Cargo Cult: the cult spiced rum

27 marzo 2024

Inspired from the amazing and little-known story of a mysterious present-day religion, the Cargo Cult brand celebrates the uniqueness of Pacific and Australian rum.  Its ambassadors include CEO and Master Distiller Steve Magarry, a widely known authority in Australian rum formerly Distillery Manager at Beenleigh, as well as Chief Marketing Officer Jonny Croft, who answered a few questions for us.

The story behind the Cargo Cult as a historical phenomenon is very intriguing: can you tell us something more about it, and how it is linked with your personal story? 

I left Brown Forman to start a craft spirits business. I’m a big believer in story-based brand building (after working on Jack Daniel’s for 12 years!) and all the brands I love usually start with a great story. I knew I wanted to focus on craft Rum from the Australian region – I just didn’t have a story (or a production source) yet!

After trying to put together a brand concept for a couple of months (and making little progress) I caught up with my dad one afternoon for a cup of tea. 

My dad was a doctor in the navy in the early 1960’s and he told me his experiences working at a naval base on an island north of New Guinea. He explained that the local islanders weren’t interested in working in the hospital and he had to do most things himself. He said the islanders weren’t really interested in earning money as they were members of a Cargo Cult, and they were expecting the cargo to be arriving very soon. I’d never heard of a Cargo Cult before – my first question was “what’s a Cargo Cult?”

He said when the US army arrived in the Pacific during WWII they would land cargo on isolated islands ahead of the troops. Jeeps, clothing, tents, cigarettes, coca cola, chewing gum, ammunition – sometimes the troops never even arrived, but the cargo kept coming.

Many of these islanders had seen few outsiders before so this may have seemed like gifts from the gods. When the war stopped, the cargo also stopped arriving. To summons more cargo, some islanders started looking to the heavens for a return to abundance. They became known as cargo cults and this idea spread across many South Pacific islands. On some islands this idea remains active today.

I thought – wow, what an amazing story! This is what I was looking for my brand.

Not only a real story but one which also holds true for us today. We all live in a Cargo Cult – we don’t know how things are made or how to fix them when they break – we just hope the ships and planes keep arriving with new iPhones and EV’s!

Now I had a story all I had to do was find rum coming from the Pacific islands for the brand to make sense.

- Can you tell us about your trips to the South Pacific Islands and the criteria that guided your choice of rums?

I started off emailing, writing, calling but most of these distilleries weren’t online and never answered the phone. Weeks turned to months and I was making little progress so I would get on a plane, fly to the islands, hire a car, drive to the other side of the island and knock on the distillery door. “Who are you?” was usually the first question, to which I would answer “I’m the guy who has been trying to call you for the last 6 weeks.”

Unfortunately, most of the rum was unaged and Australia has a “2 year in wood” maturation policy before it can be called Rum. Australian customs demand a 2-year maturation certificate from the tax department of the country of origin before it can be imported into the country.

While many spiced rums typically use unaged column still distillate, we wanted to create high quality full-flavored spiced rum so we needed to find both 2-year aged pot still and 2-year aged column still rums.

We found a great partner in Fiji and identified a second distillery partner in Papua New Guinea.

- What about the sugarcane varieties that are used for the selected rums?

Mana is ~70% of Fiji sugar production.

- Are all your rums tropically aged? What about the blending process?

All our rums are tropically aged in the South Pacific in ex-bourbon barrels. The great thing about both distillery locations is the natural variance between day and night temperatures. In Fiji, while it gets very hot during the day, trade-winds usually cool temperatures down for the evenings. In New Guinea the unique location of the distillery experiences hot tropical daytime conditions and cooler nights.

We use a 50/50 pot still to column still blend to create our unique tasting rums. This probably makes us quite different from all other spiced rums.

- Can you tell us something about your Navy Strength Rum?

We’re really excited about the Navy Rum we’ve just released because it not only tastes incredible, but also showcases the quality of the product we use in our spiced rums. Basically, it’s just the pot still component of our spiced rums, without the spices added at 54.5% ABV. It’s our first straight rum and while quite high proof it has a beautiful aroma, big robust flavors, it’s incredibly smooth and easy to drink (a little bit dangerous in this regard!)

- Let’s talk about your Spiced Rum. It is a fact that spiced rums are sometimes too sweet: can you tell us about the spices you use for your rums? Did you encounter any difficulties in this phase?

The whole reason this brand was started is due to the ‘over-sweetness’ of spiced rum. I loved spiced rum but when you add a sweet mixer (ginger beer, coke, etc.…) to a sweet spiced rum… the end result is just too much sugar. Also for cocktails, you can always make a drink sweeter, but you can’t make a sweet drink less sweet. The original idea with CARGO CULT Spiced was to add no sugar so it balanced with a sweet mixer and let the spices shine rather than cloaking everything with sugar. Bartenders really liked this idea – enabling them to control the sweetness to their desired level.

It wasn’t without its challenges in the early days, because the expectation from many consumers was that Spiced Rum should taste like a liqueur. Most consumers had no idea of the amount of sugar that was being added to Spiced Rum. We took a further step by calling our “Dry Spiced Rum” on the front label and adding a “no added sugar” logo on the back label to highlight this. 

In terms of spices, we use all natural spices, extracted the slow and expensive way – ourselves! We use vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg and clove.

- Talking about your Banana Spiced Rum: can you tell about the varieties you chose and the two step process that you use for this rum?

Our UK ambassador at the time (Mario Sandgren) told us how well CARGO CULT worked in Banana cocktails and asked us if we could make a banana version. Many months of experimentation, kilos of bananas peeled and an eye-watering amount of rum poured down the sink later, we started to figure it out. Bananas’ flavor and sweetness change dramatically as they ripen – so getting the optimal ripeness is really important. If they ripen too far decomposition notes start to appear and you can pour the rum down the sink. We never found anything useful in the banana peels. We started off buying the bananas (any kind) that fruit wholesalers at the markets were going to throw away because they had ripened too far. We started by infusing to get sweetness and flavor but to get aromatics you need to extract – this provides a highly aromatic extract that we added back in. We just use commonly available North Queensland cavendish bananas.


- As a final question, we would like to know about your vision for the future of Cargo Cult.

In terms of the range, our vision is to increase premiumness to showcase South Pacific rum – to do this we’re planning to add more super- and ultra-premium un-spiced extensions using extra-aged pot still rum. We might even add an annual ‘Australian fortified wine barrel finished’ limited release series. 

We’d also like to be a driving force in breaking the stereotype that all Spiced Rums are low quality column still rums, unaged, highly sweetened and full of artificial flavors and colors. You can create a superior product experience by using aged pot & column rums, natural ingredients and avoid adding excessive sugar. Our belief is that informed consumers are willing to pay more for these kinds of products and demand for these products will continue to grow as consumer understanding increases about the category.