Gen-next distillers are taking rum to uncharted waters

92-White-Rum Segredo Aldeia white rum

When we say “that’s the real McCoy”, it usually refers to something original. While there are many theories around how the phrase came to be associated with authenticity, the most popular one pertains to the clever antics of an American bootlegger in the 1920s prohibition era. Rum runner Bill McCoy would sail up to islands in the Bahamas, load his vessels with thousands of cases of rum, and sell them three miles offshore from the east coast of the US (the three-mile limit being the maritime borders in the early prohibition days).

Spirit of change: Kasturi Banerjee Spirit of change: Kasturi Banerjee

They say McCoy had the real stuff. His stock of rum was absolutely undiluted when others were mixing turpentine, prune juice and wood alcohol. Devoted patrons would row up to McCoy’s floating liquor store for their stash. Interestingly, when Bailey Pryor, a producer, was making a documentary on McCoy in 2012, he met master-distiller Richard Seale in the Caribbean during his field research. Suddenly, the producer hit upon the idea of starting a craft rum company with Seale, and The Real McCoy was born, adhering to the same rules of working with pristine, natural ingredients. For Arijit Bose, who has been in the business for 20 years as bartender, brand ambassador and founding partner of bar consultancy Bar Back Collective, Seale is god and The Real McCoy one of the most fascinating rum brands around.

The Delhi-boy launched his own version of The Real McCoy, The Lovers Rum, in 2018, in partnership with David Cordoba and Isaac Vivek, formerly Bacardi’s global brand ambassador. It is currently available in Goa and Gurugram at Rs8,300 and Rs5,300.

Says Bose, “You should be able to drink it over ice or straight up in a wine glass.” He chose not to work with Indian sugarcane at the time because of difficulties in sourcing and production; it is far easier to find secondary distilled molasses. “We picked up five amazing distilleries from five islands—Barbados, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Dominica. They all have their distinctive styles, and we mixed it together to make The Lovers Rum. And that balance in the liquid is depicted by the sixth card of the tarot, which is called the lovers,” says Bose. He only makes 5,000 bottles at one go and they are available in top liquor stores in the country. “I would definitely love to make something from Indian raw materials. But sourcing great sugarcane, getting it to the right distiller and ageing it properly will make it more expensive. And a lot of people will compare it to Old Monk, which makes it a difficult proposition. Unlike gin, rum-making is expensive, lengthy and manpower-intensive. However, you will see more and more people gearing up for making good quality rum now. It is already happening,” says Bose. India’s most popular rum brand, Old Monk, produced by Mohan Meakin Breweries, was the world’s largest selling dark rum until 2013 and continues to be a nostalgia-drenched, almost medicinal “Buddha baba” who is cheap and strong for tipplers happy and morose across the ages. With a tropical climate and abundant reserves of sugarcane and molasses, India has all the right ingredients to be a frontrunner in producing rum.

Amrut Two Indies Rum Amrut Two Indies Rum

Alongside The Lovers Rum, 2018 also saw the launch of Amrut’s Two Indies, a dark rum with notes of “pickled plantain and olives, varnished cedar, and pistachio nougat”. And 2021 seems to be a year that indicates a long overdue rum resurrection of sorts with young alcohol and beverage entrepreneurs venturing into premium rums that shy away from sweeteners, colouring and unlabelled additives. One of them is Segredo Aldeia, which means secret village in Portuguese.

From the house of Goa-based Fullarton Distilleries, which also launched Woodburns whisky and Pumori gin, Segredo Aldeia seems to be pleasing the hard-nosed tippler who hardly thinks much of India-made rum. Launched in March in two variants—white rum, which has notes of vanilla, sweet wood and toffee, and cafe rum, a clear, deep amber with distinct notes of coffee—Segredo also has a stunning backstory centred on a mythical village with plundering pirates and a treasure chest.

Lovers Rum Lovers Rum

In 1721, Levasseur, a French pirate, seized control of the ‘Nossa Senhora do Cabo’, the ship of Goa’s bishop. The treasure on the ship, valued at over a billion dollars, had jewels, gold, religious artefacts and barrels of rum, distilled in an unknown village a few knots upstream along the banks of the Mandovi river. This secret village was the Segredo Aldeia. Priced at Rs1,500 for white and Rs1,650 for cafe, the new-age rum is only available in Goa. Kasturi Banerjee, a former banker-turned-bartender and founder of Stilldistilling Spirits, has also pondered the complexities, stories and new production techniques of some of the world’s finest rums like Diplomático, Appleton Estate and Chalong Bay. Plagued by one question, “why aren’t we making the world’s most beautiful rums?”, she launched Maka Zai in January. Available in two variants, white and gold, Maka Zai translates into “I want” in Konkani and is available across 140-plus retail stores and over 40 bars, restaurants and five-star hotels in Goa. Banerjee emphasises how every aspect of their production is homegrown, including paper for the label, which is from Palghar in Maharashtra and bottles from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh. “I have been exposed to people consuming alcohol and observing them for a very long time from an early age. When somebody drinks alcohol and you see that happy, nice expression on their face. That was the inspiration behind Maka Zai,” says Banerjee.