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Smaller rum distillers use regional pride to take on corporate giants

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MIAMI -- When you're talking about rum, how much does the Caribbean really matter?

For the rum world, it's a more serious question than it sounds, and the answer exposes a schism in the industry, a divide between massive producers who value uniformity in a global market and smaller players and connoisseurs who prefer nuanced production that reflects the time and place a rum is made.

A walk down the rum aisle of a liquor store sees this played out. While major companies like Pernod Ricard might acknowledge that its Malibu is a "Carribean rum" and has notes of coconut flavour, you won't find specifics beyond that. Likewise, Diageo's Captain Morgan doesn't indicate which island port its jaunty pirate logo calls home.

That's because the largest liquor companies have realized it's not critical to promote their rums' origins in their global branding, says Arun Sharma, professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. That allows them flexibility to produce their spirits where they need to meet demand on the mass market.

"The brand is more important than where it's produced," Sharma said.

At Bacardi, which sells more than 18 million cases of rum worldwide each year, consistency and quality are paramount, even as it expands its offerings of flavoured, spiced and premium rums.

"Our marketing approach and advertising hasn't really focused on the Caribbean... It's a lifestyle. It's a way of life," said Bacardi brand master David Cid.

Except that rums can vary greatly based on where and how they are produced, something smaller producers have begun promoting as a way to distinguish themselves. Cuba and Puerto Rico have lighter, more delicate rums; Jamaica veers to the full-bodied, darker liquors; and Haiti is known for the cognac-like flavour of its Rhum Barbancourt.

Blue Chair Bay Rum, which country music star Kenny Chesney is launching this spring, is a good example. Chesney chose a distiller in Barbados specifically to infuse the spirit with an authenticity he sought to represent his love for the island lifestyle, says CEO Mark Montgomery.

"Every island in the Caribbean, every country in Central and South America makes 'the best rum in the world.' There's a lot of pride in rum," says Robert A. Burr, organizer of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.

Rum can be tricky for drinkers to figure out because it can be produced anywhere, unlike Scotch whisky, which by definition comes from Scotland, says Bernhard Schafer, a professional spirits judge at the Miami rum festival.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 E4

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