Liquid Thinking

Clean labelling

Could this one packaging cue help premiumise rum?

26th October 2023

The tequila industry is currently leading a push to label products that are additive-free with a distinctive seal, attesting to their high-quality. Easily understandable by consumers that are already looking for clean, additive-free products, the label is being taken up by some of the category’s biggest brands. So, could rum as a category much maligned by poor quality liquids, use it as a tool to finally elevate its image in a far-reaching way?

Blink and you might have missed it, but there’s been a change afoot in the world of tequila. Just a few weeks ago, Patron became the latest brand to add an ‘Additive Free’ label to its packaging. Part of a wave of clean labelling spreading across the tequila category, the new label is there to tell consumers that the tequila uses only agave, water and yeast, with nothing – no sugar, no chemical ingredients – added. To signal these clean credentials to consumers, a neat little gold tab or seal now appears across all packs.

The Additive Free label is backed by the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT), the industry’s governing body, which in the face of the spirit’s massive success in recent years, has been working to keep standards high. To speed up production, some producers have been… cough, cough… cutting corners, correcting these later with colourings and additives. Currently, brands actually aren’t required to let customers know when additives – which can include sugar-syrups, oak extracts, glycerine and caramel colourings – are used.

Conscious consumption

And though tequila has a Designation of Origin, the CRT now feels the additives issue is big enough to visit producers to check production standards, before allowing them to use this new mark. Patron is the largest producer yet to take it up.

Samantha Newby, Patron Global vice president of innovation and sustainability, said: “More than before, individuals are conscious of what they’re consuming: They want natural ingredients and to be confident in the manner in which they were derived to deliver a high-quality product that satisfies their needs.”

While it’s true that consumers are broadly aware of additives in their foods, awareness of additives that are added to alcohol is, lets face it, pretty nascent. What they are aware of however, is that they’re broadly bad. So, though consumers may not have been aware that there was any issue with tequila, this new gold standard elevates those brands that are able to adopt it.

The problem with rum

So what does this have to do with rum? Where do we start. As a storied category, jam-packed with incredible brands, incredible liquids, and even more incredible brand stories, for years, rum has had a somewhat dubious reputation.

For decades, those at the top have been sullied by a category that has long relied on imagery of pirates, parrots and grog. And unbelievably in 2023, still does in the case of some of the biggest brands in the industry. Sold as a holiday drink and marketed as the tipple of drunken sailors for decades, its method of connecting to consumers has not been through stories of quality and heritage like Scotch, or tradition and increasing quality like tequila. It’s been about a cartoonish world of marauding and getting pissed. The number of brands still named for slave owners is a conversation we’ll save for another time. But suffice to say, all of this means that consumers as a whole actually know very little about the liquid itself. Which is a problem.

Confusing to navigate

Liquid-wise, it’s an exceptionally confusing category to navigate. Whereas categories such as cognac, and tequila have liquid classifications that consumers can use to read the products, rum doesn’t. In fact, in a move that’s understandable yet still muddies the waters, brands have been borrowing other categories classifications such as XO to signify age and therefore quality. As a slight aside here, with cristalinos currently hot in the world of tequila… of course… we’re now seeing a raft of cristalino rums.

Problem number two is that there are no quality requirements placed on the rum industry. With no category-wide regulation, pretty much anything has been permitted when it comes to production standards. Additives such as colourings or caramel to mimic the effects of aging, and sugar to enhance the taste of low-quality distillates, are regularly added to liquids, including by some of the industry’s biggest producers. And they’re not very honest about it.

Will it, or won’t it breakout?

Rum has been engaged in a bizarre tap dance over recent years, repetitively tipped for soaring mainstream success. And yet, it’s never quite made it over the line. Category education – consumers understanding of what they’re getting – and poor-quality liquids have undoubtedly been a problem.

As the category pushes to premiumise and educate consumers that it’s a category to be taken seriously – and that can command, nay, deserves to command high prices – many of the top producers have been claiming geographical indications (GI) for their islands to ensure standards and protect their reputations. But, is this new push to clean labelling a more effective weapon?

A more effective weapon

In theory, yes. But only the ‘best’ brands, with the ‘best’ production process would be able to claim it. And gold additive-free labels are a lot easier a tool for consumers to use to read a shelf of products, than disparate liquid descriptions that universally don’t mean much. Clean labelling has the potential to become an easy, applicable way to signal high quality, no matter the island, producer, or liquid style. Clean labelling could be revolutionary for boosting the image of rum, for educating consumers about it, and for elevating the best producers, using language that consumers already understand.

But, there’s a problem. If rum has been fragmented so far, then how is the industry likely to agree on it? Economically, it’s just not in the interests of many brands for consumers to be properly educated, lest their own production methods are scrutinised more closely. And for the label to have any real meaning or credibility, it must be vetted by someone, otherwise anyone could claim it. And the quality issue begins all over again.

We know that rum brands have been taking note. And clean labelling is highly likely to begin appearing on packaging in the not-to-distant future. For those that already hold themselves to the standards that additive-free production demands, that’s understandable. It’s a good news story; why wouldn’t they want to shout about it?

However, now is the time for premium brands to band together to ensure standards are met by those who use it. Otherwise rum once again risks missing the opportunity to break through the noise, and finally communicate its true worth, crucially, in a way that consumers are already engaged with.