Rum makes sense in Malaysia.
Think about it. Rum is a spirit made from the by-products of sugarcane, commonly made in the tropical countries in the Caribbean.
Malaysia is a tropical country that even has its own sugarcane industry.
The iconic Jungle Bird cocktail, which uses rum as a base, was invented right here in Kuala Lumpur, making it Malaysia’s only internationally recognised classic cocktail.
Malaysia is also a primarily dark spirits market, with whisky and cognacs the main spirits being consumed here.
Aged rum, or dark rum, also falls under the category of dark spirits, and some of the best dark rums are arguably equal or even better than some whiskies or brandies out there.
And with its sweetish flavour profile, rum should also appeal to Malaysian palates.
All the signs point to rum being a natural fit for spirit lovers in Malaysia.
So why has it taken so long for rum to gain a foothold in the Malaysian market?
This could be down to a misconception about rum that has been cultivated for years through the marketing of certain brands, as well as a lack of education towards the category itself.
“Malaysians actually love rum, but they might not know they are drinking rum!” said Rizal Junior, head mixologist at Marini’s On 57.
“Look at how many mojitos are sold here. The mojito sales in Marini’s On 57 can go up to 1,300 glasses a month!
“So people here actually do drink the tropical taste of rum, but they just don’t know that the mojitos they love have rum.”
A relative veteran in the industry, Junior, as he is best known, is an avid advocate of rum in the local bartending community.
“I think Malaysian consumers are still not too savvy about how to enjoy a good rum.
“Many whisky or brandy drinkers think rum is always sweet, which they don’t like, but they probably haven’t really tried the real good dark rums out there.”
Slowly but surely, however, there are signs of a rum renaissance in Malaysia. Or in Kuala Lumpur, at least.
Thanks to the rise of cocktail culture here, there is a whole new appreciation of rum here, with bars like The Locker And Loft, Coley, and The Rum Bar boasting a healthy selection of brands, from the more commercial ones like Bacardi and Havana Club, to premium labels like Diplomatico and Plantation.
However, Junior reckons it is pointless if a bar has a big selection of rum, but it is just sitting on the back bar unused. “You need a place where people can try these rums, and have someone talk to them about it. It now depends on the bartenders and operators to educate people about rum,” he said.
According to “Global Ambassador Of Rum” Ian Burrell, who travels around the world advocating the spirit, the biggest misconception people usually have about rum is that it is sweet.
“Everyone thinks that there is a lot of sugar in it, or that it will be sweet because it is made from sugarcane,” said Burrell, who was in town to conduct a masterclass on Diplomatico rum recently.
When recommending a rum to a beginner, the first thing Burrell asks is what type of spirits they usually drink.
“If they say whisky, I’d ask what type. I then look for a rum brand or region that has similar types of traits.
If they like big, heavy and smoky whiskies, I would then push them towards a big, heavy, robust Jamaican style rum. Or, a big, heavy Guyanese rum, like El Dorado, because those rums have a lot of whisky-like qualities.
If they do vodka, then they probably don’t like the big taste of alcohol, so I’d recommend a lighter style of rum,” he said.
Against the tide
One place where the rum is definitely at the forefront of everything is The Rum Bar.
A majority of its 250 plus labels are available by the glass, which gives one the chance to try more rum without having to purchase an entire bottle.
According to Werner’s Group managing director Trudy Ho, the idea for a rum bar came about more than a year ago, when the group was planning to revamp one of its outlets.
“We didn’t want to go with current trends … so I suggested a rum bar. The idea was to take rum to a level beyond tiki bars, mojitos and rum and coke, and introduce rum as a classy sophisticated kind of drink,” she said.
However, after talking to all the local distributors, they realised that the labels and brands available in Malaysia paled in comparison with those in other countries like Singapore and Hong Kong.
“So, we decided to bring them in ourselves. If we started with only the labels that were available in Malaysia, we wouldn’t be able to call ourselves THE rum bar,” she said.
She admits that opening a specialty rum bar in Malaysia is a challenge though, as people don’t equate rum with prestige here. “They don’t give it the respect it deserves. It is also definitely cheaper than whisky or cognac, so they think it as just a cheap drink to get drunk.
“But it shouldn’t be a matter of whether it is cheap or not. It’s a matter of being able to drink a really good rum at an affordable price. Unfortunately, in Asia it’s all about status and price.”
While rum is still growing as a category in Malaysia, Junior reckons that there is more awareness in rum these days, especially with more rum-related events and competitions like the recently concluded Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge and the upcoming Bacardi Legacy being held in Malaysia.
Ho, in particular, has huge dreams for rum in Malaysia.
“In the past, Chinese weddings would have bottles of cognacs or whisky on the table. I want it to reach the stage where there are bottles of rum on the table!” she said with a laugh.