Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Rum rivals put different spin on premium market pitch

Published:Friday | February 22, 2019 | 12:00 AMHuntley Medley - Senior Business Writer
Rum Fire rum produced by Hampden Estate.
Samples of Appleton Estate rums.
Christelle Harris, marketing manager for Hampden Estates.
J. Wray & Nephew Limited Director of Marketing, Jacopo Borsa.

They are part of the 87-year-old Spirits Pool Association and are collaborating for the March 9-10 inaugural staging of the Jamaica Rum Festival, but competing rum brands Appleton Estate and Hampden Rums are taking contrasting approaches to earning more from the lucrative premium category of the global rum market.

Italian-owned Appleton pushes the Appleton Estate brand of aged and blended rums, distilled in both copper pot and stainless steel column stills, as its premium products for the local and overseas markets.

This is distinct from its more basic Appleton Special dark rum, Appleton White and even the 63 per cent alcohol by volume, ABV, high-proof J. Wray & Nephew White Overproof, said to be the best-selling rum in Jamaica, with a big appeal among Jamaicans overseas.

“Premiumisation is ongoing. The Jamaica Rum Festival is part of that focus. We want to present our brands globally as the premium brands they are,” said Clement ‘Jimmy’ Lawrence, chairman of J. Wray & Nephew Limited, JWN, in a Financial Gleaner interview.

JWN director of marketing for Jamaica and the Caribbean, Jacopo Borsa, says the Appleton Estate range is a global priority brand for the Campari Group. The estate in St Elizabeth dates back 270 years.

“This is a jewel for the Campari Group and for Jamaica, and we are taking deliberate action to ensure it takes its rightful place in the rum category worldwide. Specifically, we are looking to present a premium rum to the global community and to make it easier for the consumer to understand our offerings,” said Borsa.

“Therefore, Appleton Estate is synonymous with premium-quality Jamaica rum and all the blends – Signature Blend, Reserve Blend, Rare Blend and 21 Years Old – connote to the consumer a message about a different flavour profile. Our range can satisfy all consumers, even those with the most sophisticated taste.”

In direct contrast, Hampden Estate, founded in 1753 and owned since 2009 by the Hussey family’s Everglades Farms, is cashing in on the old Trelawny sugar factory’s tradition of producing strong rum taken off at the early stages of the distillation process. This is generally known in Jamaica as JB, or ‘kulu kulu’, and in other parts of the world as ‘moonshine’.

Hampden markets its further-distilled but still-potent 60 per cent ABV Rum Fire locally, with market leader JWN being purveyors of the 63 per cent ABV Wray and Nephew White Overproof and the 40 per cent ABV Appleton White as its unaged brands.

Hampden is also now talking up two new unaged high-proof spirit products and positioning them as earners of top dollar in Europe and the United States as it ekes out market space on the more crowed global scene.

Last September, Hampden introduced its 60 per cent ABV and 46 per cent ABV single-malt Hampden Estate Pure Single rums to the foreign market, and the products are said to be fetching premium prices of between €69 to €75 and €50 to €53, respectively.

Hampden’s Marketing Manager Christelle Harris says the new products are “based on a classification system that was created by our distribution partners in Europe, and pure single is pretty much equivalent to pure single-malt in the whiskey world”.

Harris says her company has already sold 40,000 bottles of its single malt rum in Europe and the product only just hit the North American market last month. “We are waiting on the distribution to catch up with the demand. Production is not an issue,” she said.

In selling its new high-proof rum in the premium category, Hampden is downplaying the difference between aged or darker rums and the unaged whites, while playing up the history of the traditional copper pot distillation process.

“It comes from a pot still batch distillation,” Harris says of her product. “Pretty much the purest form of the spirit. So, whether it is white or it is aged means nothing. It is still pure single rum. It is inherent to the distillery and the way of distillation.”

Pot stilled rums are known to come off the distillation process as white rum of up to 96 per cent ABV. It is then aged and blended to create various profiles of dark rum. The Appleton brand is focused on the ageing and intricate blending of different profile rums fermented in both copper pot stills and the more modern stainless-steel multicolumn stills at about 40 per cent ABV strength.

Appleton has some 17 ageing warehouses with about 240,000 barrels of rums being aged. As part of its premiumisation, next year, JWN plans to introduce changes to the packaging of its Appleton Estate rum range to include what the company describes as “a more premium glass, cork closure and label design”.

Harris is unapologetic about Hampden’s overseas positioning of its strong whites, conceding that her company has less competitive advantage in the local market.

“We decided that the market in Jamaica is a little bit over-competitive for us, especially pertaining to the palate that enjoys the liquid,” she said.

“In Jamaica, we are used to blended rum – both pot still and column still – together in a bottle. And that is usually equated to premium. So usually, when you taste the heavier pot still rums that are unaged, we usually make the wrong association, in my view, of saying that it is of a lesser quality. And I actually don’t think that’s the case. For all Jamaican producers, their distillation is above par in comparison to the rest of the world. So, all the white rum in Jamaica is fantastic,” she asserted.

She also said that changing palates in the spirits world now makes high-potency rum sought after.

“We are talking about premium because in the rum category, it is like scotch. Scotch had its renaissance in the ‘80s. What they are selling now for a couple hundred dollars a bottle, they couldn’t give away in the ‘80s because people’s palates had not yet adjusted to it,” said the marketer.

With its comparative-advantage strategy clearly thought out, Hampden is in no rush to change its equipment and rum-making methods to secure more volumes or larger profit margins.

“We’ve had to be careful to maintain the integrity of Hampden itself. What makes Hampden special and sets it apart from every other distillery, not only in Jamaica, but in the world, is that the practices that we’ve upheld are the exact same as in the 1700s,” Harris noted.

The distillery is said to have invested in two new pot stills over the past few years and is looking at installing another now to meet the growing export demand for both its bottled rums and bulk spirits, which distillers in other countries buy for their blending proposes.

“Bulk rum is still the heart of our business in terms of cash flow,” said Harris, adding that Hampden was considering building a large warehouse needed to house its ageing barrels of rum.