russia with an Indian launch under a different name (due to copyright reasons) being planned for later this year.
Legacy companies are coming out with new variants too. BACARDÍ counts India as its second-biggest market after the US and it’s one of the only three countries where the brand is produced after the US territory of Puerto Rico and Mexico. To keep things that way, BACARDÍ has been keen to introduce newer, more premium variants to the Indian market. Acharekar says their aged rums— Cuatro (four years), Ocho (eight years) and Diez (ten years)—will be a game-changer, as they are premiumising rum and its experience in the country. “Rum has always been there but it’s never enjoyed the popularity that whisky and gin has had. I am confident that mid-2021 onwards, rum will take off in India,” the BACARDÍ brand ambassador predicts.
How It Might Go
It’s clear rum is having a moment but how far it’ll go depends on how it fares this year. Bhasin from Svami says he has a collection of 15-odd rums but feels that wider appeal may still take some more time. Bose from The Lovers Rum agrees and says with rules being relaxed and the spirit reaching new geographies, rum will start picking up in the months ahead.
Sahay of Ritz-Carlton Bengaluru’s RumBah believes that rum will also start attracting the whisky and wine audience. When it reopens in a few months, there are plans to launch a ladies night and target a new clientele that’s willing to experiment as well.
Raghav believes a new rum menu is now overdue after missing the mark two years ago. “2021 is the beginning of India’s rum revolution,” Banerjee says.