Why 2018 will be a rum year (possibly)

UK sales look to top £1bn in a year, following the boutique path to riches cut by gin. Unlike ‘mother’s ruin’, however, rum is fiddly and expensive to make

Revellers in need of festive spirit are reaching for rum in record numbers, new figures show, suggesting the pirate’s tipple of choice is primed to mimic the ongoing resurgence of gin.

There is more than one way to make rum but the process always starts with sugar cane. Typically, the cane is crushed in a mill, producing juice to be processed into molasses, a thick and bittersweet syrup. The molasses is fermented over time using yeast before being distilled. This is a delicate and scientific process that involves heating the liquid, often in a large copper pot, until the alcohol evaporates and then collected. Depending on the producer, it is then aged, often in oak barrels, to alter its flavour and character.

UK sales of rum reached £991m for the nine months to the end of September, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), which expects the annual figure to top £1bn for the first time before the first salvo of fireworks ushers in 2018.

The sugar cane-based spirit is slated to hit this billion-pound watermark just a year behind gin, the phenomenal success story of the alcoholic drinks industry in recent years.

Once an unglamorous drinks cabinet staple, gin has harnessed an image of fashionable sophistication, helping to fuel record annual UK sales of 47m bottles, enough to mix 25 G&Ts for every person of legal drinking age.

This is partly thanks to upmarket distillers such as Sipsmith, founded in a London workshop in 2009 and sold last year to Japanese spirits giant Beam Suntory in a deal thought to be worth £50m.

While rum may be chasing gin in the sales stakes, building a domestic champion is a challenge few have attempted.

The bulbous copper vats of the English Spirit Distillery in Great Yeldham, Essex
The bulbous copper pots of the English Spirit Distillery in Essex. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

But in a sleepy corner of rural Essex, somewhere between Steeple Bumpstead and Belchamp Walter, a faint aroma of the Caribbean hangs in the winter air.

The English Spirit Distillery, housed in a 19th-century barn, employs 15 people making rum from scratch using sugar cane molasses distilled in bulbous copper pots.

Founder and master-distiller Dr John Walters said the business was the first in the UK – and still one of just two along with Scotland’s Dark Matter distillery – to make rum this way.


Walters makes a variety of spirits but has found rum to be perhaps the most searching test of his knowledge as an Oxford biochemistry graduate.

“The challenge with any spirit is to present it in its naked form with access to all of its benefits and faults,” said Walters. “With rum you need a lot of expertise.”

Unlike gin, which can be made relatively quickly with little more than ethanol and botanicals, rum is expensive and fiddly.

Importing molasses is costly – Walters gets his from Venezuela – while the tarry syrup is messy and hard to handle.

Yields are typically low because yeast, required for fermentation, does not respond well to the acidity of molasses.

“All the commercial odds are stacked against you,” Walters said.

rum cocktails next to a Caribbean sea
Rum, the taste of the Caribbean. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Nonetheless, the effort is paying off. Sales of his three brands, led by flagship Old Salt Rum, were 40% higher than 2016, leapfrogging vodka sales in the process.

Ian Burrell, the self-styled Global Rum Ambassador, thinks others may follow Walters into rum-making but not in great numbers.

“I can definitely see that happening but it will take time,” he said. “You can make a craft gin within a couple of days but with rum to get your consumer to pay a premium, they want to see it aged.

“You need to stick it in a barrel for a few years to get some character and flavour. Imagine buying a car, and as soon as you get the keys, you’re told you can’t have it for a few years until it’s ready? It’s a waiting game.”

But Burrell is confident that, as far as consumers go, the moment in the sun has arrived for his favourite spirit.

William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751)
William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751). Photograph: Burstein Collection/Corbis

“Rum cocktails are some of the most popular ones ... mojitos, daiquiris. And there’s a rise in tiki-style drinks too, Mai Tais, Pina Coladas etc.

“They not only use rum in abundance but may use several in one cocktail.”

He is also predicting an upsurge for spiced rums, usually made using imported spirits and infused with spices and other ingredients such as fruit peel.

The variety of flavour this offers, he said, echoes one of the advantages that gin has enjoyed in its rise in popularity.

If anything rum’s chequered past ought to afford it a more exalted place behind the bar in the UK already.

Dr John Walters
Dr John Walters runs the English Spirit Distillery. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

A century before William Hogarth’s 1751 print “Gin Lane” depicted the moral turpitude that came to be associated with the spirit, rum was already corrupting souls and livers.

Its place in the canon of British inebriation was cemented thanks to the adventurous but often brutal history of imperialism.

Some of its earliest distillers were plantation slaves in the Caribbean, who fermented alcohol out of molasses from the sugar cane they were forced to harvest.

Kill-devil, as rum was often called, soon became intrinsic to Britain’s seafaring history, used variously as a way to stave off scurvy and as payment for thirsty sailors. The Royal Navy’s daily rum ration, or “tot”, was only abolished in 1970.

A tray of rum and coke
A tray of rum and coke. Photograph: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

When Admiral Nelson died, according to legend his body was soused in brandy or rum to preserve it for the voyage home.

On arrival the booze had already been drained by thirsty sailors who had drilled a hole in the barrel, earning another nickname: “Nelson’s Blood”.

If the political and social turmoil of 2017 continues into next year, it will be worthwhile keeping rum within easy reach, at least if the words of romantic poet Lord Byron in Don Juan are to be believed. “There’s nought, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion.”


Rob Davies

The GuardianTramp

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