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Evolving Rum Culture Beyond Pirates And Plantations

Marc Farrell offers an elevated view of a Caribbean spirit traditionally consigned to the sweet and slushy.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

After coming to the United States at age 16 from Trinidad and attending MIT, the University of Cambridge, and Harvard, Marc Farrell tried out finance and corporate jobs before running his own business, then joining Starbucks in 2016 as their youngest-ever vice-president. In 2019 he was drawn back to entrepreneurship, founding craft rum brand Ten to One.

I was lucky enough to go to Harvard from 2008 to 2010. It wasn’t necessarily known as a place that rolled a bunch of entrepreneurs off of the conveyor belt. But if you go back to 2008 when we were in the midst of some pretty harrowing times—a financial crisis, a world falling apart—it was a real cause for pause for many of the young folks like myself who were in business school then. Maybe the question of whether you were going to become a private equity analyst or a hedge fund investor gave way to how and where you were going to have an opportunity to write your own story and carve your own little place in the world.

I had a business—Fanlime—for five years in the sports and media space. It was a great journey. I learned an immense amount, and I got a chance to work with these really cool athletes, But very candidly, the business never scaled to the heights that I hoped it would. I wouldn’t call it a failure, but the big dreams when you leave business school all bright-eyed and energetic didn’t materialize.

On the back of that I went to Starbucks, which really came out of nowhere. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and I had met in New York. We struck up a great conversation. He was a guy who talked like an entrepreneur—like a guy who had three coffee shops, not 30,000. Those conversations ended up materializing into this really cool gig on the Starbucks executive team.

You go back into this big corporate environment, trying to bring entrepreneur energy and all of those things, but it’s different. What Ten to One really came from, ironically enough, was looking at a guy like Howard Schultz up close. You say to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what it looks like to see somebody living their purpose.” You’ve built this business through a very specific, unique lens of who you are and what you care about. The question that precipitates is, “What would it look like for me to do that? What’s my version of that?”

You think about being able to tell a story, and for me, that’s where the Ten to One piece comes from. Yes, it’s rum. Yes, it’s premium. Yes, it’s super delicious. But fundamentally, I’m talking about trying to bring a different lens not just to rum and rum culture, but to Caribbean culture more broadly. How can I tell a story about who I am and where I’m from, and do that through the lens of the product and through the lens of the brand?

We all remember being kids, in our early 20s, in college hanging out with your buddies. Think about all the bottles that were on the table in your common area or your frat house or whatever it is. It’s usually a pretty basic selection—a lot of plastic bottles, pretty hangover inducing, et cetera.

As you get into your late 20s or early 30s, look at the way those tastes evolve. I found myself living in New York City, going out to a bar in Soho or Nolita with a bunch of my friends. You’ve seen those who might be drinking a tequila or a whiskey or a gin. They go to Patrón, then to a Casamigos or Don Julio or a Don Maguey mezcal. As a rum native consumer, rum has always been my favorite spirit. It’s part of our culture in Trinidad. It’s a part of all these moments of celebration, big and small, that we have where I’m from.

My choices were not allowed to evolve in a similar way. If you walked into a bar downtown, there was no similarly elevated offering for me. There wasn’t a thoughtful expression around the craft of rum. You see that being consistently true for so many consumers in this market, where by contrast every other spirits category has its renaissance. Look at the Grey Goose revolution 15 years ago. Tequila has a revolution every two years—if I had a dollar for every time somebody says they are reinventing tequila, right? And mezcal, gin, American whiskey—they’ve all had that moment in the sun. Why is rum the one category that stands alone?

Rum is still synonymous with lower-end spirits and slushy cocktails and daiquiris on spring break in Cancun—tough times and tough hangovers. As somebody who has seen a very different side of rum and rum culture, could I find a way to challenge those expectations? I want to reinvigorate the way that people taste, experience, and talk about rum. That felt like a path worth pursuing.

Barrels of rum to be used in Ten to One’s blends at a distillery in Jamaica. Photo: Courtesy Ten to One.

I came to the U.S. at the age of 16. I have spent my entire adult life living in the U.S. And for me, the narrative around rum seems so reductive. A little caricatured, a lot of pirates and plantations. I think we could bring something that feels more contemporary, more authentic, more inspired, and bring that to life for a consumer. Any entrepreneur will reflect on the fact that there is a moment when an idea becomes impossible to ignore. It occupies all of your thoughts, all your waking hours, all your sleepless nights. At that point, I said Ten to One as a business and brand needed to happen, needed to be brought to life. And so we launched in June 2019.

From June 2019 to February 2020 was a period of tremendous excitement and optimism. One of the gratifying things was seeing people trying Ten to One, responding to it, sharing it, or making cocktails with it. However you want to measure—the type of accounts, the menu placements, the press—by all of those standards, it was a phenomenal launch. Then March 2020 arrives, and things come grinding to a halt. I think most of us in the world felt that way. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what profession you’re in. It’s the first time in our adult lives when the wheel quite literally stopped.

The implication of the last nine months on brands and spirits is a massive bifurcation. Think about your established brands, like your Jack Daniel’s and your Tito’s and your Bacardis. If you’re going to go stock up at the liquor store, those are the brands that you typically will call for. So 80 or 85 percent of the volume of those brands comes from liquor stores. If those businesses are up, then that volume is going to offset in a large part what they miss from restaurants and bars being closed.

But that’s actually not true for smaller brands. With a small craft brand like Ten to One, you saddle up at the bar in the East Village or in Crown Heights, and you talk to your bartender who makes you an Old Fashioned or pours you a little taste, and you get to talking about the brand. That’s going to be the initial point of entry, that foray, that little bit of texture. The majority of your volume as a small brand comes on premise from bars and restaurants.

So the pandemic has had a dramatic and profound impact on so many of these small, up-and-coming, emerging brands. For us, that was a massive pivot point. This is where having been forged in the fires of entrepreneurship ended up being helpful, because I said, “Look, we’re not going to panic. We have seven months of data that show we have something real here, something that people love. What’s happened is that the piping—the point of access to introduce that product to people—has been turned off. And we don’t know how long it’s going to be off for. So we’re going to have to figure out more innovative ways to bring the product to life.”

Number one, we really doubled down on e-commerce and direct to consumer. Sometimes, the trick in spirits is how to build a path or a platform that allows folks to pull that product through to the comfort of their home. Luckily, I ran e-commerce to Starbucks for two of my three years there. Who would have thought that experience would be relevant? But we’ve been able to be very creative in standing up what I think has the potential to be a global-class e-commerce outfit and a really cool case study in the world of spirits.

The second thing we’ve done is try to figure out how we can take some of the actions we would typically do offline and bring them online. We’ve been doing a lot of virtual happy hours and virtual tastings with corporate partners and individual entities. Those are all ways to get the product in front of people and continue building momentum and a sense of community.

The third thing that we had to do was figure out how to find our voice as a brand during a very, very challenging and tumultuous period—both for the industry and even more broadly. I’m Black, born and raised in Trinidad, although I’m now a permanent U.S. resident. I’m a founder of a brand in the midst of a global pandemic. But I think so much about the civil rights reckoning that we had here last summer with George Floyd and everything else. As a new brand, is this the kind of thing where you sit back and stay silent, or is this the kind of thing you want to have a voice? How does that come to life?

We tried to be active in those arenas. We did this really cool hospitality support series, where we put together video seminars around unemployment benefits and health and wellness and housing, and all of these issues that folks in the industry were having. On the Black Lives Matter side of things, I was trying to use my own voice and share some of my own experience and perspective, and make it clear that we as a brand are going to stand for something. We’re not going to sit down and be silent on that stuff. That’s not part of anybody’s playbook when you map out how a startup is going to come to life, but that ended up being a very critical part of how we navigated the pandemic.

When it comes to the regulations for shipping spirits among different states, there’s so much variation. To say it’s a quagmire would be stating it very gently and delicately. How do you even begin to navigate it? Necessity becomes the mother of invention. Things that would have seemed too daunting to tackle before the pandemic, all of a sudden you say, “If I have no other choice, then I’m going to have to sit down and figure out what the differences are between New York and Illinois, or Texas and Ohio.” In this current climate, folks have been a little more patient, a little more willing to see how some of these experiments and new platforms will unfold before shutting them down out of hand. I’m cautiously optimistic.

We’ve seen that folks on the trade side of things love the product. It’s manifested through the accounts we’re in, the number of awards that we’ve won recently. We have a very strong, loyal base of early customers, and I think we have some real resonance around the brand. Those things, to me, form the foundation of any brand that is going to have great potential in the space. Armed with that confidence and validation, 2021 becomes about how you begin to scale that story.

As the vaccine rolls out and things start to come back to life, I believe there’s going to be this new joie de vivre, this new lease on life. I’ve been pitching my friends this “Roaring Twenties” concept for months now. We’ll be prepared to service that new energy and that new intention when it comes to life, and when some of our on-premise accounts come back, we’ll have unique events and new ways of building community and connection. You can’t assume everything is going to look like 2019 all over again.

We’ll certainly have a bigger footprint in the U.S. this year. We’ll probably be in 10 to 12 states, like New York, Florida, Illinois, and hopefully California at some point. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina, DC, and the list goes on. We all want to build something that’s really enduring. For me, that isn’t just about the number of cases you sell. Five years from now, I would love to be able to see a bottle of Ten to One on a shelf, and people would say, “Dude, do you remember when we used to think about rum as pirates and plantations?”