Why you should care
These rum-makers are out to show that the drink isn’t just for sailors anymore.
Roeland Liquors in Cape Town boasts more than 100 local gins on its shelves, but its owner, Manie Potgieter, recalls how the journey appeared uphill four years ago, when he stocked three South African craft gins … all from the same distillery. Now, Potgieter is gambling on history repeating itself — this time with rum. Sales are negligible so far, but that isn’t dissuading him. “We’re at the beginning of the same journey with rum,” he says.
Potgieter is one of many retailers, distillers, restaurateurs and bar owners making that bet on South Africa. Their goal: to make the country with almost a million acres of sugarcane and a proud tradition of wine- and brandy-making finally realize that rum “isn’t just for sailors,” as Eugene Coertzen, the owner of Port Elizabeth’s Brickmakers Distilling Co., puts it.
Coertzen, who was weaned onto distilling by his grandfather, quit his job as a restaurant manager in 2015 to turn his hobby into a business and has seen sales increase fivefold since then — albeit from a very low base. Then there are the creators of Copeland Rum (from the surfers’ paradise that is Kommetjie outside Cape Town), Whistler Rum (from the barren cornfields of the Orange Free State) and Mhoba Rum (from the fecund sugar plantations near Kruger National Park).
It’s got serious potential.
Geoff Woollatt, Tapanga Rum
And there’s Geoff Woollatt, general manager of Tapanga Rum, which distills rhum agricole (produced from sugarcane juice, not molasses like most rums) on a sugar farm in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
“It’s not where we want it to be yet,” concedes Woollatt. “But it’s got serious potential.”
One reason for the optimism of this nascent band of rum-makers is history itself. From boutique coffee to craft beer and — most recently — small-batch gin, South Africa has a habit of finding European addictions contagious. It’s no coincidence, says Potgieter, that the South African gin revolution followed shortly after 56 new distilleries were opened in the U.K. in two years. “South Africa tends to be a few years behind European trends,” he explains. And Potgieter appears pretty certain that Europe’s newfound love for rum — there has been a 32 percent growth in the value of rum sales in the U.K. over the past five years — will soon filter south.
Making artisan rum succeed in South Africa won’t be easy though. In the U.K. — where sugarcane and molasses are admittedly rather hard to come by — the spread of premium rum is being led by established foreign brands from exotic places like the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Venezuela. In spite of an abundance of raw materials, the same could happen in South Africa, warns Holger Meier, a craft liquor retail consultant based in Durban.
“If you look at gin, the brands that are really benefiting [in South Africa] are the established names,” he says, referring to brands like Gordon’s, Gilbey’s, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire. “Craft guys make the category exciting and grow it immensely, but big business always has the last laugh.”
Not that this worries the producers as much as it does Meier.
“If you’re doing what you love, it’s not work,” says Coertzen philosophically. And Woollatt says he wants to have “enough demand to keep us busy every day” while “never compromising on quality.” For both Coertzen and Woollatt, a key motivation is to debunk the negative connotations of rum — a drink that can, in their opinion, be just as delicate and nuanced as a fine whiskey or brandy.
Overcoming rum’s boorish, males-only reputation is a tough challenge. “I can spoil my wife with a nice bottle of gin,” says Meier, “but she wouldn’t want rum.” Coertzen, however, estimates that of 10 women who walk through his door, he is “able to convert six to rum.” And Woollatt says Tapanga “has had plenty of success with the ladies,” who often take to drinking rum neat. Besides, don’t forget that gin was able to overcome a nickname like “Mother’s ruin.”
While their on-the-rocks ambitions for the drink may be lofty, producers know that their biggest sales hope lies in the fact that, as Woollatt puts it, rum is an ingredient in “just about every cocktail on the menu.” The resurgence of tiki bars (which can use three different rums in a single cocktail) in the U.S. and Europe is trickling through to distant South Africa. Over the past year, these bars have sprung up in all of the country’s major cities — and a few smaller locales too. A smattering of high-end restaurants in both Cape Town and Johannesburg have chosen to make their unique selling point a broad selection of premium rums.
Despite the variety of hues that rum can come in, the early days of the drink’s South African renaissance suggest that dark, golden and spiced rums are likely the way forward here — a preference in line with international trends. So Coertzen doesn’t even produce a white rum, and many producers that do say its sales are low.
But can rum be the next gin? Meier says he “really hopes so,” but is “still waiting for some hard evidence.” Potgieter — whose store is located less than a hundred yards from a specialty bookstore, a cult coffee roastery and a leading photographic-print store in trend-setting Cape Town — is more optimistic. “As soon as the beards and tattoos start drinking rum,” he says, “everyone else will have to have it.” He should know. He has seen it before with gin.