In the Tonga Room, in San Francisco’s swanky Fairmont Hotel, rainstorms break out every 20 minutes, a band plays on a boat floating in a turquoise lagoon and some drinks are served in giant pineapples.
With nearly 60 varieties of rum, as well as the requisite piña coladas, daiquiris and oversized scorpion bowls, the cocktail menu is a throwback to 1945, when the hotel first converted its indoor swimming pool into a sprawling tiki-themed bar.
Most Americans associate rum with the Tonga Room’s fruit-flavoured tropical concoctions. However, a new generation of bartenders and distillers is trading on the spirit’s rich history to help lift it into the realms of connoisseurship.
“In America, rum was whisky before whisky was whisky. It was the spirit we all would drink every day,” says Kenneth McCoy, bartender and owner of the Rum House, a New York cocktail lounge. “Now people are going back and realising, hey, this is actually the original American drink.”
The sugar cane-derived liquor was the first spirit to be produced in significant quantities in the colonial era, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. By the time of the American Revolution, the US colonies were home to 140 distilleries producing nearly 5m gallons of rum a year, compared with imports of nearly 4m. The drink was an integral part of the “triangle trade”: New England-produced rum was used to buy slaves in Africa who were sold in the West Indies for molasses that were sent to New England to make more rum.
Today rum is third — behind vodka and whisky — in US sales volume. Sales reached 25.2m 9-litre cases in 2014, up 16 per cent from a decade earlier, although growth has flattened in recent years, according to Distilled Spirits Council figures.
Over the same period, US sales of the most expensive super premium rum — a category that barely existed in the early 2000s — have more than tripled to 447,000 cases. It is a small but growing part of the spirits market that, like premium whisky, bourbon and tequila, is seeing a boost from the cocktail revival that has swept the US in recent years.
“Rum is definitely a cocktail spirit. We love it for that reason,” says Derek Brown, owner of several bars in Washington DC including Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill. “I make daiquiris, real daiquiris, with rum, lime and sugar, the way it was originally created. I will also substitute aged rum in a Manhattan for bourbon or rye. There’s not a lot of spirits you can do that with.”
Mr Brown and fellow spirits experts say that they are drawn to rum’s versatility and variety, which allow for a broad range of experimentation.
Dan Kleinman, vice-president of marketing for rums at Diageo North America, whose Captain Morgan is one of the top-selling US rum brands, says the liquor can appeal to a range of tastes. “On the light side it refreshes as well as a vodka and on the bold, dark side it has that complexity and flavour that stands up in crafted cocktails.”
The rising popularity of dark spirits such as bourbon and Scotch is creating opportunity for aged rums in particular.
“We’re now in a whisky boom that is going to help everyone. People are starting to understand barrel ageing and what that does in other drinks as well,” says H Joseph Ehrmann, owner of the Elixir bar in San Francisco. “Consumers are more adventurous with their palates and their wallets.”
New craft distilleries in states such as Massachusetts and New York, which were centres of rum making in colonial days, are also elevating the spirit away from its associations as a party drink.
Bridget Firtle, a former hedge fund analyst, runs the Noble Experiment, a distillery in Brooklyn that is reviving rum production in the US. She believes that wider consumer trends are fuelling the interest in rum. “We’re entering an age, a movement of farm to table, focused on using less ingredients. People want to learn about what they’re eating and drinking, whether it’s a craft rum from Brooklyn or Rhum Agricole from Martinique.”
Her distillery produces about 500, six-pack cases a month and is expanding distribution this year to states including California, Florida and Illinois.
Martin Cate, who owns the tiki lounge Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, says the US is seeing “a boom in domestic rum production that we really haven’t seen since colonial America”.
But he says that while rum has the advantage of being an “approachable” drink with an attractive price point compared with whisky and tequila, he believes that it faces challenges to gain market share.
“Rum still has a long way to go in terms of the name-brand recognition that whisky, tequilas and vodkas enjoy. The brand loyalty that exists with vodkas and scotch is much more sporadic in rum,” he says.
“But when it’s at its best, it’s as sophisticated, as complex and as enjoyable as any other premium aged fine spirit.”