Double Barrel: Appleton’s Premium Brown Spirit

February 24, 2010

words by Eddie STATS Houghton

Since the summer, one of Jamaica’s oldest brand names–Appleton Estate rum–has been putting aย  nowadays spin on it’s approach. Variations on the ad above have been splashed across the pages of GQ and WIRED and a multi-story billboard on Houston and Lafayette in SoHo, NYC. The fresh look, dreamed up by the agency of Devito/Verdi, has gotten lots of write-ups on sites like BrandFreak, not to mention the New York Times, so we decided to hit up the good people at Kobrand, who bring Appleton Estate into the U.S.–and see what the results have been so far.

Although it’s too early to say what 2010 sales figures will look like, JoAnn Craner, Kobrand’s senior brand manager for Appleton, claims there has been a noticeable “tom-tom response” from salesmen, buyers and the star mixologists who influence purchasing tastes (and anecdotally speaking, we at Large Up have noticed Appleton Estate being stocked in more New York shops).

“There has been a definite shift in perception,” expands Craner “that’s allowed Appleton to stand out from the stereotype of rum as a generic cocktail ingredient rather than a distinguished, complex flavor.” And these days, standing out is good for business. Although the bulk of rum sales are hogged by megabrands like Bacardi, premium rums now account for some 12% of revenues in this 60 billion dollar market, whereas 10 years ago they didn’t rate enough to even have their own category. While the recession has hurt liquor sales overall–and high-end liqs especially–this may not necessarily be bad news for Appleton. “We found that white rum drinkers didn’t necessarily graduate to finer rums, because they are basically looking for liquid candy,” says Craner. “But we did attract interest from connoisseurs of other premium brown spirits.” And in that arena, a quality rum competes well with small-batch single malts and other spirits that may run as much as $140 for comparable quality.

Others have noticed all this, of course. Not only has there been a run of rum-only bars opening from San Francisco to Tokyo but several new brands which shall remain nameless have jumped into the premium rum business and “sort of died on the vine” as Craner puts it. But though all the noise has been “good for the category” she doesn’t recognize believe these late entries are in the same weight division: “We’ve been doing this for 260 years. This is what we do well.”

Meanwhile, back on the estate, Appleton is aiming to re-redefine the category by introducing a super-premium limited edition rum, aged a minimum of 30 years and priced at about $375. We’ll let you know what redefinition tastes like if we can find a half-price bottle on e-bay.