The goal is to join vodka, bourbon, and tequila in creating a tier of "superpremium" brands by winning the attention of the fickle and fashionable, and convincing them--and those who aspire to be them--to trade up to pricier brands.
There are some small signs that the effort may be starting to pay off.
According to statistics compiled by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the fastest-growing segment of the $2.1 billion rum category is the small sliver that accounts for its superpremium brands. Loosely speaking, rums in this group are priced above $25 for a 750 millileter bottle. In 2007, this segment saw its volume grow by 43% to 220,000 cases.
Granted the category’s growth is skewed somewhat by its small size. The double-digit pace equated to an additional $29 million in revenue last year, but if the trend continues it will be a notable development for the rum category.
Although vodka, which tops rum as the largest spirits category, was responsible for about 28.5% of the industry's volume last year, it contributed nearly 31% of its revenue growth, according to DISCUS. The reason is that the lion's share of vodka's growth comes from its superpremium brands.
The growth of superpremium rum brands appears to be rooted in the same trends that are helping to grow overall spirits sales. These factors include a growing interest in cocktails, consumers' increasingly sophisticated palate and their desire to experiment with new flavors. The last trend is especially pronounced among adults under the age of 30, or the so-called millennial generation.
But there are other factors that are also helping. One example has been events where cigars are paired with high-quality, aged sipping rums such as Ron Zacapa Centenario, Appleton Estate Extra, and Mount Gay Extra Old Rum.
Another is an increased knowledge about the history of the cocktail and a desire to try more traditional drinks. With its long history in American cocktails, rum is likely to benefit.
"I think these microtrends will influence the bigger picture," said Peter Wijk, a brand director at Absolut, a subsidiary of Sweden's Vin & Sprit. "They are the embryos that educate mixologists, bartenders, and consumers."
Some brands, including Tommy Bahama and 10 Cane, are pushing hard for a fashionable, trendy image as they work to move the rum category up the price scale. In doing so, these brands are competing directly with superpremium vodka brands to win consumers.
And it may be a good time to make this attempt. Despite continued healthy growth in the vodka category, there are some industry watchers who say they detect early signs of “vodka fatigue.”
Tommy Bahama is a brand created by Sidney Frank Importing, of Grey Goose vodka fame, while 10Cane is marketed by LVMH Moet Hennessy.