The Early History of Rum

Rum: Part 1. There's so much to learn about rum, that we're considering this an intro -- what you need to know, and a brief focus on this famous spirit's early history.


So let's start with the basics. Rum is made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane, and is usually aged in oak barrels. If sipping this spirit gives you vacation vibes or makes you dream of a tropical island somewhere, that's not necessarily by accident. Sugarcane cultivation really started (and still is) on tropical islands. However, the history of rum is not all sunshine. It's riddled with slavery, turmoil and war.


It all starts with sugarcane.

Sugarcane was first grown in New Guinea, and some records show that it was fermented as early 350 BC in India. However, the earliest recordings are of it being used for medicinal purposes (similar to Vodka).


In the 1400s, European explorers started opening up the world's sea routes, around the southern point of Africa, East, and then crossing the Atlantic to the New World. The Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Azores and the Canaries were discovered. The climates on these islands was ideal for growing sugarcane (which was actually introduced by the Arabs) in addition to spices.


The Arabs had set up a range of irrigation techniques, such as water powered mills to process sugarcane and the water screw, all designed to decrease the manpower needed to make sugar. However, even at the beginning, sugarcane production relied mostly on slavery. The cruel and inhumane trade expanded as explorers began to produce more and more sugarcane on the islands.


During the religious wars of the 1440's, the Europeans captured many of the Arab sugar plantations, and the Portuguese started shipping slaves over from their trading posts in the West Indies.

Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, at first by sailing to the Caribbean. He decided that the climate there was also ideal for sugarcane, and in 1493 on his next voyage, he took sugarcane from the Canary Islands and started growing it in the Caribbean.


This only fueled the slave trade more, and it's documented that over the 4 centuries of sugarcane production, 11 million slaves were taken from Africa to the new world. This number may also greatly underestimate the suffering by about half, as many died on the journey across the ocean.


At first, the slaves were kidnapped, but then the Europeans began trading with the African slavers. The most sought after payment by the African slavers was alcohol, and the most popular drinks at the time (beer, wine and mead) did not travel well across the ocean. Brandy was the more popular currency at first, but with all the sugarcane production, Rum was plentiful, and quickly became the preferred spirit.


Then in September of 1647, Richard Ligon, an Englishman, discovered Barbados. What looked like a beautiful, picturesque island from the distance, he soon learned was in the middle of an outbreak of the plague. His stay ended up being 3 years, and during that time he set up the island with sugarcane production. Within a decade, Barbados became the largest producers of sugarcane. They also learned how to ferment the byproducts of the sugar, and distill the molasses. Hello, kill-devil. Which today, we call rum. Rumbullion meant upheaval or violent commotion, which was apparently an affect of drinking the kill-devil. It was then shortened to Rum.


Around the same time, rum was introduced to the colonists in New England. They were adjusting to the new climate and finding much of their traditional crops impossible to grow. There was also a beer shortage. When rum was introduced, it was much cheaper than Brandy and much stronger. The colonists soon realized that they could just import molasses and make their own rum, and quickly New England became an epicenter for rum production.


At this point, rum was still fairly unpalatable, but becoming popular around the world and among sailors. Admiral Edward Vernon had the idea to add sugar and lime to the rum to make it taste better. This of course became quite popular and was known as grog. This actually helped dramatically reduce scurvy among the Royal Navy, and is credited as eventually aiding in Britain's defeat of the French and Spanish, as their crews were generally healthier. Vitamin C for the win!


Rum became popular across the world but the increased appetite for rum sadly only fueled the slave trade more, as the islands needed to create more sugar to support the demand.


Rum also is said to have started the rumblings of the Revolutionary War. Britain imposted the Sugar Act in 1764, which was a tax on molasses. This began the "No taxation without representation", which leads up to the Boston Tea Party.

Rum was very popular throughout the war, but when the British surrendered in 1781, and settlers start to move west, and it became harder and more expensive to import molasses. This move gives way to the beginning of whiskey in America, as grains were much easier to grow in the middle of the country.


While Whiskey definitely took Rum's place as the American spirit, Rum is still quite popular today. It was popular Rum throughout the prohibition era, and the Pina Colada & Mojito, perhaps Rums most famous cocktails, can be found at basically every bar at vacation destinations, & of course, we can't forget about Captain Morgan, who was in fact a real person, and owned sugarcane plantations.


Until next time, as the sailors would say, it's looking dark & stormy!

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Owl's Brew / Double Brew, LLC 

 New York, NY