As rum sales top £1billion for the first time, Dominic Utton discovers why the sailors’ favourite is steaming ahead.
There is a saying: drinking rum before 10am doesn't make you an alcoholic – it makes you a pirate. We may not quite be quaffing Captain Morgan with our cornflakes just yet but Britain, it seems, has never been so piratical.
New figures published by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association have shown that annual sales of rum in Britain have topped £1billion for the first time, now ranking it alongside whisky and gin as one of the nation's favourite tipples.
Traditional Jamaican brands such as Captain Morgan are enjoying unprecedented popularity in Britain with sales up 17 per cent and mojitos (rum, lime, soda, sugar and mint) are regularly topping surveys of our favourite cocktail.
It all represents a remarkable surge in popularity for the spirit: five years ago annual sales were stuck around the £750million mark. According to Ian Burrell, organiser of RumFest, the world's largest rum festival, our love is not only well deserved but long overdue.
“Rum is a very versatile spirit, what you do with vodka you can do with white rum, what you do with whisky you can do the same with aged rum,” he says. “Rum is so versatile. I have had people who come and say they don't like rum but then when you ask them what they want to drink they say mojito, which of course has rum in it.”
Spiros Malandrakis, a drinks analyst at Euromonitor, agrees: "Where rum is really winning is that it doesn't have the stuffiness of other drinks like Scotch and it's got great stories that tap into provenance and cultural identity."
The rise of the spirit mirrors the recent surge in popularity of gin, which topped the £1billion annual sales mark in 2016. In that year alone 40 new distilleries opened in the UK, from traditional gins to varieties including CollaGin, which includes anti-ageing collagen.
But where the current "Rumaissance" differs from the gin boom is that the process of making a good rum is far more difficult than distilling gin. Whereas the latter can be manufactured relatively quickly, with the raw ingredients comprising little more than ethanol and botanicals, rum is a different prospect entirely. Importing the required molasses from more tropical climes is expensive and balancing the molasses and yeast required for fermentation is a delicate process.
For this reason rum distilleries are still few and far between in this country. One of the few British manufacturers of rum is The English Spirit Distillery, which operates out of a 19th-century barn in rural Essex.
"I believe we're the only distillery in England to ferment and distil rum from scratch," says Jill Lawrence, the sales and events manager for the English Spirit Distillery. "We import our molasses from Venezuela and make varieties of white rum, golden rum and spiced rum.
"We also make other spirits such as vodka and gin but, whereas they are relatively simple to manufacture, rum is a very messy, very tricky business. Molasses are horrible to work with, not only are they very sticky but they are very acidic and reluctant to ferment so you've really got to know what you're doing."
However despite this Jill is not surprised by the explosion in rum's popularity. "For years it was thought of as something sailors drank or just as part of a cocktail but there has been a steady rise in the quality of rum as a drink that can be savoured. We have found that whenever we do a festival or trade show people are prepared to pay more for a quality product."
Despite the success of manufacturers such as The English Spirit Distillery, an estimated 80 per cent of all the rum in the world is still made in the Caribbean, where it is considered to be an integral part of their national identity.
"It's our national drink, ingrained in our history and culture," says Jamaican rum manufacturer Joy Spence. "When a baby's born we put a drop on that soft spot in the middle of the head. When we build our homes we sprinkle it on the foundations. When we die we drizzle it on the grave."
The current rum boom is being fuelled by a new appreciation of the drink's finer qualities as well as its history. Ian Burrell, who as well as running RumFest describes himself as a "global ambassador for rum," says: "RumFest is an event I started off in 2007 to show how rum is perceived in the tropics. I wanted to have an event to make people understand rum is not just a spirit but it's a lifestyle.
"In Australia, South America, the Caribbean or even India, when you drink rum as a part of your culture it then becomes a lifestyle." This year's event is in London in October and promises to showcase more than 400 varieties of rum. Gone are the days of bars offering little more than a tot of Captain Morgan or a Bacardi and Coke.
"Not only are we seeing rum bars evolving we are seeing a lot of established bars having an impressive portfolio of rums in their bar," says Burrell.
"Instead of having three or four rums, you now need to have at least 20 to tick those boxes and be seen as good quality."
Navy's daily taste Of Nelson's Blood Rum originates from the colonial era of the 17th century. But it was invented almost by accident when plantation owners in the West Indies realised that fermenting and distilling their sugar molasses actually produced alcohol.
Before long – thanks to the new-found global economy led by trade ships from Europe – rum was being drunk all around the world.
George Washington had a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration and in Australia the Rum Rebellion of 1808 saw the governor of New South Wales overthrown and replaced by a military junta over his attempt to regulate the populace's rum consumption.
For more than 200 years the Royal Navy issued a daily ration of rum to every sailor on board ship: first as a means of staving of scurvy (served with lime juice), and then as a kind of payment – to be rewarded or denied according to conduct.
So fundamental to British sailors' lives did their grog become it is said that when Admiral Nelson died his body was placed in a barrel of rum to preserve it for the voyage home.
It was only upon docking back in Blighty that it was discovered that the barrel had been drained by his sailors, who had drilled a hole and siphoned off all the booze.
The Royal Navy's daily tot of rum was only abolished in 1970 – by which time the legend of Admiral Nelson's unique embalming had given rise to the spirit's nautical nickname: "Nelson's Blood".
The original article can be found here.