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The Great South African Rumbullion

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If you had to associate a revolution or rebellion with an alcoholic beverage it should really be rum. Your thoughts might instantly go towards marauding anti-establishment pirates, but in fact the reasoning lies in etymology. The most probable origin of the word rum is the old English word ‘rumbullion’, which was slang for ‘uproar’.  And much like the beer revolution was born due to an uproar and revolt against bland macro-brewed lagers, the rum revolution in South Africa is a direct result of people of rebelling against wishy-washy mass-produced versions of a spirit that has an incredibly exciting palate and history.

Complex flavour profiles

When exploring the history of this spirit it’s hard not to get sucked into its romantic past, with tales of pirates, rum runners, and iconic authors. Rum is so much more than an industrial product to be mixed with coke. It’s a noble distillate whose flavour profiles are almost endless.  Imagine aromas and flavours of caramel, complex wood and spice notes, orange zest, tobacco, tropical fruit or hints of coconut and marzipan. Many people rightly argue that rum is the ultimate spirit with its ability to age beautifully complex flavour compounds while also remaining playful and creative. The International Spirits Challenge recently concurred with that statement by awarding The Supreme Spirit Champion to Foursquare Rum Distillery in Barbados.

So where is the rumbullion in South Africa? You might have noticed an explosion of the gin section in your local bottle store. Well if you look really closely you will just about see the beginnings of a rum revolution, with the local South African producers starting to gain ground. Brent Perremore, an awarding-wining bartender who has represented South Africa twice at the World Class bartender championship, sums up the emerging rumbullion perfectly: “People are into flavour,” he says, “and mainstream rum is not exciting”. Trevor “The Prof” Bruns from Whistler Rum, based in the Free State, concurs. “The typical rum shelf contains three or four brands with most of them falling below the R200 price mark, but with monotonous flavours,” says Bruns. “This situation is clearly changing rapidly though. There are already five distilleries in the country that only focus on rum production.”  

The South African advantage

So what is rum and what is fuelling this rebellion against the bland? Rum is sugarcane juice or by-products, such as molasses, which is fermented, then distilled in a way that allows you to taste the raw material used. “In Southern Africa, we have a large sugar cane industry,” says Geoff Woollatt of Tapanga, an estate rum from KwaZulu Natal. “This gives us the opportunity to produce rums using either molasses or fresh sugarcane”. This alone, however, is not enough to set South African rum apart from the world. “A big advantage that we in South Africa have is access to barrels that were previously used in South Africa by wine, brandy, or whiskey producers,” comments Trevor Bruns, which gives SA not only a unique geographical terroir but also a unique ageing agent in contrast to the rest of the world which use bourbon casks.

Andrew Rall, who founded Distillery 031 in Durban in 2008, expounds that one of the great catalysts to any revolution is education. “For rum to explode in South Africa it needs people to know how to drink it,” he says. “There is no default G&T-type serve and unless the public are educated they won’t buy rum”. Woollatt goes on to describe the biggest challenge that the industry faces, adding that it is, happily, on its way out. “The assumption of a dark, heavy and strong drink that makes you smell the next morning and gives you bad hangovers is changing,” he says.  

James Copeland, veteran electronic musician,  life-long rum fan and founder of Copeland Rum in Cape Town hankers to rum’s glorious past, “It’s about restoring the image and dignity of rum,” he says, noting that rum’s seemingly endless variety is what will pique the public’s interest. Beer lovers who have been enjoying their revolution over the last five years will attest to variety being synonymous with their journey.

Problems and personalities

Is rum the new Gin? Well Gin certainly has some advantages due to its appeal to the female audience and its use in iconic cocktails.  Gin can also be bottled straight off the still and is appealing to the foreign market as it can utilise sought-after and unique local botanicals. Rum on the other hand needs to be aged to be at its best. This takes time, good resources and a lot of space to store the barrels. Some unnamed rum producers are producing “flavoured ethanol” which is “not rum” according to Bruns. It is common consensus amongst the distillers I spoke to that these poor quality “rums” are the single biggest challenge to the industry’s growth, quickly followed by the fact that local rum cannot compete on price with international pouring rums. Andrew Rall believes South Africa should rather look to compete on aged rum, which will take time, “The brandy industry has got this right and South African pot still brandy holds its own against French Cognacs,” he says.

Robert Greaves, of Mhoba Rum, an estate distillery in Mpumalanga is full of optimism, “In South Africa we are starting to make some really good rum. We do not have the pedigree and history that the traditional rum producing territories have but we have some pretty resourceful people here in South Africa and we are learning fast”.

One thing that stands out amongst this new generation of rum runners is that they are driven by passion and this really comes through strongly in the way they speak of rum and the challenges they face. James Copeland sums it up: “One thing that stands out is what an amazing bunch of roguish individuals we all are. It’s very much personality-driven with quite a few different takes on the subject, which is brilliant.”

The South African rumbullion might take longer to catch on than the gin craze but like most things in life, good things come to those who wait and I for one am looking forward to sipping on local aged rums, just as soon as they’re out of the barrel.

Local Rums

Distillery 031 Agua Zulu Cachaça

This Brazilian-style rum, which uses fresh sugar cane juice, somewhat flamboyantly shows off fresh, grassy notes followed by beautifully balanced citrus, then finishes with hints of butterscotch and vanilla. Try it in a Caipirinha.

Copeland Peninsula Rum

Fermented with tropical yeast strains to maximise fruity esters of pineapple and litchi, it also displays notes of cacao and toasted coconut.

Tapanga White Rum 

This single-estate rum is delicate and soft on the palate, with an aroma of tropical botanicals that lends itself well to mixed drinks.   

Mhoba Select Agricole Glass Cask Sugarcane Rum

A unique ageing process using a “glass cask’ and charred wooden staves.  Ripe fruit and a long-lasting, rich smoky tobacco finish. 

Whistler Dark Rum

A sipping dessert rum using only African ingredients. The flavour profile is all dark chocolate, toasted toffee and nuts.

This article was first published in On Tap Magazine. South Africa’s first dedicated beer publication is a quarterly magazine aimed at craft brewers, home brewers, beer fanatics and those just beginning to dip their proverbial toe into the mash tun


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