The Origins of Rum, and its Place in History
“One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak” – Barbadian Rhyme
Long before any other spirit was crafted, distilled, and manufactured, there was rum. It is the first branded spirit ever made. Rum is more than a beverage in the hand of a pirate while singing “yo ho yo ho,” like in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Rum is far more important in history than being only associated with piracy. An early version of rum dates back to antiquity. Beverages created by using the fermentation of sugarcane juice are believed to have first occurred in China and then found their way around civilization. The Malay people, using this technique, produced a drink called Brum thousands of years ago. And the guy who has had his hand in everything from pasta to ice cream, Marco Polo, recorded a 14th-century account of a "very good wine of sugar" from an area that became modern-day Iran. In later years, rum production was recorded in Brazil in the 1620s, and in the doomed Swedish ship Vasa that sank in 1628, rum was found in a tin bottle.
It is believed that the modern-day version of rum was first distilled on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century, specifically on the island of Barbados. The Portuguese discovered the island of Barbados, naming the island after the lush and “bearded” trees that grew in abundance. It was later determined that the island had rich soil and ideal weather conditions for growing sugar cane. Plantation workers first discovered that molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be made into alcohol by boiling it down multiple times to produce sugar crystals. By adding the distillation process, the impurities would be removed from the fermented liquid, and after some rest in oak barrels, you would have rum. Rum was called by many names like rumbullion/rumbustion (slang term for uproar), and the Barbadians once called it “kill-devil.” Strange names, but according to a 1651 document, "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, which is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor." It was also referred to as “Black Gold” as the Barbadian molasses was so profitable and in high demand that it turned the main port in Bridgetown into one of the wealthiest ports in the world because of this homegrown product.
After rum's development in the Caribbean, the drink's popularity spread to the North. Alcohol in its various forms - the more robust, the better - was the great sustainer of eighteenth-century America, and Rum was King. It was estimated that colonists were downing, per man, woman, AND child, 3 Imperials (or three ¾ gallons) of rum per year. In addition, it quelled the thirst for too much-salted meat and fish in their diet. To support the demand for the drink, rum distilleries were created in the Colonies. The first was in 1664 in modern-day Staten Island, Boston in 1667, and then in Rhode Island shortly after. The rum made in Rhode Island was considered acceptable currency in Europe for a short time.
Rum, imported from the West Indies, became a part of social communities resulting in increasing popularity in taverns and homes. While the act of drinking the spirit became an icebreaker for meeting new people, it oddly became a political tradition. When George Washington ran for the legislature in 1758, he raised quite the beverage bill for a few hundred voters. The bill was for 146 1/2 gallons of rum punch, beer, wine, and brandy. Washington was concerned about the extent of this hospitality, fearing he and his agent might have been too stingy with the amounts. Washington continued to use rum as a political advantage after the American Revolution by insisting on having a barrel of rum at his 1789 inauguration. Rum became a litmus test for politicians. Though the candidates, like Washington, continued to use rum to influence the outcome, it was a win if they drank rum with the people. It demonstrated their political independence and showed they were “one of the people.”
Barbados and other Caribbean islands took advantage of the popularity of molasses for the Colonies and sugar for the Europeans. To support this demand, the sugar plantations needed a primary labor source. The ugly answer, known as the triangular trade, was an act of moving enslaved people, molasses, and rum between Africa, the Caribbean, the Colonies, and sometimes Europe. This trade route was incredibly profitable and continued to provide the Colonies with the molasses they were demanding to create the rum. Historians have even argued that it was not the tax on tea that pushed the colonists to war but the Molasses Act of 1733. The Molasses Act, imposed by the British, placed a heavy tax on sugar and molasses from anywhere except the British sugar islands in the Caribbean (not Barbados). Another result of the Molasses Act was that it gave way to homegrown drinks like American whiskey, which were not taxed by the British.
Rum was also a favorite of the British Royal Navy. Until 1740, rum had rarely been dispensed “neat” or without any mixtures. The first commander to dilute the ration was British Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed “old grog,” referring to the grogram cloak he wore in rough, wet weather. Vernon’s nickname became associated with the now “watered” down rum called grog. This change in how rum was served was for a few valid reasons; it would limit the “grogginess” the sailors exhibited from consumption, and it was, more importantly, a way to prevent scurvy. Adding water and lemon juice minimized the overall effect on the soldiers and provided a significant health benefit. Unfortunately, this change did not come across so well. Further, by the 19th century, the British substituted lemons with limes, believing (incorrectly) that limes were better than lemons for scurvy. The British sailors who were given the “grog” soon became the focus of a nickname by the Americans… “limeys.” Until 1970, The Royal Navy continued to show its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot” or a “totty.” One of the more amusing stories we encountered during our research was that of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. In 1805, Nelson was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar in Spain after serving England well. The Officers and crew respectfully wanted to return his body to England, but they had to take specific measures to maintain it without risking making others ill. This highly decorated and accomplished leader, Nelson, was placed inside a rum cask. Upon arrival in England, the cask was opened, and all that remained was the pickled body of Lord Nelson; no rum remained in the cask. It then discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole at the bottom of the cask to get inside the rum. Ummm, tasty.
Today, most of the world's rum production occurs in the Caribbean, Latin America, South Pacific, Asia, and North America. However, it is still on the easternmost island in the West Indies, laying claim to the oldest rum distillery in the world, Mount Gay Rum. On February 20, 1703, the Mount Gay Rum Company was established on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Though it is now under the majority ownership of liquor conglomerate Remy Cointreau, the island proudly continues to showcase this rum.
In my cookbook, A Thyme to Discover, I made a rum cocktail inspired by the colonial-era Fish House Rum Punch recipe created in Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The tavern, State in Schuylkill, was a fishing club and local "watering" hole. The punch was first served in 1732, and the first record of the ingredients was published in 1744.
"There's a little place just out of town,
Where, if you go to lunch,
They'll make you forget your mother-in-law
With a drink called Fish House Punch." - 18th-century verse