The Four Faces of Rum

Rum is a spirit that attracts almost religious devotion from its fans.

Not so much a face as a skull, really...

Throughout the UK, rum clubs thrive and Tiki bars are sprouting in cities up and down the country. It is a sector that continues to go from strength to strength, and more than once I have asked myself why this is.

The efforts of evangelists, official and otherwise, have undoubtedly had an effect, as have the marketing campaigns of the brands themselves. But it seems to me that there is something less tangible at work, something that makes rum different to other spirits in the eyes of its drinkers.

It occurred to me that rum is unique because it means different things to different people. It conjures different mental images depending on who is thinking about it. For most punters, gin evokes  memories of G&Ts in the summer and all things English. Vodka is something they mix with coke or put in a Bloody Mary.

But think of rum, and it can relate to a number of (possibly stereotypical) images, and I think it is this that makes it appeal to such a broad slice of the drinking public.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of types of rum or places it is produced, nor is it meant to be a definitive list of the things or movements with which rum has been associated… just a personal description of what I see as the Four Faces of Rum.

1 – The Kon-Tiki Expedition

In 1947, a bunch of lunatic Scandinavians set out to prove that ancient man could have travelled from South America to the Polynesian Islands by raft.

You can't see it from this angle, but there is a whacking great Tiki head painted on the sail

To do this, they built a raft from balsa logs, using only materials and techniques available to the ancients, named it Kon-Tiki and shoved off into the Pacific and let the wind take them.

Expedition leader, Thor Heyerdahl wrote up their ultimately successful adventures in his book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition, and it is a remarkable read.

The crew had all recently fought in WW2, one of them was a even ‘Hero of Telemark’, and the description of their permanent good humour and ability to find something funny in the face of extreme hardship and danger is, to me, the epitome of Tiki.

Walk into a bar like Manchester’s Keko Moku, and that spirit of hospitality, humour and determination to have a good time is very evident.

So much so in fact, that when we asked Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry if he though the UK was the new home of Tiki after the Brits trounced an American team at a recent Tiki-off, he replied: “Sounds about right.  You’re an island people too, after all!”

For me then, Tiki is the first face of rum – Hula tunes, crazy shirts, Voodoo mugs, Mai Tais and absolute commitment to having a good time, no matter what. The word ‘mahalo’ says it all really.

2 – The Royal Navy

This is where rum becomes something of an anachronism – on the one hand it is the good-time Tiki spirit, on the other hand it played a significant role in some of our bloodier moments.

To many drinkers, possibly those of a more traditional bent, rum is seen in a similar light as the Spitfire – something from our military past that we should be proud of.

Wonder if Naval recruitment fell when they abolished the tot?

Being an Englishman, I can understand this and do feel a bit of ingrained pride at the thought of Nelson staring down the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar while the tot was distributed to all hands.

Indeed, rum played an instrumental role in Britain’s Naval past, as Commodore Luke van Beek tells us:

“[Rum was] introduced in the 1800s as an alternative to beer. The daily dose for junior ranks (over 18) was one third of a pint of 1 part rum, 2 parts water  (grog) issued at lunchtime and (by regulation) to be consumed immediately. Grog strength was about 70%.

Senior Rates received one ninth of a pint of “neaters” strength about 140% – Officers did not receive the tot.

Storage until the evening, whilst frowned upon was common, [and rum] was a currency used to buy favours and avoid duty.

[The] rum came from Venezula – bought in bulk and stored in 1 gallon jars. Pusser’s Rum allege they use the original formula but no one who drank the original would agree! Pusser’s Rum only came on the scene after 1970 and cashed in on the background.
When the tot finished (1970) the remaining stocks were sold at auction in 2 lots. In both cases a company in Gibraltar bought most of the stock at a knock down price (about £1 a gallon) and resold it at initially £5/gallon and then at about £10.”

For many people then, rum and the Royal Navy are always mentioned in the same breath. This makes traditionalism, courage under fire and the odd bit of extreme violence my Second Face of Rum – “Si vis pacem, pare bellum”.

3 – Caribbean Irie

This, I would imagine, is by far the most prevalent impression of rum amongst the drinking masses – white sand beaches, palm trees, steel drums and heat.

We couldn't do a story about rum without at least one beautiful girl on a beach!

Irie is a Rastafarian word that roughly translates to “everything is all right”, but it means more than that… it describes a feeling of peace, wellbeing and positive emotions.

Or the sensation of laying in a hammock on a beautiful beach, looking out to sea and drinking rum from a coconut shell.

A brand wishing to sell more of its product couldn’t really wish for a better mental association, and this is no doubt one of the reasons why the likes of Appleton and Mount Gay have become so ubiquitous on UK back bars. The efforts of WIRSPA (West Indian Rum and Spirits Producer’s Association) and their True Rum campaign probably haven’t hurt either.

So my Third Face of Rum is simply ‘holidays’ – sitting on a beach somewhere much nicer than the place you live, feeling that everything is irie…

4 – Rum and Revolution

Bacardi is undoubtedly a heavyweight in the rum arena, and for many of today’s bar-goers, it is synonymous with the Mojito and the Mojito is in turn the thing they most associate with rum.

The face that launched a 1000 t-shirts
The face that launched a 1000 t-shirts

For me however, if Bacardi was a person, he would be wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt and smoking a Cohiba Esplendido.

Lurking below the surface of Bacardi’s current Mojito-based ad strategy, there is the much more interesting story of a family and their rum supporting the guerrilleros from the war for independence from Spain, right up to Fidel and Che’s formation of modern Cuba.

Tom Gjelten’s book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba is a great place to start if the subject interests you. It might even change your view that Bacardi’s sole claim to notoriety is the hen party in your bar ordering 16 Mojitos at a time – they also helped fund and certainly fueled more than one revolution against oppression, which you have to admit, is pretty cool.

Thus, my fourth and final Face of Rum is that of young, idealistic men sitting in darkened bars, plotting ways to make their world more just, while getting drunk. Vive la Révolution!

As I said at the beginning, this is just a personal view on the different guises rum can take in the drinker’s psyche, there are no doubt many others. And no doubt many other reasons why rum continues to be one of, if not the most significant spirit sectors in the UK today… if you can think of any others, please share them with us.