Every traditional spirit has its moment in the spotlight. Gin, being the most recent example, shed its geriatric image and became the spirit of the past five years, a reinvention backed by the surge of gin bars and boutique distillers that have established themselves in Asia. Gin has arrived, and it will continue to flourish with its sexy new identity as the crowd favourite. The time has come for another spirit to wrestle its way to the pedestal, and all signs point to rum being that golden child.
Rum has always enjoyed a niche presence in Singapore but in the past year, we’ve since a rise of establishments with a dedicated to preaching the Caribbean nectar’s gospel. The Bar at Capitol Kempinski, for one, revivified its bottle list with 160 rum expressions, a collection recently usurped by Southeast Asia’s reigning largest — the 352 labels that line Origin Bar.
New tiki bars, like Taki Taki or Junior’s latest Pacifica concept, have also become mediums to channel rum’s conviviality. Cementing rum’s local invasion is also the arrival of Rum Bellion, the first festival dedicated to the spirit that will take place in Keong Saik this October 2019. These openings, shiny and new, are just one of the many fruits that rum is dangling to get locals to bite the bait. We canvass the rest.
Rum’s roots in Southeast Asia
Rum has long been inextricable from the Caribbean’s cultural dynamism, but it has a far stronger connection to our region than South America.
“Sugarcane never belonged to the Caribbean,” said Adam Bursik, the head bartender at Origin Bar. “It was always native to Southeast Asia.”
Because of our familiarity with sugarcane and its by-products, adventurous drinkers will find that certain rums have flavours that are beloved by the Asian palate, highly discernible if one just takes the alcoholic bite away. The syrupy molasses-heavy sweetness swaddled by warm spices are profiles common to Southeast Asia and are inherent to rums from Guatemala, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, recommends Bursik.
Our region has no shortage of rum distilleries as well. Chalong Bay from Thailand is a notable one, and Tanduay from the Philippines the other. The latter is arriving for retail in Singapore this month and has the reputation of being the best-selling rum in the world. Its claim to fame is credited to our region’s unique climate which produces the sweetest sugarcanes in the world, and thus some of the most accessible rums, said Tanduay’s business development manager, Roy Sumang.
Rum’s bad reputation
Rum’s deep roots in Southeast Asia is unfortunately not a salve for the liquor’s shoddy reputation, especially as a sipping spirit. Low-quality rums, mass-market white and gold variants in particular, are to blame for rum being deemed a one-way ticket to hangover hell, but the category is so much more than that.
“The most common obstacle [to rum appreciation] is the consumer’s confusion of the category altogether, to identify what they’re drinking and how they should enjoy it. [Rum] is primarily used in cocktails, so home consumers who may not know how to [work with the spirit] apart from making Cuba Libres may not appreciate rum’s diversity as a sipping spirit,” explains Mitchell Lum, Barcardi’s Brand Ambassador for Southeast Asia.
Growing the premium rum market in Singapore
Bars and brands are taking great lengths to repair rum’s image as a sipping spirit. Making premium options and rare rums readily available is one, especially in Singapore, where top-tier rums have been harder to come by until recently.
Lum believes aged rums are the way to enhance appreciation for rums, especially when introducing seasoned whisky or gin aficionados to the category.
Rums that have spent time maturing in casks will obviously be more intense in flavour, ideal for enjoying neat, especially in a wide-bowled glass, where its aroma is released in layers akin to when one noses whisky in a dram.
Bartenders are broadening the ways rum can be a spirit for sipping
But for rum to be a spirit the inexperienced masses are willing to order of their own accord, it has to excite with novelty, so Origin Bar has taken that strategy and run with it.
Their enhanced focus on rum includes the release of 12 Origin Rums, each redistilled or aged in-house. Bursik has given careful thought to create rums with notes that will pique the interest of his customers, so apart from spiced and a young coconut rum, he has introduced a selection of four chocolate-aged versions.
“Everyone knows about rum chocolates or enjoying rums with chocolates, so we decided to age the spirit in spheres of chocolate we made,” said Bursik. This method lets rum adopt the profile of the cocoa, and the bar has taken the experiment further by pairing different rums with chocolate origins to different ends.
Another way Origin is goading consumers to sip on rum is by banking on our collective adoration for gin and tonics. Their Origin rums make for excellent Rum & Tonics, especially the spiced variants that are similar to gin’s botanical bouquet. The bittersweet, effervescent tonic water rids rum of its bite and allows it to be enjoyed as a long drink, ideal for helping rum amateurs find their feet.
Ready for rum’s take-off
The cards have shown that Southeast Asia is primed for rum to experience a renaissance. Singapore, in particular, is the perfect storm, as our city is where spending power, consumer curiousity, and a strong cocktail and spirits culture coalesce.
Lum puts it best: “In Southeast Asia, people are enjoying a more diverse range of spirits and are promiscuous when it comes to trying anything that is different. Gin has had its day, and rum may very well be the next big shift”.