Homegrown Rum Is The Spirit In The Spotlight For 2024

In the vast landscape of India's spirits, where whisky and rum traditionally took centre stage, there's a noticeable shift in the winds of preference. The age-old perception of rum as a drink to be kept on the shelf for winter or as a low-cost option for college parties is slowly wanting to reveal a world where rum sits proudly as a premium alcohol again. And it’s not just big-name import brands that are claiming that title. Locally made spirits with Indian roots and native flavours are the big ticket item in the mixology world and as more people look forward to the future star of the spirit industry, let’s quickly take a step back to see how we got here.

Why Has Rum Taken So Long To See The Spotlight

Rum in India can be traced back to the colonial era, when the Brits, in their quest for spirited satisfaction, set up distilleries to keep the East India Company and the British military in high spirits, rum has come a long way. In the vast sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, molasses became the unsung hero of India's flourishing rum scene and local rum production became the norm.

Though there are pockets where rum, and especially dark rum is the favoured drink, overall it’s treated more as a novelty than a bar staple. “The historical association of rum as a colonial spirit in India and the fact that it was kept aside for consumption during cold months created a perception that didn't appeal to a young demographic,” says Kasturi Banerjee, Founder and Director, of Still Distilling Spirits and creator of Maka Zai, a Indian rum brand. 

But it's more than just an age thing, or a weather thing because it’s no secret that India is a dark spirit fiend in every other way. As one of the world’s largest consumers of whisky, the market reached a whopping US$16.6 billion in 2023 and is only predicted to grow. But even though there’s a high demand for both whisky and rum, numbers just don’t seem to match up and that may be down to the fact that there are just not that many interesting options to choose from. 

“India has always been perceived to produce mass spirits. There were only a handful of brands and players in the market who promoted rums the right way and educated consumers on different ways of enjoying rum,” says Pankaj Balachandran, Brand Director of Short Story a homegrown brand making Dry Gin, Grain Vodka and White Rum, “With limited brands and accessibility, there was limited growth. Rum, though still popular in the south of India, is now transforming the country. With more and more premium Indian rum brands entering the market and an increasing number of people being educated in different styles of rum, rum is on the way to having a fresh wave in the country.”

Is it all just aesthetics then? Have people been ignoring rum just because it’s become the alcohol equivalent ‘boomer culture’? To some extent, unfortunately, yes. Both dark and white rum had been written off as a tired and worn-out concept, but now with a resurgence of interest brands are sitting up and taking notice and it’s encouraging the rest of the industry to do the same. “Mixologists and bartenders are showcasing rum’s versatility by experimenting with new ingredients and creating artisanal rum cocktails. The entry of unique, flavoured rums is also capturing the attention of young palates,” Kasturi assures us.

The Re-Localisation Of Rum

With the revival of interest in rum came a wave of people who recognised that was India’s chance to step up and showcase local creations. After all, as the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, we were more than ready with the resources to do so. Globally there’s been a surge in interest and locally, there’s been an audience ready to bring the trend home. 

“More and more people are asking about Demerara rums and agricole rums, which weren't as popular in India,” explains Pankaj, “As they travel and get exposure, people are also understanding different styles of rums like English style, Spanish style, French style, etc. With our Short Story White Rum, we aim to expose people to these styles of rums.”

But while the audience is clamouring for international styles, there’s also a demand for it to be rooted in India, and proudly so. “Today’s consumer is very discerning and open to experimentation. To a large extent, we can thank the Gin Revolution for this. People want to try new homegrown spirits, opening up opportunities for Indian brands to thrive,” says Kasturi, “Most Indian rums predominantly utilise molasses as their base, diverging from the internationally prevalent cane-based spirits. Indian rum brands are also setting themselves apart by investing in product design to craft a distinct visual identity that tells a story.”

Another similarity to the bespoke Gin wave that has taken over India, homegrown rums are amplifying their use of local ingredients to appeal to a generation that is very aware of the benefits of sustainability at every level of the food and beverage industry and brands are meeting that demand by being transparent with their stories, sourcing and mission.

How Will This Change The Way We Drink?

‘Ek rum and coke please,'' might have been the standard order or maybe even pina colada or a daiquiri if you were already on a beach somewhere. But the future of the homegrown rum industry is all about quantity. It’s about spirits – both white and dark – that don’t need to hide behind layers of fruit and sugar to be worth drinking.

It’s also worth taking into consideration that each rum lover may have a very different favourite within the diverse categories of options. As Kasturi puts it, “The success of Indian rum today can be seen in the diverse categories (white, spiced, gold, dark, and matured) that cater to the evolving palates of drinkers.” 

So how do you find out where you fall on the rum-drinking spectrum? It mainly comes down to what you value more in a drink, complexity or freshness. “Both types of rum share commonalities in production, their appeal to audiences differs,” Pankaj elaborates, “Dark rum often appeals to those seeking rich, complex flavours and a sipping experience, while white rum is popular in cocktails and among consumers favouring a lighter taste. White rums will continue to rule the cocktail and refreshments served, whereas some good dark rums can give some great whiskies a run for their money. To regain popularity, effective marketing campaigns that cater to these distinct preferences and highlight the versatility of both varieties could present equal opportunities for resurgence.”

What’s On The Cards For 2024?

Rum is back. That much is an established and undeniable fact. But the question of where we go from here is still open-ended. Though it’s a far cry from where it’s been in the last decade, Pankaj agrees that being India to a global market is not just possible, but probable saying, “India does have the potential to produce rums that can make their mark on the global platform as it's the largest producer of sugarcane in the world,”

“In 2024, we will see the emergence of more dark rum brands, characterised by premium attributes designed to appeal to a younger demographic,” says Kasturi, “Limited-edition launches are another key area to watch out for. They allow brands to innovate with new flavours, ingredients, and techniques while offering consumers a wider variety of spirit choices, educating them about the category and reinforcing brand awareness. Additionally, they enable small distilleries to launch fantastic products, peaking interest in consumers and driving higher brand recall.”

According to Kasturi, rum is also set to expand its horizons beyond the bar counter and move into the festival space as well. “As consumer demand for experiential alco-bev events and tastings continues to rise, we hope to witness India’s first rum festival in 2024, to showcase the diversity and innovation in our country’s rum landscape.” she says. Pankaj shares his vision for the future saying, “(I hope to see) more players in the market. More brands talking about it. Increase the size of the pie like how the gin world did in India and more styles of rum coming into India.

As the global market shifts towards a complete rebranding of the space, it encourages homegrown brands to take the leap and experiment with new flavours and techniques, perhaps even some we’ve never seen before. The growth of the homegrown rum industry in India is not just a trend but a testament to the industry's ability to adapt, innovate, and capture the evolving preferences of a dynamic consumer base. As the spirit of rum undergoes a renaissance, India is poised to become a significant player in the global rum landscape.