Third Wave Rum

Used barrels on a workroom floor.
Photo by Reiseuhu / Unsplash

We are what we drink

We are what we eat (or drink)—at least this is the driving idea behind contemporary trends in food and beverages that seek transcendence, quality, transparency, and even social equity in cheese, wine, fruit, and, yes, distilled spirits too. Agro-food activism, as performed by Slow Food, Fairtrade, Third Wave—they all function on the basic concept that what we eat is tangled up in who we are.

Thad Vogler, Slow Food champion of spirits and author of By the Smoke and the Smell begins his quest for the rare and sublime in distilled spirits like this:

“I decided that I wanted to connect guests to something beautiful, to a supply chain that wasn’t actively destroying the things we all claimed to be celebrating in this cultural moment: stuff like love, quality, relaxation, different cultures, and sexuality. I stayed away from spirits made in factories, owned by multinationals, with added flavors and colors, or being sold by monopolistic distributors. Why would we want to put that in our bodies? For me, the issue isn’t political; it’s spiritual.”

Scrutinizing our food, and how we get our food, is a noble endeavor, make no mistake! We also aspire to Vogler’s quest for the rare and sublime, and stuff like love, in our spirits. But the devil’s in the details and, especially with sugar and rum, the details are often too deep and twisted for woke gastronomy to handle.

And Vogler agrees: “the centuries of history that feature these commodities, and the trade routes that facilitated their distribution, are inextricably linked with slavery. Without slavery, we do not have rum… rum is slavery; to separate the two is irresponsible.”

If “we are what we eat” (and drink) and “rum is slavery,” are we drinking slavery?

The discussion, of course, is more complicated than that, and maybe this question is unfairly reductionist. But there is an unresolved tension between our desire for purity, ethical and otherwise, in our food and drink, and the very real and terrible economics of some of our oldest supply chains. Consumer-driven agro-food activism has blind spots, and those blind spots extend as far as we are willing (and able) to look critically at the supply chains that bring us our food and drink.

Informed consumers and ethical supply chains

Sometimes supply chains, especially really old supply chains, can be an uncomfortable link between the modern consumer ($$$$) and historically disenfranchised people and regions of the world ($). Enter the responsible, informed consumer, seeking “geographic and moral provenance, knowing where something comes from,” and a sense “of virtue in supporting a craft, rewarding skill and hard work.” This quote is from a paper by Edward Fischer, an anthropologist who studies how culture and society shape global economics.

Not only is Fischer’s informed consumer willing to pay a premium for moral provenance, they are also looking to get educated about production methods, sourcing, and the specifics of where their preferred premium goods were made, and by whom. In so doing, the informed consumer drives entire markets to reconsider the social, not just the economic, effects of their retail purchase: coffee, chocolate, and grain are just a few commodity markets where consumer-facing reassurances like Fairtrade, Bonsucro, and Slow Food have gained traction.

Informed consumers are getting more clout in the spirits business, too, most notably with Black-owned brands like Uncle Nearest, Equiano, and Ten to One taking aim at the dismally low rate of Black ownership in nationally distributed liquor brands. But discussions about ethics and sustainability are still tricky and underemphasized in distilled spirits. Maybe our prohibition of alcohol on moral and social grounds a century ago makes it difficult for otherwise engaged consumers to think critically about sourcing. Maybe the intense capital required at the distilling plant somehow interrupts the obvious and logical argument that spirits are an agricultural product, not just a product of engineering and international commerce that appears magically on retail shelves.

So how *does* rum get from cane to glass?

Supply chains are networks of discrete transactions in which some good or service is exchanged for money based on perceived value, and this is no different for rum than for any other commodity. Despite their straightforward name, supply chains are rarely simple paths from producer to consumer, and “supply web” or “supply waterfall” might better describe the many counterflows of products, cash, and value in a supply chain. The rum supply chain is a great example of this complexity: value and cash flows diverge at the sugar refinery, with sugar flowing to one market, and molasses for rum to another.

Rum is also one of the oldest and most prototypical supply chains. Born at the beginning of colonial expansion into the New World and developed on the cusp of our modern age of communication and unbound transoceanic travel, rum laid the groundwork for the present-day globalized economy (see Ian Williams’ Rum a Social and Sociable History for more).

Rum isn’t the only old supply chain

Chocolate, spices, and tea are also really old colonial-era supply chains. Coffee, in particular, has echoes of rum’s legacy as an indulgence, a vice—even a drug. But, while rum marketing is still stuck on tropicality and exoticism, informed consumption has developed into a marketing mainstay for specialty coffee, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the coffee retail atmosphere.

For some reason, informed consumers and ethical supply chains aren’t that important in spirits—yet. Rum in particular seems to be lagging by at least a decade or two behind coffee, for example.  Shouldn’t they track? After all, these are all premiumized, luxury consumables originating in the global south and widely consumed in the global north.

If we want to know where rum is headed, we can look to coffee, and to coffee sourcing and marketing, in particular.

Value and marketing in a supply chain

Supply chains are mediated by value—in coffee, for example, cash is exchanged for products based on  attributes like flavor, consistency, and provenance. It’s not the cash, or even the coffee beans, driving the market. On the consumer end, it’s what we think we’re gaining, and why we’re willing to pay for it.

Benoit Daviron and Stefano Ponte, authors of The Coffee Paradox: Global Markets, Commodity Trade and the Elusive Promise of Development, use the concept of “value spheres” to describe the three most important kinds of value that coffee accrues as it passes through the coffee supply chain.

Intrinsic value is found in objective product quality, namely the taste and terroir of the coffee (annoyingly subjective concepts, but let’s run with it). Intrinsic value is determined by experts during a cupping, or technical tasting. This is the “what’s actually in the cup” value. More often than not, intrinsic value is subject to less-than-scientific elaboration by well-meaning marketing departments, but there are also rigorous statistical and quantitative approaches. These don’t always reach the retail consumer.

Symbolic value comprises the moral and ethical arguments for buying coffee. Fair Trade certification, direct relationships with growers, and that beautiful poster of a coffee farmer behind the counter all emphasize the symbolic value of coffee in specialty markets. Symbolic value can satisfy consumer demand for transparency in the supply chain, the desire to be a “responsible consumer,” and provide a snapshot of a product’s origin. On the other hand, for big commodity brands, the most important symbolic values are brand trustworthiness and (by extension) product consistency.

Affective value enters at the retail-consumer interface. This is why you have to wait so long for your fancy pour-over: you purchased an experience, not just a beverage, and the extra ritual is a retail value-add. Some roasters and coffee retailers go as far as offering education on cupping methods, brewing, and other subjects for the most engaged consumers.

Rum shares these value spheres: the same intrinsic, symbolic, and affective values are added along the supply chain by distillers, brand marketers, and retailers to justify retail price. Also like coffee, growers are mostly cut out of these value-adds. However, clean comparisons between coffee and rum are still difficult, which we’ll get back to in a moment.

First, some history.

Three waves of coffee

As a commodity, coffee is almost certainly older than rum, with early historical references placing it in 15th century Yemen. More recently, the coffee industry generally recognizes three distinct modern consumer eras, commonly referred to as three “waves”. Each wave is tagged to a particular time period of market dominance, but the waves still serve to classify active coffee brands.

First Wave coffee: “the best part of waking up”

“The first [wave] was an early-to-mid-century phenomenon marked by the spread of commodity coffee at the national level and the rise of still-familiar brands like Folgers [and] Maxwell House,” says Fischer. “Such branding emerged to assure customers of basic quality (against the adulteration of bulk grounds with chicory and other substances).” First wave also marks “the rising importance of intangible assets (such as trust symbolized by brand).” Purchased in bulk from nameless growers at a low price determined by powerful buyers, and with little profit retained at the grower level, First Wave emphasizes symbolic brand value and product consistency above all else.

Second Wave coffee: “from bean to brew”

“The late 1960s and 70s saw the early rise of a new vanguard of USA coffee purveyors,” according to Fischer, like Peet’s in San Francisco and Zabar’s in New York. “Growing from local roots around the country, small roasters sought to recapture the unique qualities and taste profiles of coffees that were lost in the undifferentiated commodity blends. The movement toward quality really took off in the 1990s.” In the Second Wave model, the grower remains invisible and powerless, and marketing emphasis is on the intrinsic values of the product.

Third Wave coffee: “experience the best”

Again from Fischer: Third Wave coffee, “rides on a general growth in the high-end market for artisanal foods and products,” and emphasizes a focus on small producers and their crops. In the Third Wave model, growers are a visible part of the coffee supply chain and all three value spheres—symbolic, intrinsic, affective—are exercised to boost retail premiums. Like Second Wave, Third Wave coffee loves rigorous treatment of intrinsic values (flavor, aroma, cupping, etc.). In Third Wave coffee, however, the small grower and the region of origin (terroir) replaces brand trustworthiness as the dominant symbolic value, and affective value-adds are a Third Wave barista’s bread and butter.

Three waves of rum

In mapping Third Wave coffee, we’ve identified the underlying framework of a premium imported luxury product—namely, the development of new value categories to meet an evolving consumer market—in the hopes that it can teach us something about where rum is going next. Can we identify a similar trajectory for rum? If so, which wave dominates the market right now?

Just like coffee, rum has a clear First Wave

As in First Wave coffee, historic rum brands depended—and still depend—on First Wave symbolic values to market their products. Notably, rum companies that survived the 1980s by chasing vodka’s US market share rely on symbolic concepts of purity and approachability (“smoothness”) and maintain brand trust by providing high volumes of very consistent products.

Second Wave marketing based on intrinsic values (“what’s in the bottle”) is also pretty easy to find in high-end bottle shops. Emphasis on taste and terroir over product consistency is a hallmark of independent bottling, which has been gaining visibility in the US market for more than a decade. Independent bottlers often tout the original distillery but, as in second wave coffee, good information about the original raw materials is almost never available. In the last decade, driven by newfound “dorky” consumer interest in flavor profile, fermentation details, and distillation equipment, the wider industry is also accessing the intrinsic value sphere in marketing and labeling. What’s more, organizations like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and people like F. Paul Pacult have even developed their own brands around standardized intrinsic value description, assessment, and education.

The verdict: Third Wave rum is not here yet

The Third Wave symbolic value sphere is harder to identify in rum. Third Wave-style “grain-to-glass” and “cane-to-glass” brands do exist, and there are plenty of US craft distilleries who bake traceability into their sourcing model to capture this value-add. But the effect is limited to mostly domestic grain supply chains, specialty producers, and small volumes. Cross an international border, and this symbolic value-add disappears.

Symbolic value doesn’t just suffer because of a disconnect at the point of importation. Sugarcane derived distillates are also problematic because they developed and exist adjacent to the global sugar industry. Most rum is made from a sugar refinery waste stream: molasses. Even more challenging for traceability, sugar sourcing has been actively anonymized for centuries. Elizabeth Hoeim explores this disconnect in her paper, “The Progress of Sugar: Consumption as Complicity in Children’s Books about Slavery and Manufacturing, 1790-2015.” It’s no surprise that modern rum brands and consumers are often unable to identify the country of origin, let alone a grower associated with their bulk molasses.

Third Wave dependence on affective value (the experiential value) of rum is easy to identify: bars and restaurants, and cocktails. The Tiki genre probably leans into rum’s affective value sphere the most—riffing on nostalgia for an idealized global south, often with very little connection to any modern or historic reality. While Tiki is getting a Third Wave affective value makeover in the more socially aware  “tropical” bar scene, cocktail culture has always been an important added value for spirits brands, even the ones we’ve dubbed “First Wave”, so the affective value sphere might not be the best indicator of Third Wave trends in rum anyway.

Third Wave rum clearly hasn’t arrived, yet

Rum (but more importantly, sugar) supply chains just can’t support the transparency a Third Wave would require to extract symbolic values like terroir and social impact. What’s more, intrinsic values like flavor and age are more commonly associated with distillation, aging, and other downstream processes—not with sugarcane agriculture, or farmers, or even the sugarcane plant itself. As for affective values, most rum marketing and consumer culture is still wrapped up in content that wouldn’t survive the “what’s in the bottle” scrutiny of Second Wave, let alone the woke aspirations of a Third Wave. At best, rum is a Second Wave beverage, for now.

What’s more, consumer agro-food activism, whether Third Wave, Slow Food, or Fairtrade (etc.) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. According to some researchers, conscious consumerism has only exacerbated and evolved the same old free-market abuses felt by growers. In rejecting the market structures of First Wave and Second Wave, Third Wave coffee still peddles consumer choice, localism, entrepreneurialism, and self improvement—four potent free market themes. Third Wave itself isn’t necessarily OK to take at face value, it really depends on the nuances of the supply chain, its governance structure (i.e. who calls the shots), and who’s willing to examine it up close.

While First Wave rum has come and gone, and we might be in a Second Wave now, Third Wave is still gloriously undefined for rum. Can the idealism of Slow Food and the energy of Third Wave consumer culture jump start a new order in the world of rum?

Rum can be "done right"

We think it’s possible, maybe even inevitable, to shift rum towards a better Third Wave culture. The rum industry is already contending with major molasses supply issues, as sugar extraction gets more efficient and climate change threatens to change sugarcane agriculture globally. We’re entering a post-Bourbon boom age in spirits, and it could be the perfect time to develop an industry around forward-thinking rum brands.

However it’s done, we aim to be right in the middle of it all. We’ll get down and dirty in the next email about how we think Third Wave rum is going to happen, and why.