The Rum Wars: a secret plan, a tax scheme, and Captain Morgan : Planet Money When you buy a bottle of rum in the United States, by law nearly all the federal taxes on that rum must be sent to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's an unusual system that Congress designed decades ago to help fund these two U.S. territories. In 2021 alone, these rum tax payments added up to more than $700 million.

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands split the money according to how much rum each territory produces. And the territories produce a lot of it — especially Puerto Rico, which single handedly supplies the majority of the rum that Americans drink.

But in 2008, the U.S. Virgin Islands pulled off a coup. It convinced one of the largest rum brands in the world, Captain Morgan, to abandon Puerto Rico and to shift its operations to the tiny island of St. Croix.

This was the beginning of the Rum Wars.

On today's show, the story of how a scheme designed to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands turned them into bitter rivals. And how it ended up putting hundreds of millions of dollars a year — U.S. taxpayer dollars — into the pockets of big liquor companies instead.

This episode was hosted by Jeff Guo and Sarah Gonzalez. It was produced by James Sneed with help from Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. It was edited by Molly Messick, engineered by Cena Loffredo, and fact checked by Sierra Juarez. Alex Goldmark is Planet Money's executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in
Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

The billion dollar war behind U.S. rum

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: [POST-PUBLICATION CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Diageo owned Jose Cuervo and Dom Pérignon. In fact, Diageo had distribution rights to Jose Cuervo and has partial ownership of Dom Pérignon.]

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFF GUO, HOST:

This is St. Croix...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

GUO: ...In the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's a Caribbean paradise - pink and cream-colored buildings. Roosters are everywhere. There's a harbor dotted with yachts and catamarans. And boardwalk, people are having drinks and watching the seaplanes take off. The economy here mainly runs on tourism. But our trip took us away from the beach and the palm trees because we were here for something else.

Oh, this street is bumpy.

You see - these days, there is only one major product that the Virgin Islands produces - rum. And lots of it. That is what we were here for - the rum.

Oh, my gosh, is that it? Holy - that's huge.

In particular, producer James Sneed and I are here for one of the biggest rum distilleries in the world. We could see it on the horizon, rising out of the lush countryside, looking huge and out of place.

JAMES SNEED, BYLINE: Let's pull up next to the sign.

GUO: The sign says, got a little captain in you?

SNEED: Question mark.

GUO: You know, captain, as in Captain Morgan - the rum with the pirate and the red coat, who's got his leg, you know, propped up on a barrel.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Ah, yes. The drink of my youth.

GONZALEZ: I know it well.

(LAUGHTER)

GUO: Sarah, you should have come with us.

GONZALEZ: My Captain Morgan days are long over, Jeff (laughter).

GUO: Now, the Captain Morgan people wouldn't let us into the distillery, but we did try to peek in through the barbed wire fence.

SNEED: If I saw this, I would assume that they were, like, manufacturing something way more serious.

GUO: Yeah, like fertilizer...

SNEED: Yeah, or...

GUO: ...Or, like, oil or something.

SNEED: Yeah. It looks like an oil refinery.

GONZALEZ: A quarter of the rum that Americans drink is Captain Morgan rum. And all of it comes from this one mega-distillery on St. Croix.

GUO: Oh, look. There's someone in a...

SNEED: Shall we wave?

GUO: Yeah. Hi. They're in a hard hat, and - oh, he gave us a thumbs up.

SNEED: Nice.

GUO: We came to see this distillery because this was once the center of a vicious economic battle. You see - Captain Morgan didn't always come from Saint Croix. For many years, Captain Morgan rum was actually made in a different place, in another U.S. territory, in Puerto Rico.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. But in 2008, the government of the Virgin Islands made a secret plan to lure Captain Morgan away from Puerto Rico and bring it to the Virgin Islands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JENNIFFER GONZALEZ-COLON: Those were the rum wars.

NEVILLE JAMES: Now the competition has changed.

GUO: This was the beginning of the rum wars. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jeff Guo.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. The rum wars between the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico go back to this peculiar thing that Congress came up with over a hundred years ago - a scheme that was supposed to help these two U.S. territories pay their bills.

GUO: Today on the show, how that scheme wound up giving big liquor companies hundreds of millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars, and how it turned these two territories into bitter rivals competing to make as much rum as they can at almost any cost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUO: There are many things to love about St. Croix.

GONZALEZ: The rum.

JAMES: Our rum - from a quality standpoint - is the best in the world.

GUO: How small it is.

JAMES: Everybody knows everybody. You know what I'm saying?

GONZALEZ: The local music.

JAMES: Quelbe music, which is like scratch band.

GUO: This is Neville James. His family has been here for generations.

JAMES: We're a hard day's work for a hard day's pay. That's the mentality at St. Croix, right?

GUO: Neville used to host a Saturday morning radio talk show. It was called "Give Me The Word."

JAMES: "Give Me The Word." And...

GUO: Like, how would you introduce yourself on the air?

JAMES: It was a crazy week in paradise, and we're going to break it down for you. Know what I'm saying?

GUO: It's amazing.

JAMES: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Neville gave up his radio job to go into politics. He was actually a local senator on the island at a very important time, back in 2008, when the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico first got wrapped up in the rum wars.

JAMES: I tell you, man, this thing made enemies for us, man.

GONZALEZ: The thing the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were fighting over has to do with this special funding arrangement that the two territories have.

GUO: Territories are part of the U.S. People in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they don't have all the same rights. And historically, Congress didn't want its territories to be too dependent on the federal government. So it would look for ways to provide them with their own funding stream. And for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, rum plays a big role.

GONZALEZ: Now, if you have ever bought a bottle of liquor anywhere in the 50 states, you probably paid a bunch of taxes on it - local tax, state tax, federal tax.

GUO: The federal tax on hard liquor usually comes out to, like, $2 for a normal-sized bottle. And that money goes straight to the U.S. Treasury, where the government spends it on, you know, government-y (ph) stuff.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, unless you are talking about one particular kind of liquor - rum. When you buy a bottle of rum in the U.S., the federal taxes collected on that bottle do not all stay in the United States and in the Treasury. Instead, most of the tax money gets sent to either the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico - whoever made the rum in that bottle. So if the rum was made in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico gets the taxes. If the rum was made in the Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands gets the taxes.

GUO: And actually - and this part blew my mind - even if the rum was made in another country, like in Barbados, which is another big producer of rum, the taxes still go to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. They split it. That's the way Congress set it up.

GONZALEZ: What a deal.

JAMES: Only two islands got this sweetheart deal - Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. The more rum they make, the more tax dollars they get. And it's a decent amount of money. Recently, the federal government paid the two territories more than $700 million in rum money.

GUO: Now, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands - they're, like, next-door neighbors.

JAMES: In the summertime, when it gets real clear, you can see Puerto Rico from the farthest point...

GUO: Wow.

JAMES: ...On St. Croix.

GONZALEZ: They are separated by just 40 miles of teal-blue Caribbean ocean, but they're pretty different places. The Virgin Islands is tiny. It's got, like, 90,000 people. Puerto Rico's got 3 million people, and it's just, like, a much bigger economy.

GUO: And Puerto Rico's rum industry - also much bigger. They're one of the biggest rum makers in the world. So they get a way bigger share of that federal rum tax money. Historically, they got, like, five times what the Virgin Islands would get.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. But in 2008, Neville says the Virgin Islands made a big play for Puerto Rico's big pot of rum money.

JAMES: The governor told us, you got a big deal coming. And we were like, oh, really? Because we were looking for any kind of deal.

GONZALEZ: Neville had been serving in the Virgin Islands legislature for a few years at this point, and the Virgin Islands was having a hard time. They were in an energy crisis. There weren't enough jobs because most big companies didn't want to take a chance on this territory of tiny islands.

GUO: But in June of 2008, the governor announced that Captain Morgan - the second-biggest rum brand in Puerto Rico - was considering leaving Puerto Rico behind and coming next door to the Virgin Islands. The plan was to build this big $165 million distillery right in the middle of St. Croix. Neville is hearing this, and he's like, whoa, this could totally turn things around for us.

JAMES: We were going to be a player. You know, that was big.

GUO: The governor calls a special session of the Virgin Islands legislature so they can all vote on the deal he's negotiated with the liquor company. As a senator, Neville is going to have to decide - yes or no. So he's like, OK, I'm going to analyze this thing inside and out.

JAMES: Everybody has their niche, right? So mine was history and numbers - breaking down the numbers. I'm not saying I'm the best at it, but I enjoy doing it. So I got labeled as the numbers cruncher.

GONZALEZ: When the proposal lands on Neville the number cruncher's desk a few days later, it's long - 40 pages. And in these pages, Neville starts to see things that kind of make him go like, hold on here.

GUO: It looks like there are these giveaways to Captain Morgan. Like, if this deal goes through, the Virgin Islands would subsidize molasses, the main ingredient in rum. It would help pay for Captain Morgan's marketing budget. It would give them these production incentive bonus things. Altogether, the government would be handing over almost $80 million a year to Captain Morgan once everything was up and running.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And you know that brand-new distillery that Captain Morgan was going to put in the middle of St. Croix? Neville sees that Captain Morgan wouldn't actually be the one paying for that. The Virgin Islands would actually be the ones picking up the entire $165 million bill.

GUO: And the only way the deal made any financial sense at all for the Virgin Islands was because of that federal rum tax program.

GONZALEZ: The federal taxes we pay when we all buy a bottle of rum.

GUO: Right. Because of the way that program works, every gallon of rum that the new Captain Morgan distillery would produce would mean more of that rum tax money for the Virgin Islands government.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And under the proposal, the Virgin Islands was going to funnel a lot of that rum tax money straight to Captain Morgan - like, 40% of the money. The Virgin Islands would get the rest, and they would actually still come out ahead by, like, $100 million a year.

GUO: So Neville's wrapping his head around those numbers, and then he notices this other thing. This whole deal with Captain Morgan, it's not actually with Captain Morgan.

JAMES: I thought Captain Morgan was Captain Morgan. I didn't know Captain Morgan was a brand that was owned by Diageo.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Diageo is one of the biggest liquor companies in the world, headquartered in London. And they don't just own Captain Morgan. They also own Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Guinness.

JAMES: That's when I started doing my research about Diageo and who they're about and all that stuff.

GONZALEZ: Neville finds out that Diageo had been making Captain Morgan rum in Puerto Rico for years, but their contract with the distillery was ending. So they started to look around to see what their options were. That's how this whole deal started in the first place.

JAMES: The Diageo folk realized that they could play the Virgin Islands against Puerto Rico and against each other. You know what I'm saying?

GUO: Yeah. Neville is not so sure about this deal anymore. He's starting to see it as just a way for this giant $50 billion company to muscle in and take a cut of that federal rum tax money - money that only the Virgin Islands in Puerto Rico have access to.

JAMES: Our economy is a 4 to $5 billion economy. Why are we making all these amenities available for somebody who's 10 times financially more valuable than we are as a jurisdiction?

GUO: Yeah.

JAMES: So something's wrong with that. That's too much money, man. That's giving away public money, man.

GONZALEZ: A couple weeks after the governor's big 2008 announcement about this possible deal, the legislature has a special two-day session to vote on it.

JAMES: That was one of the highest-profile sessions in the history of the Virgin Islands.

GUO: There are crowds of people outside, TV cameras rolling. All these bigwigs from Diageo have flown in from London to testify, to persuade Neville and the other senators to approve the deal.

JAMES: White guys in suits. You know what I'm saying? They look like Madison Avenue. These guys are sharks, man. They're trying to make money.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And Neville and some of the other senators - they want to show these guys that, like, they can hold their own.

JAMES: Everybody's trying to sound Harvard, Yale, like - you know what I'm saying? You know, we're speaking that Yankee twang, you know? We're letting them know, you know, we may be small, but we are loaded with quality.

GUO: One by one, the senators get their turn to speak and ask questions. Most of the senators - they are for this deal. They know Diageo is driving a hard bargain. But they're saying, look. The Virgin Islands is a tiny, struggling economy. We got to take what we can get.

GONZALEZ: There are a few senators on Neville's side. They don't love the idea of giving so much money away to a big liquor company, but they're also worried about how Puerto Rico will react to all of this, you know, because stealing Captain Morgan isn't just going to cost Puerto Rico jobs. It's also taking a whole lot of that federal rum tax money out of Puerto Rico's pocket. And Neville is kind of like, I don't know - I think this is going to start something.

JAMES: Poaching is a very dangerous practice because who's to say that Puerto Rico wouldn't do that to us? We don't want to get in a competition with them.

GUO: Neville's like, Puerto Rico can play this game, too. And if they start giving away a lot of money to rum companies, where is this all going to end? Neville is worried that this could be the beginning of a classic race to the bottom.

GONZALEZ: So when it's Neville's turn to talk, he pulls out three pages of a handwritten speech. He unfolds it and starts to read.

GUO: He says, I know the Virgin Islands is in a tough spot. I know we need this money. But giving away so much - that could really hurt us in the long run.

JAMES: The thought of giving away the people's money to a foreign company replete with cash - I repeat, a foreign company replete with cash and equity is mind boggling.

GUO: And then Neville challenges his fellow senators. He says, say no to this deal. Force the governor and Diageo to go back to the table and come up with something better for the people of the Virgin Islands.

GONZALEZ: And this speech, it does not go over that well. Everyone on the island is following these hearings, right? And before the vote, Neville is, like, flooded with calls from neighbors, cousins, his friends, his dad's friends. And most of them are saying things like, whose side are you on, Neville?

JAMES: Are you siding with Puerto Rico against the Virgin Islands? My counterargument - I said, no, I want your mother and your sister and your wife to keep that money instead of that money going back to people who already got money.

GUO: In the end, ten out of the 15 senators vote to approve the Captain Morgan deal. And Neville's like, all right, buckle up for some drama.

JAMES: Now the competition has changed, right? Both of you had your lane, so to speak. Now it's no more lane. We're crossing over. We're enemies now.

GUO: For years and years, Puerto Rico was producing their rum. The Virgin Islands was producing theirs, and they were both getting their cut of the federal rum tax money. Neville's thinking, from here on out, it is not going to be that easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: And it wasn't because when people in Puerto Rico learned that the Virgin Islands had successfully stolen one of their major rum companies, they were not happy.

GONZALEZ-COLON: When that happened, it was a complete shock wave on the island because losing that industry will be catastrophic.

GUO: After the break, Puerto Rico makes a plan to get even.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUO: When Puerto Rico found out about the deal the U.S. Virgin Islands made with Captain Morgan, there's a sense of danger, like they were suddenly at the edge of a precipice. Because rum is a big part of Puerto Rico's economy and its culture.

GONZALEZ-COLON: Puerto Rico is the rum capital of the world.

GONZALEZ: Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon is Puerto Rico's representative in Congress.

GONZALEZ-COLON: You talk about Tennessee - you would think about whiskey. You talk about California - you would think about wine. You think about Puerto Rico - it's going to be rum.

GONZALEZ: Jenniffer used to serve in Puerto Rico's legislature. She actually became House speaker around the time of the Captain Morgan deal. And she says that there was almost a sense of, like, panic at that time.

GONZALEZ-COLON: We just lost Captain Morgan. Is Bacardi doing the same thing and is moving to Virgin Islands or any other jurisdiction? And what happens if we lose Bacardi?

GUO: Bacardi was Puerto Rico's top rum maker. The Bacardi distillery was, like, the crown jewel of Puerto Rico's rum industry, helped them claim a big slice of that federal rum tax money.

GONZALEZ: And Puerto Rico did spend some of that money to subsidize its rum industry but only, like, 10%. What the Virgin Islands was doing with this Captain Morgan deal was taking 40% of that rum tax money and giving it straight to this big liquor company. And Jenniffer was like, this is a dangerous precedent.

GONZALEZ-COLON: If you open the door to one company to take that money, that means that other companies can ask or do the same kind of deals.

GUO: Right. Puerto Rico was worried about the same thing Neville was worried about - that they, in the Virgin Islands, were about to be forced into this downward spiral, where companies would keep playing them off each other to get more and more generous tax breaks and subsidies, until there wasn't much of that federal rum tax money left for the territories.

GONZALEZ: Now, there is a solution to this game of escalating subsidies, which is to just blow up the game entirely. And that is what politicians in Puerto Rico tried to do. They went to Congress and said, you created this program. You can put some better rules around it so that all of this federal money doesn't end up in the pockets of big foreign liquor companies.

GONZALEZ-COLON: We tried to say that the money was not a good investment of the federal funding, because you were just making rich one company to make business.

GUO: This turned into a huge fight on Capitol Hill. Now, territories don't get a vote in Congress, but the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Diageo - they all had people in D.C. making their case. Diageo accused Puerto Rico of trying to, quote, "destroy the economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands." The territories each spent almost a million dollars on lobbyists. It was a whole thing. That was when people started calling it the rum wars.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, but then Congress stepped in to do what it is best at doing, which is nothing. They did nothing. So Puerto Rico could not actually blow up the game. So the next thing that Jenniffer and her fellow politicians tried to do was resist - see if they could hold the line on subsidies to rum companies.

GONZALEZ-COLON: The governor of Puerto Rico was trying to meet directly with those companies, trying to let them stay on the island, but it was impossible to fight with a good offer from the Virgin Islands.

GUO: Yeah. The companies were saying, without getting those subsidies, too, how are we going to compete?

GONZALEZ: By 2011 - three years after the Virgin Islands gave Captain Morgan that generous deal - politicians in Puerto Rico couldn't hold the line anymore. They voted to increase subsidies for all of their remaining rum companies from around 10% all the way up to 46%. So, yeah, the thing that Neville feared that led him to vote against the deal - it happened. The subsidies the Virgin Islands gave to Captain Morgan spread to Puerto Rico's rum industry.

GUO: And then the subsidies spread right back to the Virgin Islands, costing their government money, too, because on the Virgin Islands there was this one rum company that had been there all along. That company was Cruzan Rum. In 2012, Neville says Cruzan comes to the Virgin Islands' legislature, and they're like, hey, all of these other rum companies in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are getting these huge subsidies now. We can't compete with that, either. We are losing market share.

JAMES: So Cruzan Rum was in trouble. So because of that, we had to go back to the table now and give Cruzan Rum a similar deal.

GONZALEZ: This is how big rum subsidies became the new normal. And for the Virgin Islands, the new normal is better. They didn't quite get everything they were expecting, but they did come out ahead by tens of millions of dollars a year. But the real, real winners are the rum companies.

GUO: Yeah. It used to be that when you went to a liquor store in the U.S. and bought a bottle of rum, federal taxes were basically divvied up between the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Ever since the rum wars, those taxes get divided between the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and a bunch of rum companies. In recent years, those subsidies added up to almost $300 million a year.

Do you feel like you've been proven right?

JAMES: Oh, yeah. A long time ago - long time ago. But I don't really necessarily want to be right. You know, I want the people to get paid. You know what I'm saying (laughter)? That's what I want. I want the state to get paid.

GUO: The rum wars have mostly died down by now, but there is one more twist to the story.

GONZALEZ: You know the thing at the center of the Rum Wars - the federal rum tax program? It's not actually, like, a permanent, set-in-stone program. Part of it has to get renewed every couple of years. But in 2021, Congress kind of forgot about it.

GUO: Just like in the rum wars, Congress did nothing. They did not renew it. And it seems like there's no real reason for Congress not doing anything. It's just that the territories are not a top priority. They never really have been.

GONZALEZ: So, like, when you go to the store to buy a bottle of rum in the United States today, a lot less of the tax money goes to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUO: And for people in the Virgin Islands, that missing money is a huge problem. If Congress doesn't restore all of that rum tax money soon, this territory of little islands will be in serious crisis. And this time, they don't have a secret trick up their sleeve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: Coming up on PLANET MONEY, for a long time, steel manufacturing was one of the biggest sectors in the economy. And when the steel industry in the U.S. started to decline, one small company had a plan to transform it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ken (ph) gets out a rather large cocktail napkin, and he's drawing this mill of the future to make sheet steels. And I said, wow, that's a bold ambition.

GONZALEZ: What did you think? Like, what was your thought when he said that to you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You know, no mini-mill had ever made sheet steel before anywhere in the world.

GONZALEZ: What the fall of a once-great industry can teach us about innovation, and why you shouldn't undermine an underdog - that's out next Wednesday.

GUO: Drop us a line at @planetmoney on social media and planetmoney@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALEZ: James Sneed produced today's show with help from Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. It was edited by Molly Messick, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez and engineered by Cena Loffredo. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

GUO: I'm Jeff Guo. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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