Peak rum bar

Approaching the rum bar tipping point

Put me down as a fan of bars with tunnel vision. Highly specialized bars offer superior education, a deep-dive for enthusiasts past the Mixology 101 mark, and an outlet for pricey or cult spirits.

But specialization invites certain economic realities. “A little speakeasy with 16 seats is great, but I’m sorry to say that you’ll never make a living,” Dale DeGroff told G-LO via DrinkWire.

Thus I marvel at the saturation of spirit-specific bars in San Francisco — specifically rum bars. (I will never question the need for Whitechapel, a temple to juniper with North America’s largest gin selection. Even if it didn’t hit my aesthetic and flavor sweet spots, it’s economically viable: British gin exports are booming and America is lapping it up.)

How economically savvy is a rum bar right now? By some measures,* Captain Morgan and Bacardi rums are among the top three to five most popular spirits in the United States. On the other hand, “gin and rum [continue] to lose market share to brown spirits,” notes The Beverage Information & Insights Group in its 2016 Growth Brands Awards, and Business Insider shows whiskey dominating most states. (Whisky bars like Hard Water in SF and Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland are doing just fine in the current climate.) There’s certainly room for rum education. Even popular magazine Bon Appetit published a wildly inaccurate black rum article recently, rages Cocktail Wonk.

Smuggler’s Cove, the patriarch of rum bars locally and nationally, may be behind the coming rum bar explosion. It played a key role in revitalizing tiki cocktail culture while concurrently spreading the gospel of rum far beyond tiki kitsch. Having successfully convinced the world that rum specialization was educationally, economically, and culturally viable, Smuggler’s Cove now sees its specialty widely adopted.

Two miles south and some months away, a new rum mecca is growing. Because the world is richer for his unique approach to ethical cocktail sourcing, I am intrigued by Obispo, Thad Vogler’s upcoming rum bar. Vogler’s attention to source means “staff will speak Spanish and the bar will pay respect to rum as a product of the African diaspora that is spread throughout the Caribbean,” he told SFGate.

Rum-focused Rum & Sugar opened at the beginning of 2017 in the Tenderloin, less than a mile from Smuggler’s Cove. This could result in unfortunate market saturation — especially for first-time bar owners — but Rum & Sugar’s social media presence indicates that while a curated rum experience is a focus, they cleverly tempt a wide range of palates (for instance, a vodka cucumber gimlet was recently showcased).

Finally, ABV has opened a new omakase-style space called Over Proof. The theme of its maiden voyage: rum. This menu runs through late April before switching over to whiskey the following month.

Perhaps raising an eyebrow at three or four rum bars speaks to our era. Whiskey bars proliferate without comment, after all.

But I do wonder how much rum a city can drink. San Francisco’s growing collection of rum bars is happy to level that challenge at us.


*CNN – America’s Most Popular Liquor Brands, 2015; Top 5 for 2015

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