Tristan Stephenson on rum diversity: ‘We’re at a tipping point’

Location: UK

 Tristan Stephenson, co-founder of drinks consultancy Fluid Movement and bestselling author of The Curious Bartender, discusses the burgeoning rum market and introducing rum novices to the category


You’ve written extensively about a range of spirits – how did you develop an affinity for rum

It has a ridiculously rich history. In the last four or five hundred years, rum and sugar have collectively shaped the modern world. Sugar cane was one of the first commodities that was traded globally and rum was a massive part of that. There’s no other spirit category, no other drink – apart, probably, from Coca-Cola  that can claim such an important role in the way the world is today.

The other thing I find amazing about rum is the diversity. Now, diversity is, in a way, part of rum’s problem. It often fails to establish a sort of identity for itself, because there are so many types of rum from so many different countries made in so many different ways, from different base materials.

But it’s something that can be celebrated about it as well. The flavour spectrum of rum is as broad as you’ll find in any category. Rum can be made in the same way whisky is made, rum is made in the same way vodka is made, there’s rum that’s made in the same way that cognacs and brandies are made.

‘Diversity is, in a way, part of rum’s problem. But it’s something that can be celebrated as well’ Tristan Stephenson

What that means is you end up with a product that is similar to another spirit category, depending on the way it’s manufactured. You can take any classic cocktail, change the base spirit for rum, and it will probably work. There’s no other category you can do that with. Rum’s really good at being multi-faceted, playing lots of different roles.

How is the rum category evolving?

In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a lot of new countries producing rum. They’re producing styles that are often sweetened, sometimes styles that are slightly flavoured, and that’s broadening the category.

This is somewhat problematic to the category as well, because every country or island has a take on how rum should be made, so this evolution is naturally leading us to a situation where we need to understand what rum is and look at how it should be categorised and how we should describe rum to consumers in simple language that doesn’t discredit the complexity of making good rum, but equally doesn’t confuse as well.

‘We’re at a tipping point with rum. It’s like a juvenile going out on a gap year to discover itself’ Tristan Stephenson

So we’re kind of at a tipping point with rum. It’s like a juvenile going out on a gap year to discover itself. It’s a period of self-reflection that involves a bit of angst. That reflection will hopefully result in a well-balanced category that’s comfortable in its own skin.

What’s your take on flavoured rums?

Flavoured rum is a big part of the category, as it is with most spirit categories currently, and spiced rum’s huge. It’s not my kind of thing. I understand it serves a purpose.

What I do think it can do is bring people into the category who haven’t previously explored it, and lead to a conversation about what it is they’re drinking and why they like it, and perhaps they realise there’s a truer representation of rum available to them that’s equally as delicious, or perhaps more delicious.

I’ve got a rum bar down in Cornwall [at restaurant Surfside]that’s very popular and we get a lot of people who order spiced rums and stuff – and we stock them, we serve them, we don’t say no – we’re like, yeah, we want to engage and get you drinking rum. And then in the next conversation we say, ‘why don’t you try this? It’s really lovely, it’s from this island, it’s made this way’, and they try it and they often like it.

What are the main elements to look for when tasting a rum?

There are certain flavours that give you a hint as to how the rum might’ve been produced. It’s best to go into tasting rum with a really open mind, because you can pretty much encounter any flavour profile you can get with any other spirit.

‘It’s best to go into tasting rum with a really open mind, because you can pretty much encounter any flavour profile you can get with any other spirit’ Tristan Stephenson

You can get the vegetal notes of tequila in some agricoles. You can get the honey and sweet notes that you might get in whisky from rum. You can get herbaceous fruity notes that you might get from gin.

You mentioned your rum bar in Cornwall, and you’ve written The Curious Bartender’s Guide to Rum – any other rum projects on the horizon?

I did the rum book, which was a few months of travel around the Caribbean basically filling myself up on rum. So I sort of had my rum fill for a year there.

I’m interested in going back to Haiti to look at Haitian rums. I think it’s a category that very few people know anything about and people do love it, and there’s probably a book to be written there.

When you’re not all rummed out, what’s your favourite way to drink it?

Any of them – I would never allow myself to be limited to drinking rum in one way, or indeed just one rum.

I love drinking rum neat. I tend to drink just aged rums neat, but there are a few exceptions, there are some agricoles. I love a Ti Punch, so a good agricole with lime and sugar. I’ve always been a big fan of a Dark and Stormy.

I’m not a huge drinker of tiki cocktails, usually just too much liquid volume for me – I’m a small guy. I tend to drink alcohol volume, but not liquid volume. But I’ll drink a Mojito on a sunny afternoon. I’ll smash back a couple of those!

Tristan will be discussing The Many Faces of Rum in the Taste Zone at Imbibe Live at 14.45, 2 July.

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