Bloomberg — Aged spirits come at quite a premium these days. High-end cognac and Scotch can command more than four figures per bottle, and American whiskey isn’t far behind. Michter’s recently released a blend of bourbon and rye originally priced at $6,000, and it’s already selling for three times that. And until now, fans of top-shelf rum have largely been spared this secondary market gouging.
If you’re into the Jamaican cane spirit, brace yourself for a similar fate. The collectors are coming, and sticker shock inevitably awaits.
To be clear, it’s not the liquor itself that has changed in any meaningful way. On the contrary: a devotion to traditional production technique is what makes Jamaican rum appealing to today’s connoisseurs.
“Sometime during the second part of the 20th century, many spirits—but especially rum—became more mass-produced, which was really detrimental to the category,” explains Alexandre Gabriel, rum historian and founder of the Plantation rum brand.
Rum from Jamaica tends to exhibit a funky sort of tonality, reminiscent of over-ripened tropical fruit. Known locally as hogo, it is plumbed by way of longer fermentations of molasses and, oftentimes, with the added step of mucking, wherein yeast and bacteria cultures are introduced into the wash to promote esterification, the process by which flavor compounds are formed.
Jamaican distilleries have also stubbornly held on to pot stills, while the rest of the industry has shifted toward column still distillation. None of these methods are especially efficient. They’re favored only because they result in rich and complex liquids, the sort of spirit that defines the category—and inherently speaks to fans of other pot-stilled spirits such as Scotch and cognac.
Given the heat and humidity of the Caribbean climate, casked alcohol can begin to extract strong barrel notes within months, which means it doesn’t have to age very long. But in Jamaica, distillers are demonstrating a propensity for patience.
Hampden Estate has been operating continuously in the jungled uplands of Trelawny Parish since 1753. It only began releasing aged rum under its own mark in 2018 and fetches upward of $100 a bottle. Last year, Appleton Estate released a trio of offerings born in the mid-’90s as part of its Hearts Collection. Today the high-proof trio, with notes ranging from petrol to papaya, is hard to find at under $500 a bottle.
“We have an enviable stock of aging rums and unveil limited-edition releases every year, each with a distinctive orange peel note that has become our hallmark due to our unique copper pot stills,” explains Joy Spence, Appleton’s master blender.
Not to be outdone, Plantation has a series of single cask and vintage bottles sourced from some of Jamaica’s most storied distilleries, including Long Pond, also founded in 1753, and Clarendon, a relative newcomer that started in 1949.
Its particularly punchy 22-year-old Extreme No. 3 commands a $400 price tag. It tastes like a tropical smoothie, with a creaminess flush with bananas and berry fruit. Ultimately, the sweetness subsides to reveal notes of coffee and sandalwood. Its elegance and scarcity—only 2,100 bottles were released—positions it as a must-buy for any aspiring collector.
“Jamaican rum makers are at the point where they can test what the market will bear price-wise,” says Matt Pietrek, author of Modern Caribbean Rum: A Contemporary Reference to the Region’s Essential Spirit. “New high-end bottlings sell at prices unfathomable three years ago.”
“Although we’re not yet at Pappy-level fervor, many Hampden releases vanish from shelves at the same rate,” he continues, referring to the popular Kentucky bourbon brand that had its own heist. A 20-year bottle of Pappy Van Winkle has a suggested retail price of $200 but often trades hands at much, much higher prices. “There’s been a significant upswing in complaints about bottle flippers, long a scourge of the bourbon market.”
You can still easily walk into a liquor store and come away with a bottle of Caribbean rum for $15. A vintage bottle of Wray & Nephew 25 Year Old, by comparison, is currently listed online at close to $10,000.
This contrast is even more striking when considering that Jamaican rum’s sales growth has been stagnant in the US.
The Distilled Spirits Council shows only a .2% uptick in supplier revenue from 2020 to 2021. But during that same time frame, Worthy Park distillery saw its exports double. And while you might have found the brand on shelves for under $20 a decade ago, today its Estate Reserve typically sells for more than $100.
Collecting for Cocktails
The modern resurgence of tiki has also lured collectors and investors toward the category. The origin story of universally celebrated cocktails such as the Mai Tai and the Rum Punch can’t be told—or re-created—without the inclusion of specific Jamaican rums.
“Trader Vic used Wray & Nephew 17 to make his original Mai Tai recipe in 1944,” says Kevin Beary, beverage director at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. “The story goes that this cocktail was so popular that it depleted all of the distillery’s aged supply, and Trader Vic then moved to the 15-year aged rum.”
Beary was able to secure 1940s-era stock of that latter liquid, which he is using to build an $800 Vintage Mai Tai at his bar.
But you needn’t travel all the way to Chicago to have a taste: Last month, Appleton Estate (whose parent company, Campari Group, purchased it along with Wray & Nephew and a portfolio of smaller Jamaican brands for $415 million) released its 17 Year Old Legend.
“It is our faithful re-creation of the beloved Wray & Nephew’s 17 Year Old Rum,” says Spence. “With only 1,500 bottles available, this release will never be made again and is certain to become a coveted collector bottle.”
In other words, it soon will be fetching far more than its initial $500 suggested retail price. The $800 Vintage Mai Tai at Three Dots and a Dash might emerge as a bargain by comparison.
Though for Bertrand Noury, the secret sauce is ultimately owed more to provenance than to age. The beverage manager has amassed multiple awards for his Ali’i Mai Tai at the Ritz-Carlton Maui in Kapalua. “It’s a version of the original 1944 Mai Tai created by Trader Vic to have just a hint of sweetness,” he says of the drink, which he mixes with fresh squeezed lime juice and an orgeat made of macadamia nuts.
“It works so well because of the Jamaican rum—Jamaican producers are committed to centuries of tradition,” says Noury. “Their liquids exert an assertiveness that carries through in a cocktail. It’s just about the most expressive style of the spirit you’re ever going to get.”
Across the bay from where “Trader Vic” Bergeron opened his tiki-themed restaurant in Oakland back in 1934, Jamaican rum is again enjoying top-shelf placement in many San Francisco bars.
Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove, famous for its expansive collection of more than 700 rums, is hardly surprised by its upward trajectory.
“The bold and characterful distillates, matured with long tropical aging and subsequent evaporative loss, means higher prices are more than justified,” he says. “The final product assuredly secures Jamaican rum’s place among the finest spirits in the world.
Independent bottlers have played an outsize role in hammering the point home.
Brands such as Blackadder, Samaroli and Velier each have complex and vintage expressions within their respective portfolios, aged anywhere from three to 15 years. And they all comfortably command north of $500 per bottle.
In late 2020, the Last Drop rolled out a $3,000 bottle of Jamaican rum from 1976. It exudes ginger spice, clove and threads of dried tobacco leaf. These rums are packed in nicer decanters and form-fitting boxes, the sort of stuff that makes them stand out on a backbar to compete with their comparably aged whiskey and cognac counterparts.
It might have merely been a marketing gambit, but it’s one that has paid off.
Pietrek observes what he dubs as a Pokemon-like “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” mentality to today’s Jamaican rum enthusiasts. As more connoisseurs from other categories become hip to the game, it’s one that will become increasingly harder to play.
Read more on Bloomberg.com