For many Indians, their love affair with rum started and ended with Old Monk. When it was time to graduate to something more premium, it was invariably high-end whisky first, and then Single Malts. Along the way, there were occasional forays into vodka, and more recently, gin. Rum, particularly the dark variety, was always something you drank in your youth when you were perennially short of cash. Rum hasn’t had its vodka or gin moment in this country as yet, which is really sad, because premium rum, the so-called ‘sipping rum’, is as smooth in taste and pleasure to savour as a good single malt. And it is much more affordable in terms of price. The situation is all the more surprising, given that India is the world’s second-largest market for Bacardi white rum (in terms of volume) after the US. The white rum, of course, is mostly drunk with a mixer like Coke. Indians who drink white rum rarely ever shift to the darker variety.

Premium rum’s lack of popularity in India is not because of lack of availability in the local market. The past few years have seen dozens of sipping rums hitting the Indian market, brands like Ron Zacapa, Havana Club, Reserva Ocho, Clement, El Dorado, Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, Angostura etc. The problem is that rum has never been marketed the way vodka, and more recently, gin, has been. Till the early 1990s, for example, vodka had the reputation of being a stiff drink, drunk largely by tough-looking Russians to get through their harsh winters. The upbeat marketing campaigns around the likes of Smirnoff, Bacardi, and Grey Goose changed all that. Everyone drinks vodka these days. Like in the case of vodka, it is only the big global players like Diageo (owner of Ron Zacapa), Pernod (owner of Havana Club), and Bacardi (owner of Reserva Ocho) who can create a compelling image for rum with their massive reach and budget. But, they have so far been reluctant to do to rum what they did to vodka worldwide.

It is all the more surprising, because sipping rum has everything going for it in a market like India. Its sweeter flavour profile makes it easier to develop a taste for, it is highly affordable as compared to the highend whiskies, and it is versatile when it comes to cocktails. The inherent complexity and the flavour of the rum adds a new dimension to the cocktails. And most importantly, a large number of urban Indians are familiar with rum, so it is only a matter of them rediscovering it. Internationally, though, rum is having its moment. Rum tasting groups and clubs rival single malt clubs in many cities. Bars like La Maison Du Whisky, Auld Alliance & Origin — Shangri La in Singapore, and Rum& Sugar, Burlock etc. in London, give rum the pride of place. And there has been a lot of action on the manufacturing front as well. Last year, Campari-Milano (the group that owns Aperol, Campari etc.) acquired the much-revered Trois Rivières, and two other rum brands, from Martinique.

Moët-Hennessy has also jumped into the rum bandwagon with its recent launch of Eminente Reserva — a premium sipping rum. Bruno Mars, the Grammy award winning singer, invested in a rum brand called SelvaRey in 2014 and is now the ‘Creative Visionary’ for the brand, and is involved in almost everything from designing the bottle, to the rum’s flavour profile, and, of course, promotions. Rum, as we know it today, has had a fascinating history. Tracing its origins is like revisiting medieval history from school or college. Rum is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane — sugar cane juice, sugar cane molasses, sugar cane honey, or any other part of the sugar cane plant. No other spirit can match its geographically diverse evolution: sugar cane was cultivated in Papua New Guinea (8000 BC), first records of distilling sugar cane juice can be traced to India (14th century), modern day rum found its home in the Caribbean Islands (17th century), and the world’s largest selling brand of rum comes from Philippines (21st century).

One of the biggest challenges that rum has faced, and still faces as compared to wine or whisky, is that there is no effective classification system for rums. In the past, there were attempts to classify rum based on its colour — white, dark, gold, etc. or the region (island) that the rum originated from. Rum is made in over 50 countries, in all continents barring Europe and Antarctica. Each rum producing country has its own set of regulations. What is permitted in one country, is deemed illegal in another, so it’s almost impossible to have a global consensus on regulations. In order to clear ambiguity around classification of rums and lend more credibility to a growing segment of premium rums, two of the biggest names in the industry, Luca Gargano of Velier, and Richard Seale of Foursquare distillery, proposed the following classification for rum: Single Pot Still Rum: A pot still rum from a single distillery. Single Column Still Rum: A column still rum from a single distillery. Single Blended Rum: A blend of pot and column still rum from a single distillery. Blended Rum: A rum that contains pot still rum, and is a product of more than one distillery. Rum: A rum that contains no pot still rum, and contains only column distilled rum from multiple distilleries

For those familiar with Scotch whisky, this classification pretty much follows the scotch whisky model. While it offers a great starting point, the emphasis is on distillation/production process, hence, does not capture some key information viz. ageing, base material (molasses, cane juice etc.), and country of origin. But given rum’s reputation of not having any rules, the above classification offers a great starting point for consumers as well as the rum industry. An important category that doesn’t get captured effectively by the above classification is Rhum Agricole (‘rhum’ is French for rum and ‘agricole’ means agricultural). Rhum Agricole is a style of rum made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice, and must begin its fermentation within a day. This style of rum comes mostly from the French Caribbean islands. Rhum Agricole was first made in Martinique. Martinique is the only rum producing nation to have its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée — AOC, like the French wine that sets out strict rules regarding rum production practices. Rhum Agricole is appreciated by rum lovers for its unique earthy, grassy, and herbal notes along with overlying fruity notes of banana, pineapple, mango, and papaya.

In India, though, all this will be far into the future. We need to first get to a stage of appreciating rum, like we have started doing with wine and whisky. From the few rum tastings that my company has done for close friends who swear by their whiskies, it wasn’t surprising that all of them were pleasantly surprised by what they tasted, and were completely won over. Going by this experience, I am sure rum will have its moment in India, sooner than later.