American Rum Report #15 — September 13, 2019

~ In This Report ~

#1: "We shouldn't be surprised when American rums are judged to be really good" — a Q&A with Rob Burr of Rob's Rum Guide and the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival 🏅

#2: Erik Vonk of Richland Rum offers his thoughts on brand building, the future of the industry, and more in an interview with The Rum Lab 🌿

#3: includes an American rum in its list of "Must-Have Overproof Rums" 📝

#4: A look at BigFish, the online retailer that's trying to make it way easier for you to access small-batch American rum (and other craft spirits) 🐡

#5: Puerto Rico gets its first cane juice rum producer! 🇵🇷

#6: Quick links on the Craft Beverage Modernization Act, Montanya Distilling earning a top honor for B Corps, Bayou Rum getting a hefty tax break, and more 🔗

#1: A conversation about the present and future of American rum with Rob Burr (Rob's Rum Guide, Miami Rum Renaissance Festival) 🏅

A couple months back, I interviewed Rob Burr for an article on American rum's growth I wrote for Rum Reader. As someone who's been paying close attention to American rum longer than anyone else, he was an obvious voice to lean on for perspective.

Unfortunately, I ended up with so many great quotes from different interviews for the article that I wasn't able to work anything from Rob into the story. So I thought, why not publish the whole damn conversation right here? 

Rob touched on a little bit of everything, from how the category has evolved over the last decade, to what he looks for in new American rum brands, to the future of the category, and beyond.

You can check out the whole Q&A live on the blog right now, but I thought I'd go ahead and include a few highlights in here for you:

On how American rum has evolved since he first started paying attention to it:

"At first I was surprised, you know, 2009, ‘10, ‘11, we'd get some [American] rum in, they'd win an award, and I couldn’t believe it. But then I was like, ‘Well, why wouldn’t they win awards?’ The good analogy is you can go to 7/11 and buy a cinnamon bun, right? Or, if you're lucky enough to have a talented bakery in your town, you can go down there and get a cinnamon bun that was made that morning hot out of the oven. And you can't even compare those two cinnamon buns. One came from a factory wrapped in plastic. And God knows what's in it to keep it preserved.

"So somebody with a talent as a baker can really impress you...So why couldn't it also be true—and it is—that small producers of rum know they've got to make something really good? They have something to prove. So I have come to believe, and to see, that some of these people are taking it so seriously and creatively...And we shouldn't be surprised when American rums are judged to be really good."

On small craft rum producers going from regionally successful to nationally and globally successful:

"I don't think that should be a goal. Unless, like we mentioned Trey Litel earlier with Bayou, right? That was their goal all along. But I think if your focus is on making some good rum, that whole other part of the business is like making sausage. I'm not sure you really want to look too closely at how it all works. By the time you get 50 different distributors, it’s like you have 50 marriages going on. So as a producer, you would have to have a whole different staff that just oversees all these relationships and the logistics. When you come from the perspective of a producer with verve and commitment who thinks they have something to say with their rum...that's like an alien business, isn't it?"

On where he sees American rum 10-20 years from now:

"Here is the biggest picture that maybe [people] are not looking at as a whole. I often quote that I've been to just about every distillery in the Caribbean, and I think I remember counting up 51 distilleries at some point. And yet we both know that there are at least a few hundred rum distilleries in the U.S. 

"So if you stretch this arc out for 20 years...there's going to be more rum being made by more producers—not more rum, but more producers making rum—that if even the top 10% or 25% of it turns out to be really worthy of being drank and enjoyed and recommended, that's a lot of producers, right? And we're just getting going. So American rum has potential 12, 15, 20 years from now to be a world standard."

You can read the whole interview here to get more of Rob's thoughts on American rum, what makes for a compelling brand backstory, and what he'd like to see in the category.

#2: Erik Vonk of Richland Rum offers thoughts on brand building, the future of the industry, and more in an interview with The Rum Lab 🌿

You may have seen me say this before, but Richland is one of the more unique producers you'll find in the U.S. Located in south Georgia, they grow their own sugarcane and boil the juice in kettles to produce the cane syrup for their fermentations.

It's one of those products that doesn't require you to say anything about it other than how it's made to get someone excited to try it, which I was delighted to see come up in the interview (you can read it here):

"Richland Rum’s story is to have no story, just information about how it is crafted. This enables the consumer, if they like the taste, of course, to understand how Richland Rum’s aroma profile has been created by managing natural processes. After 20 years, with distribution in 15 States and exports to 15 countries, Richland Rum is becoming a brand with ‘authenticity’ as its ethos."

If you've ever looked at Richland's website, you know this is fairly accurate! It's basically a love letter to the process of making their rum. 

The PDF they have available goes into even more detail on each step.

Vonk's thoughts on the current state (and immediate future) of the rum industry are also worth noting:

"Worldwide, people are getting more interested in educating themselves about what they consume. Producers of any consumable, including Rum, need to respond. While the Rum industry today is still steeped in conventions of using metaphors, imaginary associations and fantasy inducing historic links as primary motivators to induce consumption, it will be forced more and more, in the foreseeable future, to use transparency, factual product insight and consumer education as brand drivers."

I, for one, would welcome a world where spirits brands use fewer, as Vonk called them, "imaginary associations and fantasy inducing historic links."

While some craft spirits truly do have interesting connections to the past, the best ones tie that connection into something you can taste in their product. For example, Ko Hana in Oahu reviving heirloom varieties of Hawaiian sugarcane. It's a link to history, but it's also something that distinguishes how their rum is made.

I think, too often, craft producers try to hide a boring product behind a loosely connected brand story.

Check out the full interview here.

#3: includes an American rum in its list of "Must-Have Overproof Rums" 📝

Admittedly, I have some qualms with this list.

Not because of the rums they listed (many are among my favorites), but because of the decision to rank them according to the "Distiller Score" each received when the website reviewed them. How could you rank, for example, Wray & Nephew Overproof versus Hamilton 151 versus Rhum J.M. Blanc when you would likely never use them for the same purpose?

It's like ranking a hammer versus a shovel on a list of must-have tools. The one you should get depends entirely on what you want to use it for. Why rank them at all? But maybe that's just me being another no-good, participation-trophy-collectin' millennial.

At any rate, Privateer's Navy Yard Rum is the American bottle that made the list, and it's actually in the #1 spot since it has the highest "Distiller Score" out of all of them (94).

Check it out here.

#4: A quick look at BigFish, the online retailer that could be a big deal for American rum producers (and consumers who want easier access to them) 🐡

You may have noticed a smattering of American rum producers announcing partnerships with an Illinois-based online retailer called BigFish over the past several months.

It's not a coincidence—it's part of the company's entire strategy. BigFish is aiming to give small producers another route beyond the U.S.'s much-maligned three-tier distribution system (while also giving consumers easier access to all the wonderful craft spirits being produced across the country).

According to this short piece from InsideHook, that's what makes BigFish unique compared to other online spirits retailers / delivery services:

"These guys aren’t the first to get into the alcohol delivery game: national players like Drizly and Minibar have been at it for years while smaller operations like Off Premise, Foxtrot and Saucey continue to hold their own. But they are the first to focus exclusively on indie producers. The website stocks more than 750 options, including Montanya Distillers’s belly-warming Colorado-born rums, addictively smooth ryes from Virginia’s Catoctin Creek Distilling Co., ultra-potent navy strength gin from Durham Distillery and a devilishly herbaceous fernet from Portland’s Townshend’s Distillery."

Though BigFish currently only ships within Illinois, they let me know they have a few more states in the works when I reached out. Hopefully we'll find out which ones soon.

#5: Meet Puerto Rico's first cane juice rum — Ron Pepon from San Juan Artisan Distillers 🇵🇷

I really enjoyed this article about San Juan Artisan Distillers, which is getting set to release the first rum that's been made from Puerto Rican cane juice in a long, long time.

The story goes something like this: 

  • Pepe Álvarez goes into business growing and selling grass to construction companies in Puerto Rico in the '90s

  • A law that gave U.S. corporations tax incentives to establish operations in Puerto Rico expires, which damages the local economy and tanks Álvarez's grass business

  • He says, hey—sugarcane is just another type of grass, isn't it? How about I try growing that and producing Puerto Rico's only cane juice rum?

  • He rescues some Puerto Rican sugarcane cultivars from near extinction and grows over 70 acres of the stuff

  • Hurricane Maria hits in 2017 and destroys all of his sugarcane before he can start producing rum

  • He calls an audible and starts producing fruit-infused rums with a different base ingredient

  • In the meantime, he patiently grows back the sugarcane and finally starts distilling rum from its juice in December 2018

  • Now, that rum is finally about to be released

Great story, right? The full version makes it much better.Go here to read it.

#6: Quick Links 🔗

The Brookings Institution (a D.C. think tank) offered some recommendations for the Craft Beverage Modernization Act — Basically, Brookings thinks the bill has loopholes that allow large distillery corporations and foreign importers to reap the majority of its tax cuts, rather than the small craft producers it was designed to help. It offers suggestions for closing those loopholes, and explains why they're harmful.

Montanya Distilling was recognized as a "Best for the World" top company by B Lab, the nonprofit that certifies B Corporations — This means Montanya ranks in the top 10% of all B Corps across all "impact areas," which doesn't surprise me after hearing its founder, Karen Hoskin, speak about sustainability practices at the California Rum Festival last weekend! Kudos to Karen and everyone at Montanya for their hard work and leadership here.

Bayou Rum scored an industrial tax exemption allowing it to pay 80% less in taxes on $4.2 million worth of its property — You won't hear me complain about distilleries getting taxed less. This is a 5-year exemption the distillery was granted thanks to the publicity and tourism it brings to Lacassine, Louisiana (according to the press about it, anyway).

Bacardi is donating $1 million to Hurricane Dorian recovery in the Bahamas — Awesome!

Will Hoekenga