The Jamaica effect - How Appleton Estate is premiumising rum - Interview, Campari Group CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz, Part I

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Last month, Campari Group CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz cut the ribbon on a new US$7.2m visitors centre at the Appleton Estate rum distillery in Jamaica. Afterwards, just-drinks sat down with him to talk about how the new centre will affect the Appleton brand, what the industry can learn from Jamaica and why it may take ten more years before consumers properly understand rum's ageing process.

Bob Kunze-Concewitz (third from right) cuts the ribbon on the Appleton Estate visitors centre last month alongside master blender blender Joy Spence (second from right) and Jamaican government ministers

Bob Kunze-Concewitz (third from right) cuts the ribbon on the Appleton Estate visitors centre last month alongside master blender blender Joy Spence (second from right) and Jamaican government ministers

It's a two-hour drive from either of Jamaica's main towns of Kingston and Montego Bay to the Appleton Estate Distillery, down winding roads and through lush jungle to the heart of this beautiful Caribbean island. It may be remote, but Campari CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz sees the distillery's new visitors centre, opened at the end of January, as being a major part of Appleton's global aspirations.

It will, he says sitting in a side office after the centre's opening ceremony, play two roles for the premium rum brand that Campari acquired in 2012 as part of its purchase of Lascelles deMercado & Co. First, it will set a new benchmark for Appleton's global marketing reach, allowing brand teams to "bring the equity alive". Second, and more importantly, the site will become a "major tourist destination".

"In our industry," the CEO says, "brand-building is about telling the story and telling it well - liquid to lips. There's no other place we can do it better than here."

Ambitions for the centre are high. Campari hopes to attract 200,000 visitors a year, banking on Jamaica's reputation as a tourist hotspot within easy reach of North American regional airport hubs. Whether that goal can be achieved remains to be seen: A 1990s-era plan to reopen a railway line that will connect the inland distillery to Montego Bay remains dormant, despite new assurances from Jamaican authorities that it will be built. Latest estimates from the tourism department have set an opening date of 2020, a target that has been dismissed by local media as fanciful.

Meanwhile, Jamaica's reputation for high levels of crime also poses a threat - in the same week the visitors centre opened, US, UK and Canadian governments warned their citizens in Montego Bay not to leave the beach-front resorts as local military forces conducted a crackdown on gang violence.

But, speaking to just-drinks, Kunze-Concewitz maintains that a visitors centre has always been part of Campari's plan for Appleton.

"When I came on the management visit before the [Lascelles deMercado purchase], I had a look at this and thought there is so much potential. But, what they had didn't really do justice for such an iconic brand. So, we needed to set up much much higher standards."

The new site is really an upgrade to a previous centre that Campari deemed insufficient for purpose. Today, gGuests are taken on a tour that shines a light on Appleton's almost 200-year history, while explaining the rum-making process. It is all aimed at educating consumers about a spirit that Kunze-Concewitz believes can sometimes confuse consumers, particularity when dealing with its premium credentials.

"Rum has no entity such as the Scotch Whisky Association. In the Caribbean, from island to island, there are very different standards. It can be very confusing. We are in for the long haul, and it's going to take some time to educate. This is where such an amazing place as this has such a huge role to play."

The premiumisation of rum, long overdue perhaps, does seem to be gathering pace. Successes for Remy Cointreau's Mount Gay brand can be backed by wins for Campari's rum portfolio, which accelerated growth in last September's Q3 results to post a double-digit increase. Growth was driven partly by US and UK sales for the Appleton range, which has been bolstered at the top-end with new launches such as the 25-year-old Joy Anniversary Blend, which honours the distillery's master blender, Joy Spence, the first and only female master blender for a major spirits brand. Meanwhile, a packaging overhaul launched in 2015 is starting to pay off. Kunze-Concewitz says the redesign, which also included the renaming of some of the expressions, has given consumers a better understanding of the range and its positioning.

Jamaica rules

It's clear from the packaging for Appleton Estate - and from conversations with Campari's rum team - that the company is a fan of Jamaica's rules on aged rum. The category's problem with premium brand-building is often blamed on the diverse regulations set by individual countries on what constitutes, say, a ten-year-old rum. In some regions, for example, the number on the front of the bottle could simply be the age of the oldest liquid used in the blend, or even an aggregate of all the ages.

Jamaican rules, in contrast, state that the age is tied to the youngest liquid in the blend. So, a 12-year-old may contain rum that is older, but none that is younger.

"That's a huge difference versus the solera [aggregate] -based ones," says Kunze-Concewitz. "This is where I think we need to go on a major educational mission."

But, even if he would like the rest of the rum industry to follow Jamaica's lead, Kunze-Concewitz is not going to hold his breath. Standardisation of the rum rules would, he says, be "very, very difficult".

"It also takes a major financial investment to do what we are doing," he continues. "We compensate for the angel's share every few years by taking all of the barrels from the same year and cannibalising them. You have minimum age, whereas most of our peers add young spirit. That benefits the working capital, but you end up with a very different liquid."

So, Appleton Estate may be trying to simplify premium rum - are other producers in the category working hard to do the same?

"Not really, no," admits Kunze-Concewitz.

"All of the major brands have a different view, and different ageing methodologies," he says. "So be it. But, we are one of the pearls of the Caribbean and it is more about telling our story."

The other problem for the premiumisation of rum has been in how to communicate to consumers the faster ageing process that spirits endure in warmer climates. It is, of course, much warmer in the Caribbean than on your average day in Speyside, and a four-year-old Jamaican rum is regarded in the industry as equivalent in age-terms to a 12-year-old Scotch.

But, while age-cues offer a ready-made shorthand for a brown-spirits audience weaned mainly on whisk(e)y marketing, consumers are taking their time to understand rum's difference, according to Kunze-Concewitz.

"These things don't happen overnight. You have your rum aficionados, who understand what we are talking about, but the wider population doesn't know much about it. I think they will care if we explain to them what it means in the end result, in terms of product quality."

This is a process that Kunze-Concewitz believes could take as long as a decade. But, time is on Campari's side. Through its Appleton ownership, Campari has one of the largest stocks of casked rum in the world, allowing its blenders to play with innovations such as the Joy 25-year-old. And, according to Kunze-Concewitz, more will come.

"The beauty is we are sitting on an amazing aged-rum collection," he says. "We can do a lot, and we will."

In part II of just-drinks' exclusive interview, which can be found here, Kunze-Concewitz discusses Campari's M&A strategy and why the Irish whiskey category is suffering from too many new entrants.

What's coming up in spirits in 2018? - Click here for just-drinks' predictions for the year ahead

Sectors: Spirits

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