Bottle #71: Malibu

Jul 2, 2024

You can tell that coconut flavored rum was THE big thing during Grandma’s collecting period, because I have three different bottles of the stuff so far. I’ve already talked about two of them, Roncoco and Jonkanoo, and the unexpected tie between them. But now I get to talk about the one that came to the party last but has stuck around the longest, because bottle #71 is Malibu.

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How Malibu describes itself varies a lot depending on place and time. My bottle is from Canada in the early 1980s, and describes it as a “Coconut Liqueur laced with White Caribbean Rum.” Bottles from that same time period in the UK were more specific about the rum, calling it “Tropical Coconut laced with light Jamaican Rum.” In the US, however, it had an ever-so enticing list of ingredients right on the front label: “Caribbean Rum, Grain Neutral Spirits, Tropical Coconut and Other Natural Flavors.” Yum?

In the mid-to-late 1990s they either ditched the neutral spirits or managed to lobby the labeling authorities, because then the US label changed to “Caribbean Rum with Natural Coconut Flavor.” Much better.

Today, in the US it’s “White Rum with Coconut Liqueur” and in other parts of the English-speaking world it’s labeled as a liqueur “made with White Rum and Coconut Flavour.”

That last one is the most accurate. Today Malibu is bottled at just 21% ABV, so it’s definitely more liqueur than rum, which has to be between 37.5% and 40% ABV depending on the country. According to the company’s website, it’s “blended and produced mostly in Canada” from a molasses-based rum from an unspecified source. That source is no longer the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, which was where it came from for many years.

My tiny bottle’s rum is almost certainly from the West Indies Rum Distillery. The liqueur is a whopping 28% ABV – still not rum, but definitely more robust. The proof proved to be really useful in figuring out the age range of this tiny bottle, because while it started at 28%, in 1987 the proof was dropped to 24%. And since I know that Malibu was launched in Canada in 1982, that tells me my bottle is 1982-1986.

This was very early days for Malibu. As I mentioned in my episode about Bottle #63: Jonkanoo, Malibu was a bit of a late entry to the coconut liqueur game. It launched in the UK in 1979 and the US in 1980. But that’s only when it launched as Malibu. It turns out that it had a secret prior life as a product called Coco Rico, created and sold in apartheid-era South Africa by Gilbey’s, a subsidiary of International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). Three British men would end up being involved in its transformation to Malibu, all of whom were major figures in the spirits industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter Fleck was the one who came up with the coconut rum liqueur in the first place, and got the idea to sell it in white bottles with the iconic palm tree logo. He couldn’t buy white bottles, though, so the company hired a guy to spray paint them. In 1978, James Espey took a business trip to South Africa and immediately saw the potential of the product. And he took the idea to Tom Jago, who was IDV’s Director of New Product Development, and part of the team that came up with most successful liqueur of all time, Bailey’s Irish Cream.

They all loved Coco Rico, but knew that the market would not accept a South African brand while Nelson Mandela sat in jail and apartheid reigned. So production was moved outside South Africa and the name was changed to Malibu. And that’s how Tom Jago would go on to have his second hit liqueur, as Malibu would go on to trail only Bailey’s in sales.

I suspect today’s Malibu is a shadow of its former self, with that reduction in proof and unspecified rum sourcing. So I am excited to do a comparison of old to new, as well as putting it up against both of Grandma’s other bottles in this category. It will be an epic coconut rum liqueur contest!

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Bottle #71: Malibu

Jul 2, 2024 |

You can tell that coconut flavored rum was THE big thing during Grandma’s collecting period, because I have three different bottles of the stuff so far. I’ve already talked about two of them, Roncoco and Jonkanoo, and the unexpected tie between them. But now I get to talk about the one that came to the party last but has stuck around the longest, because bottle #71 is Malibu.

How Malibu describes itself varies a lot depending on place and time. My bottle is from Canada in the early 1980s, and describes it as a “Coconut Liqueur laced with White Caribbean Rum.” Bottles from that same time period in the UK were more specific about the rum, calling it “Tropical Coconut laced with light Jamaican Rum.” In the US, however, it had an ever-so enticing list of ingredients right on the front label: “Caribbean Rum, Grain Neutral Spirits, Tropical Coconut and Other Natural Flavors.” Yum?

In the mid-to-late 1990s they either ditched the neutral spirits or managed to lobby the labeling authorities, because then the US label changed to “Caribbean Rum with Natural Coconut Flavor.” Much better.

Today, in the US it’s “White Rum with Coconut Liqueur” and in other parts of the English-speaking world it’s labeled as a liqueur “made with White Rum and Coconut Flavour.”

That last one is the most accurate. Today Malibu is bottled at just 21% ABV, so it’s definitely more liqueur than rum, which has to be between 37.5% and 40% ABV depending on the country. According to the company’s website, it’s “blended and produced mostly in Canada” from a molasses-based rum from an unspecified source. That source is no longer the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, which was where it came from for many years.

My tiny bottle’s rum is almost certainly from the West Indies Rum Distillery. The liqueur is a whopping 28% ABV – still not rum, but definitely more robust. The proof proved to be really useful in figuring out the age range of this tiny bottle, because while it started at 28%, in 1987 the proof was dropped to 24%. And since I know that Malibu was launched in Canada in 1982, that tells me my bottle is 1982-1986.

This was very early days for Malibu. As I mentioned in my episode about Bottle #63: Jonkanoo, Malibu was a bit of a late entry to the coconut liqueur game. It launched in the UK in 1979 and the US in 1980. But that’s only when it launched as Malibu. It turns out that it had a secret prior life as a product called Coco Rico, created and sold in apartheid-era South Africa by Gilbey’s, a subsidiary of International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). Three British men would end up being involved in its transformation to Malibu, all of whom were major figures in the spirits industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Peter Fleck was the one who came up with the coconut rum liqueur in the first place, and got the idea to sell it in white bottles with the iconic palm tree logo. He couldn’t buy white bottles, though, so the company hired a guy to spray paint them. In 1978, James Espey took a business trip to South Africa and immediately saw the potential of the product. And he took the idea to Tom Jago, who was IDV’s Director of New Product Development, and part of the team that came up with most successful liqueur of all time, Bailey’s Irish Cream.

They all loved Coco Rico, but knew that the market would not accept a South African brand while Nelson Mandela sat in jail and apartheid reigned. So production was moved outside South Africa and the name was changed to Malibu. And that’s how Tom Jago would go on to have his second hit liqueur, as Malibu would go on to trail only Bailey’s in sales.

I suspect today’s Malibu is a shadow of its former self, with that reduction in proof and unspecified rum sourcing. So I am excited to do a comparison of old to new, as well as putting it up against both of Grandma’s other bottles in this category. It will be an epic coconut rum liqueur contest!

Want even more My Tiny Bottles? Patreon supporters get access to bonus content, behind the scenes information, monthly cocktail recipes and more. Become a free member or paid supporter here!

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