Drams and tots
Some drinks have such immaculate branding behind them that it's hard not to believe there's some mastermind behind it, a strategic genius of such infinite subtlety that their work is apparent everywhere and yet utterly untraceable.
I'm talking about Scottish whisky, of course. With its wild, primitive natural landscapes, noble stags and hardy folk, Scotland's clichés are hard to resist; I've had a lot of people tell me how they are “trying to like whisky”, as though their resistance to this spirit and everything it stands for is a point of shame. Punters wearing an albatross of shame for spirits like tequila or cognac are much rarer.
The power of such subliminal branding is beyond price as it sinks in far beyond the individual product level. This isn't about any one distiller, but the general feeling that Scotland is synonymous with whisky, and that whisky is synonymous with the wild, pure air of the Highlands, and therefore when you drink whisky it carries your thoughts to a more wholesome place.
Spare a thought, then, for poor old rum. Among my early encounters with top quality rum was mistaking it for cognac, which isn't uncommon, such is the richness, ripeness and maturity of flavour. While it can provide thrills just as much as whisky, no one ever really aspires to drink it. Unlike whisky, it doesn't have a unified image. Something about pirates, maybe, and the Caribbean. It may be known as a key ingredient in a mojito, but likely only if you've made it yourself. And didn't British sailors get a ration? (They did, but it was abolished in 1970.) Our knowledge of this great and hugely underrated spirit is patchy and dated.
It doesn't help that the anarchic nature of rum distillation has produced a bewilderment of styles. While there are undoubtedly complex shades of flavour to Scottish whisky, they are – by law - all wood-aged spirits made from grain with many regulations on production giving a relatively recognisable style that's often quite distinct from other world whiskies such as Bourbon. I don't mean to suggest that all Scottish whisky tastes the same, but simply that you are unlikely to confuse it with cognac, or Jack Daniel's.
Rum, by contrast, is made in column stills and pot stills, from sugar cane and molasses; it comes in white, golden, dark, spiced and Navy (whatever that is) variations, on differing scales of sweetness or dryness; it uses age statements liberally but not consistently, and lacks the distillery-based branding of Scottish whisky.
Among the poster boys for rum there is everything from Bacardi Carta Blanca to Kraken Black Spiced Rum, the pungent, bone dry rums of Jamaica to the distinctly sweet Ron Zacapa Solera 23 (in fact around 23g/L). On top of that, there's an anarchic diversity of styles based on a history of colonialism, with pungent French agricole rums from former colonies such as Martinique and French Guyana, the fruity, mellow Spanish rums from Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba among others, not to mention the intense, spicy rums of ex-British territories such as Jamaica and Barbados.
It doesn't help that multiple rums with different names are often produced at single distilleries, or that stills are moved from one distillery to another. The Port Mourant distillery's famous double wooden pot still dates back to 1732 but is now part of a different distillery, Diamond Distillery. And, unlike Scottish whisky, rum distilleries don't necessarily call their production by the name of the distillery. Diamond Distillery, which goes by the name of Demerera Distillers Ltd, produces El Dorado, while also allowing many independent bottlers to bottle under their own brand names, e.g. Mezan Guyana Enmore.
Confused? Only as much as you should be. Rum makes all other spirits look simple. As a result, rum is an ideal listing for specialist merchants who understand the intricacies of the product and can sell on outright quality and often excellent value for money. While it is unlikely that British drinkers will ever overthrow whisky as their spirit of choice, there's a world of flavour and value in rum that whisky drinkers, and others, deserve to discover.
Rums of note:
Mezan (independent bottlings from Panama, Guyana, Jamaica and more)
Trois Rivières (Martinique)
Marie Galante (Guadeloupe)
Ron Barcelo (Dominican Republic)
El Dorado (Guyana)
Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on Twitter @jasondmillar.