• The Cabinet

For Rum Sake: Why is rum still packaging itself in the past?

Updated: Nov 28

Rum has had – and continues to have – issues when dialling up its storied history, without being, to be polite, problematic. From the name itself to the imagery on the bottle, many of the established tropes used by rum brands are at best cartoonish, and at worst, overtly racist. But things are changing.


From swashbuckling pirates, to references to the slave trade, for a generation of rum brands telling the story of their Caribbean roots, and conveying the origins of its liquid to consumers, has meant tapping into a number of colonial tropes. Some are more obvious than others.


Though the production of rum, and its creation in the first place, is inextricably linked to the slave trade, brands have framed this history in a way that romanticises the past, and dials up exoticism and cultural stereotypes, while ignoring their true historical roots. Or in the case of even some recent launches, claiming a past or tapping into a culture that isn’t their own.


Questionable namesakes


Referencing real life historical figures from the Caribbean has become one of the key ways for brands to assert their authenticity. In a climate where consumers are demanding name changes of public buildings, and the removal of statues venerating controversial figures from the past, brands are beginning to have a problem on their hands.


The namesake of St Lucia’s Admiral Rodney rum was a pro-slavery advocate, who petitioned against the abolition of slavery on several occasions. Today there are ongoing St Lucian petitions for the renaming of places that also takes his name, alongside the rum.


Brands that have no connection to their referential names, are facing backlash too. Ron Esclavo, which means Slave Rum, from the Dominican Republic says it is paying homage to the slaves who paid a high price in the history of sugar cane and rum. However, it has faced repeated consumer pressure to change its name.


And in the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests were at their height in the US, following the murder of George Floyd, Plantation Rum announced it was to change its name to “support racial equality”. Though it has yet to do so. Speaking at the time, founder and master blender Alexandre Gabriel said:“As the dialogue on racial equality continues globally, we understand the hurtful connotation the word ‘plantation’ can evoke to some people.”


Cultural missteps


Whether brands recognise it or not as yet, consumers have already moved beyond the need for brands to root themselves in a romanticised, or whitewashed view of the past, to legitimise themselves. Their radar for a cultural backstory that rings hollow, is at an all-time high.


Before it had even launched this summer Michael B. Jordan’s new rum brand was ‘cancelled’ after backlash for cultural appropriation. His crime? Though Jordan has no links to Trinidad or wider Caribbean culture, he chose to name his brand J’Ouvert, after the annual celebration originating in Trinidad and Tobago, that marks the start of slavery, and celebrates emancipation from slavery.


The power of authenticity


With all that in mind, imagery of crusading pirates upon bottles of grog, already feels outdated. Diageo’s Captain Morgan, launched in 1982, famously features imagery of a suave pirate on its bottles. Even its 2020 UK advertising campaign encouraged drinkers to ‘Live like the captain’.


However, a look at who the captain was, paints him to be a dubious role model. Though largely unknown by today’s consumers the real life Captain Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer and plantation and slave owner who became the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. During raids of Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela, accounts from the time point to acts of sexual violence. If there were greater awareness of its namesake, this long-standing brand may be in trouble.


Moving rum’s image forward


However, a new wave of forward-facing rums are moving the image of the category forward, through the removal of kitsch packaging tropes, and naming that doesn’t tap into a colonial past.


Where brands are looking back, they are doing so with authenticity, calling out and celebrating more venerable names from history. Equiano – named for Nigerian-born writer, entrepreneur, abolitionist and freedom fighter Olaudah Equiano – is described as the world’s first African and Caribbean rum, fusing liquids from Barbados' Foursquare and Gray's Distillery of Mauritius. Founded by global rum ambassador Ian Burrell, and Richard Seale of Foursquare, the liquid mirrors the duality of Equiano’s life, who was stolen into slavery as a child, and transported across the Atlantic. Pared back packaging prominently features the name, and product info.


Meanwhile, a new wave of rums with no Caribbean connections whatsoever, are developing their own visual language. Take Mad City’s botanical rum for example. Botanical rums – which ride the wave of gins success, while attempting to move the rather poor image of spiced rums forward – are a new entity. Featuring original work by Bristol-based urban artist Sled-One, the pack design is inspired by “the pulsating energy of the city's Stokes Croft and St Paul's areas”, rather than a fictional tropical history. New Belizean rum brand Copalli does have tropical roots, but not much in the way of history. Its branding is heavily focused on tropical botanicals, in line with some of its more eco leanings.


Shrewd consumers


Shrewd consumers – engaged in today’s social and political climate – seek authenticity from the brands they patronise. This will only increase. Pastiche repackaging of the past is being rejected in favour of something more truthful. New brands are free to express what makes them unique – as long as its genuine – free from the confines of what a rum brand ‘should’ look like. In turn, the more premium look of many of the newest rum launches, is helping to elevate a category that has historically struggled with image perceptions, due both to a lack of regulation and packaging that speaks to an antiquated, colonial view of the past, rather than the quality of the liquid in the bottle.