Friday, August 16, 2013

And a bottle of...

In honor a National Rum Day (yes, it's a thing!), I thought a look back at the general history of rum would be an appropriate way to honor the holiday - in addition to a nice glass of rum, of course!

One can easily pull together a pile of books on the history of rum, as this liquor was the preferred drink of a colorful cast of characters, including notorious (and highly romanticized) pirates, and the rambunctious crowd that made up the so-called Sons of Liberty. But how did this particular drink come about?

First of all, what is rum?

Rum is a liquor made from distilled molasses. Molasses is the thick, syrup-like remnants of sugar production. As the sugar is refined to produce its familiar white color, what is left behind from boiling the original sugar cane juice is molasses.

Blackstrap molasses, via Wikimedia Commons
Once the molasses is separated from the crystalized, refined sugar, distillers mix the viscous syrup with water and yeast to produce rum. (For a modern example of this process, see this video clip from National Geographic's Ultimate Factories.)

There is a reason why popular imagery of rum maintains such strong connections to pirates, the Caribbean, and life on the high seas... that is because rum was born in the Caribbean - as a by-product of the massive, colonial sugar plantations.

William Clark, "Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane, 1786," Ten Vies in the Island of Antigua.
The 'when' of rum distilling, it's point of origin, remains obscure. The residents of these islands - including the indigenous population, as well as the European settlers, their servants, and African slaves - certainly drank alcohol, including spiritous liquors. But when did rum first emerge? Some argue that a crude form of rum production first began in the mid-sixteenth century by Dutch Jews in Martinique, but others claim that these attempts to distill sugarcane juice were simply prototypes of rum. Either way, what we do know is that one of the first, unmistakable, reference to rum appears in 1647 when Richard Ligon, a British author and Barbadian planter, documented his time in Barbados.

Instead of calling it 'rum,' however, Ligon made use of rum's earlier (and more interesting) name: "Kill-Devil." The name we are familiar with today came about just a few years after Ligon, around 1650, when documents began to reference the shipment of "rum" (taken from rumbullion, a term from the southwest region of England, meaning "a great tumult.")

Rum initially served as a beverage for slaves, as planters believed it provided the slaves with calories and energy (though, we know now these are empty calories). Some also argue that by plying their slaves with alcohol, the planters helped ensure continued control over their labor force. Over time, though, the planters also began to recognize this liquor as a potential money-maker. As the British colonists in the Caribbean did not have a liquor trade of their own to protect (unlike the French and Spanish, who focused on brandy and wine), Barbadian planters constructed rum distilleries alongside their sugar refineries, making rum a significant outgrowth of the sugar-making process.

Plan of a Barbados sugar factory with adjoining rum distillery, from Richard Ligon's A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1673).
It didn't take long for rum to gain popularity among the people living in the Caribbean, and because of the high alcoholic content, it traveled well on ships moving across the Atlantic Ocean. Rum quickly became a fixture on transatlantic vessels, from the Royal Navy to illegal pirate ships, and through the movement of these ships, rum spread throughout the Atlantic world.

From 1655 to 1970, daily rum rations were an integral part of life for British sailors. 
Rum wasn't just popular with sailors, pirates, and the people living in the Caribbean, but it also took hold in the colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. By 1660, Boston merchants actively promoted the sale of rum, and Barbados (alone) shipped over half a million gallons of rum to the North American colonies every year.

Popularly consumed as "Rum Punch," which combined the Caribbean liquor with citrus juices (either from lemons, limes, or oranges), sugar, water, and other ingredients (typically more alcohol, like brandy), rum became the drink du jour of colonial life, and punch bowls became a common way for the elite to display their wealth while throwing a swinging party.

An elaborate punch bowl, featured in Hogarth's A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733).
Dr. Alexander Hamilton's sketch of the Royalist Club (a Maryland gentleman's club, 1744) shows that, sometimes, cups were optional. 
Cheaper versions of rum punch made their way to drinkers throughout the colonies, and by the end of the eighteenth century, these mixtures of rum helped fuel the destructive protests against British imperial rule. However, the eruption of conflict between the American colonials and the British proved disruptive enough to the supply of rum and molasses that Americans began to embrace an alternative, homegrown liquor called whiskey, produced by settlers living on the American frontier. The abundance of corn in the newly independent United States kept the price of whiskey low, and made this liquor easier to access, and more cost effective, than rum.

Whiskey would rule the day in the United States from that point (and may even continue to do so today, depending on who you ask). But rum managed to make a successful comeback in the latter-half of the twentieth century. Now it is impossible to find a bar that doesn't have some sort of rum in stock, and popular drinks like a rum and Coke helped solidify this Caribbean spirit's place in the average liquor cabinet. From sugar, slaves, drunken colonials, to elaborate twentieth-century cocktails, rum certainly remains a liquor worthy of further discussion and appreciation.

Happy National Rum Day!

Mai Tai cocktail with ingredients, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources and further reading:

- Dun, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
- Foss, Richard. Rum: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.
- Grimes, William. Straight Up or on the Rock: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
- Smith, Frederick H. Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. Gainesvill, FL: University Press of Florida, 2008.
- Thompson, Peter. Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.