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When you're talking about rum, how much does the Caribbean really matter?
For the rum world, it's a more serious question than it sounds, and the answer exposes a schism in the industry, a divide between massive producers who value uniformity in a global market and smaller players and connoisseurs who prefer nuanced production that reflects the time and place a rum is made.
A walk down the rum aisle of a liquor store sees this played out. While major companies like Pernod Ricard might acknowledge that its Malibu is a "Caribbean rum" and has notes of coconut flavor, you won't find specifics beyond that. Likewise, Diageo's Captain Morgan doesn't indicate which island port its jaunty pirate logo calls home.
That's because the largest liquor companies have realized it's not critical to promote their rums' origins in their global branding, says Arun Sharma, professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. That allows them flexibility to produce their spirits where they need to meet demand on the mass market.
"The brand is more important than where it's produced," Sharma said.
At Bacardi, which sells more than 18 million cases of rum worldwide each year, consistency and quality are paramount, even as it expands its offerings of flavored, spiced and premium rums.
"Our marketing approach and advertising hasn't really focused on the Caribbean. ... It's a lifestyle. It's a way of life," said Bacardi brand master David Cid.
Except that rums can vary greatly based on where and how they are produced, something aficionados have long known and smaller producers have begun promoting as a way to distinguish themselves. Cuba and Puerto Rico have lighter, more delicate rums; Jamaica veers to the full-bodied, darker liquors; and Haiti is known for the cognac-like flavor of its Rhum Barbancourt.
Blue Chair Bay Rum, which country music star Kenny Chesney is launching this spring, is a good example. Chesney chose a distiller in Barbados specifically to infuse the spirit with an authenticity he sought to represent his love for the island lifestyle, says CEO Mark Montgomery.
And as rum sales grow, you can expect to see more of that. Fueled by a cocktail revival on the food scene — as well as prominent billing on TV shows like "Mad Men" — liquors captured more than a third of the alcoholic beverage market last year, including sales of 25.5 million cases of rum in the U.S. alone, a 2.5 percent jump over the year before. Flavored and spiced rums account for more than half of that total.
"Every island in the Caribbean, every country in Central and South America makes 'the best rum in the world.' There's a lot of pride in rum," says Robert A. Burr, organizer of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival that opens to industry professionals and the public this weekend.
"Every country has some sort of different history, equipment, preference. But now we're in much more of a global world where it's easier to try other people's rum."
Of course, that information isn't always obvious. Rum can be tricky for drinkers to figure out because it can be produced anywhere, unlike Scotch whisky that by definition comes from in Scotland, says Bernhard Schafer, a professional spirits judge participating in the Miami rum festival.
At a pre-festival tasting this week, rums from Ireland, Colorado, the Philippines, Florida and New Zealand mingled with offerings from Barbados, St. Barths and Panama. Aside from noting the country of origin, none of the labels referenced the Caribbean. And the rum from Panama — called Ron de Jeremy, a play on the Spanish word for rum — had a different association in mind ... A portrait of adult film star Ron Jeremy is on the label.
The growing variety of rums in the marketplace should assuage the fears of anyone who's been avoiding rum since, perhaps, an ill-advised bender in college, said Rob V. Burr, a self-described "rum evangelist" and the son of the festival's organizer.
"I always like to tell people, there's a rum for that."