Updated: Mar 11, 2019
The term “gateway rum” is used quite a lot in online rum groups. It usually pops up when someone feels the need to defend drinking a certain style of rum in their present or past. This defense is sometimes accompanied by various levels of anger, resentment or regret. Let me rewind the story a bit…
This would have started off with someone presenting their favourite bottles of rum and then some rascal, let’s call him Dave, daring to say he doesn’t like it because it’s full of added sugar and it’s not aged as much as the label suggests. Added sugar and debatable age statements aren’t seen as quality indicators to most people. Better not to know these facts. Dave just shattered someone’s dream of drinking the best of the best. Words like “snob”, “snobbish”, “hater”, “sugar police” will be iterated shortly after.
Luckily there will always be people who don’t get emotional and are willing to mediate. What they do is similar to the pirates invoking parlay, but instead of parlay they say “gateway rum”.
Why are only sweet rums classified this way?
I came across the term rather quickly when I started getting more into rum. I was moving on from Bacardi and Captain Morgan and knocking on the door of a few Facebook rum groups. As a novice drinker with very limited knowledge about rum I looked for advise online and in liquor stores. What I encountered is what I now call the first layer of marketing. It’s typically from companies with the deepest pockets. This layer is thick and hard to get through as a beginner. I'll never forget the following quote I read once:”Zacapa is the standard that all other rums are compared to at tasting competitions”.
Large, rich companies are always trying to decide what consumers want and then push and manipulate them through all sorts of marketing and sales strategies. Finding the shortest rainbow to the pot of gold. It's like that with many things in life. Think music. Is Taylor Swift really such a great musician? Is Katy Perry really creating good music? Their songs are pushed on the radio channels by record company executives, having to play them a gazillion times a day. It's everywhere around us....on tv.....billboards. Majority of people will start tolerating or even liking it because of this. Meanwhile, many top class musicians are playing on the street and in small bars to make a minimal living. Often times because they don’t have the right marketing skills and budgets or they don’t look sexy enough.
It’s similar in rum. Many well funded companies make rum on large multi column stills, producing a nearly flavourless liquid, put it in a cask for a short time, add sugar, add flavouring, colour it and put it in a sexy bottle with a big number on the label. Voila, there is your Taylor Swift. Ready for a large and expensive marketing campaign.
I think the Zacapa’s of this world are one of the first rums people drink because they are in everyone’s faces from the minute they start looking into drinking better rum. That doesn’t necessarily make them a gateway. It would only warrant the term “gateway” if people actually moved on from there at some point. There are tons of people who never do. Is someone who drinks Irish Mist going to move on to drinking better made whiskey? Is Irish Mist a gateway whiskey? I sincerely doubt it.
Should they be the true gateway rums?
The problem isn’t that these products exist or that a lot of people like them. The problem is that they are presented and priced as premium rum. In reality, they are as premium as bling bling vodka and in my opinion as far removed from rum as Irish Mist is from whiskey.
A lot of people will never move away from them and defend these sugary rums and their perceived quality religiously. Some will be curious to find out what else is out there and be open minded to different opinions (the minority?). Both is ok of course, as people can spend their money on whatever they like. However, just like in music, the true stars of the show are struggling and having a tough time fighting for market share against big marketing budget brands that are capable of mass producing rum with incredible margins.
In an idyllic world, the rum producers who put quality before maximum margins would get full attention from the start of anyone’s rum journey. They deserve it, as they don’t try and deceive you to pull more money out of your pocket; give you a true age statement; won’t add mountains of sugar after distillation; are proud to show off their distillery and are transparent about most things they do.
A few great product examples in this regard are Appleton 12 and Rum Bar Gold from Jamaica. Foursquare Port Cask, Zinfandel or Premise; Doorly’s XO; Mount Gay Black Barrel or XO from Barbados. Chairman’s Reserve from St Lucia. If it has to be light or slightly sweet, pick a Cuban rum or Santa Teresa 1796. Not hidden by a blanket of sweetness, these are all great introductions to the true character and flavour of rum. They are actual gateway rums. From there the step to any corner of the rum universe is a relatively easy one. While the step from drinking sugary sweet rum to anything else is a more unrealistic leap.
PS: in an even more idyllic world a lot of products that are now called rum shouldn’t be labeled as such, but that’s another story.