…and the Sailor Jerry and the Cruzan 9 and the Black Beard and the Seven Tiki.
Spiced rum, a drink category that virtually didn’t exist before Captain Morgan stormed our shores in the early 1980s, is, well, spicing up the market. New brands are joining the fray and pulling it in new directions.
Which, oddly enough, I think is great.
I’ll admit I’m not the preferred-customer profile for the spiced variety of sugar-cane spirit. Normally you’ll find me lurking in the extra-aged end of the rum pool. But I always applaud category excitement. The rising tide seems to raise everyone to new heights. And you can always expect redefinition of what a drink can be—translation: novel options. If you doubt, just consider what happened to the whiskey world when single-barrel and small-batch Bourbons started turning that category on its ear.
But what can you do to spice up spiced rum? When you’re talking about a spirit whose major presence is personified by a seventeenth century Welsh privateer who sports a saber, a cape and a tri-cornered hat, a lot has to do with image. And the Captain mascot worked so well that sales have boosted every year since its arrival and Captain Morgan is now one of the top-selling liquors in America of any kind with unerring growth for its entire existence.
Well, if you want to trump the Captain for connection to the sea you have to get right in the water. Which is what The Kraken did. The label portrays a kraken, a mythical sea monster reminiscent of a giant squid, swallowing up a galleon from beneath the waves. When the rum hit the market in March, it got a serendipitous boost from the almost simultaneous release of the remake of Clash of the Titans. Possibly the only redeeming scene in the film is when Zeus, played by Liam Neesan, spouts the line, “Release the kraken!” and the beast slithers out.
Elwyn Gladstone, of The Kraken’s parent company, says the timing of the releases (I guess three in all if you consider the rum, the movie and the beast) was a “happy coincidence.” He hastens to add that the name has been floating around at least since the eighteenth century (Alfred, Lord Tennyson rhymed about it).
A completely different tack is taken by Cruzan 9, which eschews buccaneers altogether. Brand director Amy Weisenbach says “Spiced rum is one of the fastest growing distilled spirits, yet consumers didn’t really have an option if they were looking for higher quality. The industry is full of gimmicks and pirates when it comes to spiced rum, but Cruzan 9 offers a ‘real’ rum experience."
That experience includes ultra-distilled St. Croix spirit in a serious looking bottle that lists its nine spices and flavoring agents (that number being part of the meaning behind its name). Flavors include allspice, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, clove, mace and juniper berry. Other spiced rums typically decline to so precisely list ingredients, although vanilla is almost always a big player.
BlackBeard, a product of Serralles, which makes DonQ and other Puerto Rican rums, also sticks to the nautical theme established by Captain Morgan, this time with a full-fledged pirate, not just a privateer. (There’s a nuanced difference: the former is a criminal renegade, the latter plunders under the aegis of some crown.) However, the meaning of the pirate reference is pretty clear as the well-known namesake roamed the Caribbean, where rum was born.
Sailor Jerry, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, has a sort of Tommy Bahama take. As well as spiced rum, it sells a line of clothing, shoes, accessories and housewares (including bottle openers and shakers) that reflect the work of Norman “Sailor Jerry" Collins, a Hawaiian artist and tattoist, who inspired Ed Hardy. The hula girl that decorates the label is considered emblematic of Collins.
Seven Tiki, a relatively new addition from the first name in rum—Bacardi—puts a Polynesian spin on spiced rum. The bottle has a tiki motif and the rum inside is Fijian and includes spices sourced from the east, including Indonesian nutmeg and Madagascar vanilla. But once again nautical is part of the inspiration, as the name references wooden tikis (carvings) that were carried on the ocean-going, out-rigged canoes of the South Seas, representing the seven skills necessary to a seaman.
But a series of images without tastes is useless. Not to worry. These alternative spice rums deliver on that front (which not to say that Captain Morgan wasn’t already chipping in as well—after all it has eight flavor variations of its own).
I won’t talk vanilla (because it’s present in every one of them), but here are some quick impressions: The Kraken is a big bold rum that is as black as a squid’s ink and undulates with sweet coffee and toffee notes as well as a bit of licorice and nutmeg. Seven Tiki is the fresh spice one, not cloying at all, but still fruity with some cocoa. Cruzan 9 is the nuanced rum, complex with nutmeg and ginger notes around a core of fruity hard candy. BlackBeard comes aboard with plenty of weighty spice: licorice and nutmeg and very sweet. Sailor Jerry whistles the happy tune of the Old Spice commercials with a pronounced bit of cinnamon and lime.
Caution on The Kraken and Sailor Jerry: their friendliness may cloak their bite. The former is 94 proof and the later 92. Cruzan weighs in at 80 proof, Seven Tiki 75 and BlackBeard 86.
The experience of tasting all these spiced rums left me—as well as being a little tipsy—with a new respect for the genre. These examples all deserve to be sampled neat.
That said I think the real winners of the spiced rum explosion may the Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies. There is little denying that the Cuba Libre (Rum and cola) is where these products swim best.
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