Like a bootlegger on a ship-to-shore run, spiced rum is on a tear. In the past four years, sales of the flavoured, subtly sweet brown spirit almost tripled in Canada, reaching 569,225 nine-litre cases in 2010.
If the trend continues, the rum category as a whole – lifted in recent years almost entirely by the spiced tide – will soon surpass Canadian whisky to become the country's No. 2-selling spirit, after vodka.
"It's a little crazy," says Holly Wyatt, director of marketing for The Kirkwood Group, which distributes the trendy Kraken brand in Canada.
Crazy, yes, but no doubt also a little cringe-worthy in the eyes of many aficionados of fine single-malt Scotch and Cognac. Typically infused with vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove, spiced rum may appear to have more in common with a muffin than a bracing beverage. It also owes much of its success to four words that haunt every self-respecting bartender: "Rum and Coke, please."
Captain Morgan, the original mass-market brand, was in fact formulated specifically to harmonize with cola, says Rodolfo Aldana, a marketing director at Diageo Canada, Captain Morgan's parent company. Launched in the mid-1980s as part of the Caribbean firm founded by the late great Canadian rum-runner Sam Bronfman, the brand, with its cheery buccaneer mascot, now accounts for 75 per cent of the category's volume.
Cola compatibility aside, Captain Morgan also charted the spiced-rum course with shrewd advertising campaigns aimed at young, urban-swashbuckler men, who account for the vast majority of spiced rum's surging sales in Canada and the United States. The latest TV spot features two men diving into a pool to retrieve a treasure chest and, in a plot line that brings new meaning to the term pirate booty, getting chased through the streets by a posse of bikini-clad women. The tagline: "Captain Morgan – Make it Happen."
"Rum in general and spiced rum specifically seem to be about adventure," says Laura Bruce, senior brand manager with Corby Distilleries, which launched Lamb's Black Sheep Spiced Rum two years ago. "Especially with the tough economic times, for the university student, the possibility of adventure is a pretty attractive thing."
Besides Black Sheep, several new entrants are nipping at the captain's dandy high heels. They include Kraken, Sailor Jerry, Bacardi Oakheart and Cruzan 9. Some are hoping to tap a broader audience with offerings that spend slightly more time maturing in oak barrels than the standard 12 months, delivering a relatively nuanced flavour profile designed to be savoured on the rocks. "Obviously a lot of people are drinking this with Coke, but we're looking at the more premium side of the spiced-rum sector," says Gary Nelthropp, master distiller and president of Cruzan Rum, based in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Lauren Mote, a mixologist and proprietor of Vancouver-based caterer Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, favours Kraken and Sailor Jerry in particular, two brands that I'd choose if I were stranded on a sweltering Caribbean island during a hurricane with nothing but rum and Coke in the mini-bar.
She says the appeal is not surprising, given that spiced rums, which tend to be priced between $25 and $30, simulate and amplify the nuances of oak-barrel aging present in more expensive amber and brown rums that spend years extracting woody flavours from barrel. Notes such as vanilla, nutmeg and clove, for example, are often cited by connoisseurs of fine old rum.
"You can get something for half the price [of an aged rum]" Ms. Mote said. "And you don't need a mature palate or nose to identify the tasting notes."
Score: 91; Price: $28.35
Named after a famous tattoo artist, this is my favourite because it's relatively dry, with a strong alcoholic grip and subtle vanilla-spice notes that are comparable to the woody essence of an aged amber rum.
The Kraken Black Spiced Rum
Score: 90; Price: $29.80
The Kraken is a mythical, squid-like sea monster reputed to overturn ships in its whirlpool. Like the vessels, this murky-dark liquid goes down easy – assuming you're a twentysomething man with a penchant for sweet drinks – delivering rich, brown butter and crème brûlée notes.
Score: 89; Price: $28.45
I like the good-quality vanilla flavour and maple-nutmeg overtones as well as the faint hint of charred oak from extended time in the barrel. But, like life, it goes better with Coke.
Lamb's Black Sheep Spiced Rum
Score: 89; Price: $25.95
It's the only rum in this list to lead with cinnamon versus vanilla, evidenced by the compelling holiday-cake flavour. Where the others really should be called vanilla rums, this one deserves the spice designation.
Score: 88; Price: $27.85
From a quality rum distiller, it is the smoothest on this list despite its substantial 40-per-cent alcohol, a liquefied cinnamon bun topped with vanilla ice cream.
Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum
Score: 86; Price: $28.45
Smooth and not as strong-tasting as the others, it's mostly about vanilla, with only a whisper of spice. But I like the nuance of cola even before you add the Coke.
Score: 82; Price: $27.95
By definition a liqueur because it's flavoured mainly with coconut (not a spice), it's less sweet than the standard Malibu coconut liqueur but still a too tiki drink for me. "Rum" for the children of Jimmy Buffett groupies.