Pernod Ricards international marketing director for Havana Club, Nick Blacknell

Pernod Ricard's international marketing director for Havana Club, Nick Blacknell

Earlier this year, the Worshipful Company of Distillers held a lively debate in London on the future of rum. Afterwards, just-drinks spoke to Nick Blacknell, Pernod Ricard's international marketing director for Havana Club, to discuss digital, diversity and the debate's motion “The future for rum lies with connoisseurs not clubbers”.

just-drinks: You're based in Cuba, so missed out on the debate. The evening ended with a vote against the motion, but what's your take on it?

Nick Blacknell: It's an interesting debate because there is definitely a tension in rum between going upmarket, as has happened in other spirits sectors, and rum's undoubted fun dimension. Our attitude is that you have to cover both, and our rum stretches from aged white three-year-old to Havana Club Maximo Rum, at EUR2,000 (US$2,725) a bottle.

But even for us in the white rum sector, definitely we position it much more towards people in their early 20s and the high-energy drinking occasion. But at the same time we're always trying to underpin quality credentials. 

I think with Cuban rum they've always had both sides of the equation. I don’t think there has ever been in our minds a contradiction between enjoying rum in a relaxed easy way and the underlying quality. It's at the heart of what Cuban rum is about.

j-d: Is the fun element of rum also appealing to connoisseurs?

NB: I think those drinkers like the informality of rum. And if you think about what's happening in luxury, luxury is becoming more informal. Restaurants these days are a mix between lobster and burger joints - luxury foods served in informal environments. I think that is entering into the world of drink. People still want high quality, but there is a strong global move towards informality. I think rum at the top end is benefiting from that.

j-d: But does that fun element means the real top end consumer will never be within rum's reach?

NB: I wouldn’t say that worries us, but it's something that we ask ourselves. In the past that may well have been the case. But two things have happened. People have discovered quality light rums, such as our three-year-old. It's still light and drinkable but good quality. So that has improved the image of the younger rums.

At the same time, there are a lot of high-quality rums come to the fore. More rums are being exported. More are being used by bartenders and written about. There's been more noise about high-end rum, so the whole sector is gradually moving upwards.

j-d: Have clubbers become connoisseurs themselves?

NB: Yes, that is happening. Germany is our biggest European market and we target late-teens and early 20s. We call them “party people” in our internal definition, but interestingly there is a section of that market that wants higher quality drinks and spirits. So definitely we think there is appreciation even at that end of the market. I would say a mass appreciation. No way would we be big in Germany if that age group wasn’t after quality.

j-d: How do you keep these younger consumers loyal to the brand as they grow older?

NB: There is a lot of crossover in alcohol. We think in categories because that’s how the industry is organised, but consumers don’t. There is a lot of blurring and it's increasingly blurring.

But that's good news for rum because it's now becoming the entry point for new spirits drinkers. (Diageo rum brand) Captain Morgan has become a very strong recruitment drink, and taken some of the share from vodka as an entry point into spirits. So that's good for the category, because people are starting in rum.

And if we tell consumers about the history and heritage of rum I think there's enough there to keep people interested in it and keep people there.

Of course, it's a battle, but the battle is in our favour. It's a good time to be in rum.

j-d: Rum's party appeal makes it popular in the on-trade. But trends seem to be moving towards off-trade. How will that affect the category?

It's a global trend. Almost every market I visit they put up a power point that says the trend is from on-trade to off-trade. So it is a challenge. Rum, generally, is good in on-trade activation and most of the players are strong in the on-trade. There is a challenge to take that fun party dimension into the home, so we spend a huge amount of time and money focusing on that because long-term that's where the trends lie.

j-d: Is technology a big part of that?

NB: Yes, it's crucial. People are used to getting all their food recipes through apps so we see digital tech as a crucial tool to help people translate a good on-trade experience into the home - whether it's mojitos at home or downloading Cuban music to play at home if you have a party.

It's a holy grail for the drinks industry, trying to sophisticate the at-home experience. It's a mystery why people have been comfortable eating Thai food then going home and cooking Thai, but have more resistance when it comes to doing the same with cocktails.

It requires a lot of push to get people to make that transition. But if the industry can do it, then it would be highly beneficial.