Gruppo Campari has updated the names of some of its Appleton Estate rum expressions

Gruppo Campari has updated the names of some of its Appleton Estate rum expressions

Gruppo Campari's decision to change the names of several rum brands in its Appleton Estate portfolio suggests that the segment may have stumbled on its own language. Does this mark the end of rum's reliance on the terminology used by Cognac and Scotch whisky? Richard Woodard delves deeper.

Rum can be an immensely frustrating category. With a rainbow array of styles and the kind of lifestyle associations most spirits would kill for, it ought to be giving vodka and Scotch a run for their money in terms of scale and potential.

But, somehow, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There are a number of reasons for this: The historical domination of one huge brand – which we discussed a couple of months ago; rum’s geographically-fragmented nature, which in the past meant that local specialities stayed exactly that, without the capital or the expertise to build a sizeable export presence; and then, there's the slap-dash attitude to age statements.

There have always been brands with huge premium potential. Pernod Ricard's Havana Club, although its absence from the vast US market is an all-too-obvious barrier to growth, is one example. Another is Gruppo Campari's Appleton Estate. Excellent liquid, enviable Jamaican provenance and a seriously sexy bottle that demands to be picked up. But, in terms of performance, steady at best and seriously underpowered in the key US market. "Could do better" would probably be a fair school report assessment.

Now, Gruppo Campari is out to change all that. We’ve had to wait a while – it’s over two-and-a-half years since the Italian company paid US$415m for Appleton owner Lascelles DeMercado & Co – but now, at last, the Campari vision for Appleton is there for all to see.

I must say, I was a little puzzled at first. While the liquid stays the same (and that gorgeous bottle shape remains), the names have been changed. Gone is range stalwart Appleton V/X, to be replaced by Signature Blend. Reserve is now Reserve Blend, and Extra 12-Year-Old has become Rare Blend 12-Year-Old.

It’s not exactly radical - although I gather that more emotive names such as Ruby Blend were considered and rejected - but, work through the reasoning behind the changes, and the mists begin to clear a little.

The main concern, according to Richard Black, global integration director for rums at Campari, was that the old naming of the range was "a bit sporadic". That's a fair enough assertion. The same description could equally apply to premiumisation across rum. As Black puts it: "When is this category going to get its moment in the sun?"

The company’s thinking proceeded something like this: Big, entrenched brands have set the stage for rum, with an emphasis on rum & Coke that has been so all-pervading that premium rum’s quality cues have not come through. But, a lot of premium-and-above brands have sought to change this by borrowing cues from other categories, such as Cognac (using, for instance, the XO designation) and Scotch whisky (age statements).

What Campari wanted was a brand language that was "ownable" by rum.

Is 'blend' the right terminology? Malt whisky fanatics may (wrongly) regard blends as inferior but, for Appleton, blending is the key to great rum. "After all, we talk about a master blender, not a master distiller," Black says.

He’s also keen to highlight the positive associations with the word in coffee, for instance, and wryly points out that the most successful spirits brand on the planet - Johnnie Walker - features the word "blend" prominently on its label.

The thinking makes sense, although I wonder if the names could have been a little more adventurous and redolent of the Caribbean. But, my only real quibble would be the preservation of the 12-year-old age statement. My view is that, however tempting they may be as consumer signposts, age statements in rum make little sense.

First of all, they run counter to Campari’s "ownable by rum" argument in aping Scotch; secondly, while Appleton’s 12-year-old is a minimum age statement, rum producers elsewhere use the number to designate average age, or something even more nebulous via the use of a solera system; and, thirdly, tropical aging is completely different to the slow-moving maturation in a Speyside warehouse.

Appleton master blender Joy Spence reckons Jamaican rum ages three times faster than Scotch. So, why allow a false comparison between the two?

That reservation aside, the Campari strategy makes a lot of sense. Looking at the US, the Appleton Estate range targets what Black calls the "sweet spot" of premium-and-above rum, running from about US$21 for Signature Blend (pretty much entry-level in premium terms), up to about US$40 for Rare Blend.

This is where the big rum opportunity lies. While great strides are being made at higher pricing levels by the likes of Patrón's Pyrat and Diageo's Zacapa, this territory is relatively under-exploited for the moment in the US.

But, the potential doesn’t end there. Campari’s owned distribution across Europe will also bring a stronger focus in markets such as Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and the UK.

The strategy may need the odd tweak or two in future, but Campari’s long-awaited vision for Appleton Estate is at least coherent and well thought-out. An under-exploited brand in an under-exploited category – the opportunity here is potentially massive.