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Beloved of buccaneers, preferred by pirates, swigged by sailors, rum is one of the most storied spirits in the world. Yet, the spirit manages to be equally as fascinating as its seafaring history, with rum being staggeringly varied with a myriad of different styles and producers creating spirit of outstanding quality and complexity.
Rum is a spirit made from sugarcane, usually through by-products such as molasses, Demerara and sugarcane juice. As with other spirits, the process through which sugar becomes rum is one of first fermentation, and then distillation. Rum is often then aged in wooden barrels to impart flavour, though it is also widely sold unaged. The type of sugar product used, and choice of production techniques can lead to very different finished spirit. Many producers have used the same techniques for centuries, and they are a vital part of what makes their spirit unique. For example: Guyanese rum El Dorado is produced partly by using a former Royal Navy wooden still!
There are several theories about how the spirit got its striking, sonorous name. One suggests it came from an arcane English word for good or jolly, as in: “to have a rum old time” or that it came from “rumbullion” another English word meaning “pandemonium”. Another points to the Romani word rum- meaning “potent”. Whilst others suggest it is a shorting of the Latin word for sugar, “saccharum” or derived from the Dutch term for naval drinking glasses “roemer”. Whatever the origin of the term, we know it was in common usage by the mind-17th century, and is now universally understood as a sweet, distilled and delicious liquor!
Rum is made in dozens of countries, in every continent, yet due to its history, it is inherently associated with the Caribbean and South America, where the majority of rum is still produced today. In most commercial settings rum is sorted by its colour: white, amber (or gold) and dark (or black). However, there is another, more accurate system of categorisations, which points to the spirit’s colonial history.
This system sees rum divided into four broad styles: British, Spanish (Ron), French (Rhum) and Jamaican. British style rum is rich and thick, typically pot still distilled and often made using Demerara (though molasses is used as well). This is the style of most “Navy” rums, such as Pusser’s and Lamb’s, due to the British use of Rum as a naval ration! Most rums from Guyana (such as El Dorado) and Barbados (such as Mount Gay) are British style rums.
Spanish style rums are lighter, sometimes drier and tend to be made from molasses with a very short fermentation period. Here column still distillation is more common, with a focus on making a very pure spirit. Often sold unaged, or at young ages, though older rums are available, and are frequently aged in a style similar to the Solera system used by fortified wine producers in Spain! These rums hail from the Spanish West Indies: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Guatemala, Nicaragua or Panama. Notable Spanish style rums include Flor de Caña, Santa Teresa and Diplomático.
The French style is a highly distinct, verdant variety which is made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Mostly produced in the French West Indies, it is also named Rhum Agricole and its unique qualities have made it a staple in cocktail bars around the world. Often these rums will be matured in French brandy casks, and are distilled in a manner similar to Cognac. Rhum Clément is widely considered the pinnacle of this style.
Jamaican, whilst technically a British style rum, can be considered its own style due to its unique funky quality. Like British style rums, they are mostly produced using pot stills. These are rich rums, which use the “dunder” or spent mash of previous fermentations in a manner similar to the sour mash techniques used in bourbon production. These rums often have “ester” flavours, which give a rich yet fruity quality! Appleton Estate and Mezan are excellent examples of the Jamaican style.
These categories are not hard-and-fast and are more “rules of thumb” to the different rum styles. That said they do demonstrate two things: how the light/dark categories are largely unsuitable (as a light Spanish Ron is likely to be very different to a light French Rhum Agricole), and how closely tied rum production is to its colonial history. This imperial background gives rise to another dark aspect of rum’s story: that of slavery. The spirit was often produced using slave labour, and was a key good in facilitating the trade in humans. Indeed, slaves working on plantations were likely the first people to ferment sugarcane by products to make alcohol.
Happily, rum has transcended this ugly chapter in humanity’s history, and indeed, is now considered a key aspect of Caribbean culture, even featuring in certain religious ceremonies and figures. Rum has been used as currency, ration, key trading good, and electoral bribe, and it is now seen as a complex and noble spirit, on a par with Scotch whisky and Cognac for its quality and flavour. The recent cocktail revival has given rum a new lease of life, as a key ingredient in many classic and modern classic drinks, particularly of the Tiki variety, which often use more than one style for even more complexity! At FineDrams we stock a wide range of rums to suit any palate, and any drinker, from the fledging beginner to the seasoned connoisseur!
The history of rum begins with sugar. Sugar cane is native to South East Asia, and was first crystallised into a usable solid in India around two millennia ago. By the sixth century AD sugar had reached modern day Iran, whilst Arab expansion in Europe and the Mediterranean brought sugar to the west. In 1493, Columbus brought sugar cane to the New World for the first time, on his second voyage, an event that would prove incredibly important for the history of rum.
Soon after Colombus’s trip, the scramble for the Americas began, with European powers of Holland, Britain, Spain, France and Portugal quickly sending colonising forces to the “West Indies”. They would bring with them their distilling traditions, and it is through these turbulent times of trade, war, empire and slavery that rum’s tale is told…
The first sugar mills in the Caribbean were set up on what is now modern day Haiti.
Further mills are founded in Porto Seguro in Brazil.
The first mention of a sugarcane distillate comes from Governor Tome de Souza of Bahia, who states that slaves were better workers if they were permitted to drink cachaça, a form of Brazilian sugarcane spirit that exists to this day. It was called cachaco at the time however, a term also used to describe pickling alcohol, suggesting a low quality spirit.
Cachaça became extremely popular with the slave population, as the crude spirit could be made easily with the copious amounts of spent cane or by-products around plantations.
Sugar mills are founded in Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, amongst other Caribbean Islands. During this century, colonists establish the process of importing slaves from Africa, as they realised non-natives were less able to escape, less likely to rebel and easier to identify in the case of rebellion. The trade in slaves very quickly became of equal or even greater value than the trade in sugar.
These plantations were very large, centring around a complex which contained a manor house (where the owners lived), several rows of huts where slaves lived in terrible conditions, and were threatened with violence and hanging to ensure their bondage.
Pilgrims settle at Plymouth on America’s East Coast, after successfully founding their settlement, in part due to a canny use of molasses in trade with Native Americans, further migrants from Scotland and Ireland arrive, bringing with them a knowledge of distilling, and the pot still.
Rum has been found on a Swedish warship, Vasa, which sunk in this year.
As with Cognac, Dutch distilling know-how was integral to early rum making, with Pietr Blower coming from the Netherlands to Barbados with both a pot still and sugar cane seeds. After the English colonists in the island, who had been there for a decade, failed to grow indigo (then an important and expensive provider of rare dyes) to any commercial success, they turned to sugar cane. Colonists started to distil the molasses by-product that was produced in the making of sugar nibs for trade, following Blower’s example.
Another Dutchman, Benjamin Da Costa, arrives at Martinique, a French colony, and sets up a sugar mill and a still.
A visitor to Barbados noted that the Bajans were “Devourers upp of hott waters [sic] and such good distillers thereof”.
In this year the Portuguese in Brazil attempted to prevent the production of cachaça.
The Cuban Chancellor Alvaro de Luces states, “In almost all the sugar mills they make aguardiente de cachaza (translates to cachaça) and in others aguardiente de caña (a forerunner term for rum) which they sell in their bars”. “They” here almost certainly refers to the commoners of Martinique, if not the slaves of the island. Early rum would keep this reputation as a “slave-drink”.
Further emphasising this reputation, the Portugese government ban anyone apart from slaves from drinking cachaça, though strangely some trade of the spirit was allowed, with a nearby Dutch settlement.
German naturalist George Marcgrave mentions sugar-cane distillate in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae.
Merely 14 years after Blower first arrived, Barbados seems to have been awash with rum, with another visitor to the island writing: “The chief fuddling they make on the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil [sic], and is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor” Again, the questionable quality of these early attempts at sugar-cane distillation is a prominent theme.
Certainly, at this point, the plantation owners in the manor house would not have been drinking rum, but rather brandies and wines imported from Europe, the colonial situation was that raw materials were shipped back to Europe, whilst colonists consumed products completed back in the old world. European powers were keen to avoid all competition, including that from their own colonies.
William Penn, who gave his name to Pennsylvania, first accords his men a rum ration to replace the spent beer ration. This would form a British naval tradition that would continue over 300 years. There were political reasons for this decision too, with it avoiding the rationing of French Brandy. Rum would also not spoil on the long journeys, and water was added to make the drink “grogg”, whilst lime juice would also sometimes be introduced to see off scurvy, leading to the long-lived nickname of the British: “Limeys”.
This same year, Jamaica is claimed from the Spanish by the British, and the Appleton Estate land is granted to the Dickinson family.
“Rumme” is mentioned by the General Court of Massachusetts.
By the 1660s the British were allowing the production of rum and its trade with other British colonies. A paper from the governor of Jamaica mentions rum by name, stating that the King required a forfeit of all exports. In this year the Bajan Governer instructed soldiers to close bars selling rum, and it was largely seen as a nuisance.
The first rum distillery in America is founded in Staten Island, though some rum distillation had occurred on the American mainland since 1657. The Dutch trade distilled sugar spirits under the name brandewijn (burnt wine), the same word that gave rise to the term Brandy.
By the later part of the century, distilling of rum was likely widespread in all colonial holdings in the West Indies, as in Spain, Britain and France distilling was already an industry in all these nations, and production of sugar was ubiquitous across the new world. Each colonial nation brought its own distilling traditions and techniques, which would lead to the categories seen above.
A merchant writes to the colonial government in Whitehall, complaining about bars and rum distilleries that operate without licences. No action is taken.
Barbados had become rich off the back of the rum and sugar trade (and the slave trade) approaching the 18th century, and the spirit was being traded across the Caribbean.
During the 18th century rum went mainstream, with industrial scale distilleries founded, and its popularity booming. In colonial America, every citizen was drinking 14 litres of rum a year on average. Rum began a key trade good, a target for pirates (as has been repeatedly immortalised), and a makeshift currency in the expanding boundaries of a larger world. Trade winds would bring merchants across the sea to Barbados, a British possession, and the then rum capital!
Throughout the 1700s Britain would trade successfully in rum, molasses and slaves, in what became known as “the triangle trade”. Here sugar, molasses and rum were taken to New England, where they were sold in exchange for modern commodities and goods (particularly weaponry), which was then traded in West Africa in exchange for slaves, who would work on the plantations. And so the system continued. It was a perpetual motion machine, with human misery at its core.
This trade made Britain rich, and established it as a world superpower, with naval dominance. Indeed, one could say that the British Empire was a by-product of the rum trade!
Mount Gay distillery, the oldest rum distillery still extant, is founded.
Evidence of the piratical fondness for rum is found, with the infamous Blackbeard writing in his log: “Such a day; rum all out. Our Company somewhat sober; a damned confusion amongst us! Rogues a plotting. Talk of separation. So I looked sharp for a prize, took one with a great deal of liquor aboard. So kept the company hot, damned hot, then all things went well again.” Again, the spirit’s sociable nature is apparent!
Port Mourant distillery is founded in Guyana, and uses a double wooden pot still for its rums, which were extremely popular with the Navy.
The Royal Navy begins to water down its rum to avoid drunkenness at sea.
Around this time Saint-Dominque, in Hispaniola, was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean, with much of its wealth coming the trade in sugar and coffee. Indeed, over 75% of European coffee came from the French colony, whilst Europe sourced 40% of its sugar from the settlement.
A new sugar tax levied by the British in America sparks colonial unrest, resulting in the War of Independence 11 years later. The triangle trade was disturbed, and so was American rum production. This lead to whiskey, which could be produced from local crops, becoming a patriotic symbol, and rising in popularity.
Rhum Labbé is founded in Port-au-Prince, modern-day Haiti.
In Louisiana, Cubans Joseph Solis and Don Antonio Méndez set up the first purpose built rum distillery- rather than distilling being a secondary process to sugar refinement.
Rum takes the role of currency in the fledging Australian colony.
George Washington requests a barrel of Bajan rum at his inauguration. Previously, Washington had sought the votes of fellow Americans through the ready supply of liquor, mostly rum! The practice was commonplace in Colonial America and soon after the revolution, and was known as “swilling the planters with bumbo”.
Distilling begins to take place on the site of JM Rhum, in Martinique.
The Haitian slave rebellion, the greatest slave uprising since Roman times, begins.
Slavery is abolished in the French Empire.
The first distilling takes place on the land which would become Santa Teresa distillery in Venezuela.
This century sees American rum decline, but Caribbean rum flourish, and rum distilleries set up around the world. Some of the most famous distilleries are founded during this century, whilst the rise of cocktails sees rum take on a new lease of life.
During this time, rum was produced in “East India” and “Bengal”, though records are scarce on specifics, and this was supposedly of a lesser quality than Jamaican and Guyanese rum.
Haiti’s slave rebellion is successful, ending the practice, removing French colonial control, and establishing a sovereign state.
The “Rum Rebellion” in Australia, following the Governor’s outlawing of the use of rum as a currency, the local corps marched to the Governor’s house with rifles and bayonets, placing him under arrest. Their power remained until 1810 when a new British Governor arrived.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embargo act banned the import of African slaves, partly because they were bringing traditional beliefs and “Voodoo queens” were causing “disturbances” amongst the slave population. Some religious ceremonies involved rum.
Britain takes full control of Guyana.
Simón Bolívar bans the practice of slavery in Venezuela, on the same land where Santa Teresa distillery would later stand.
John Wray founds the Shakespeare Tavern in Kingstown, Jamaica. Here he would distil his own Rum, and sell it. These were of a high quality, and drew patrons in vast numbers.
A German migrant founds Santa Teresa distillery, with it becoming Venezuela’s first proper rum distillery.
Don Facundo Bacardi Masso emigrated from Spain to Cuba, setting up business as a wine merchant.
Slavery abolished in the British Empire, leading to an influx of labour from Britain and Europe to the Carribean, bringing with them more refined distilling techniques. This is demonstrated by the release of OVD (Old Vatted Demerara), which mimicked blended Scotch in its production.
Appleton Estate is sold by the Dickinson Family. In the following years, several different families from Jamaica’s high society own the land, often expanding it and increasing its production of sugarcane. By this point the Estate had produced many pot still rums from the distilling operation which had grown up naturally next to the farming.
John Wray enlists his nephew Charles James Ward to join the family business, with the company becoming known as Wray and Nephew.
Barcardi is founded in Santiago de Cuba, later rising to become one of the biggest name is spirits, and for a long time the bestselling rum in the world. Barcardi is the world’s biggest family owned drinks company.
Rhum Barbancourt is founded in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with the founder a former Cognac distiller from France.
Cockspur Rum is founded in Barbados.
Matusalem Rum is founded in Cuba.
The precursor to Havana Club, the Arechabala distillery, is founded.
Homère Clément, a doctor and the mayor of Le François in Martinique, purchased the esteemed 300 acre sugar plantation, Domaine de L’Acajou. Here he would pioneer rhum agricole, the distinctive French-style of rum.
Brugal rum distillery is founded on the Dominican Republic, whilst Bundaberg Rum is founded in Australia.
The 20th century sees the popularity of rum rise further, with trade expanding across the globe and industrial techniques reaching distilleries. Many famous distilleries and brands were founded during this century, whilst prohibition and world war took their toll on trade, the rise of cocktails and more quality products improved it.
The Lindo Brothers purchase Wray and Nephew, and immediately follow this by purchasing the Appleton Estate grounds and distillery.
Prohibition in America leads to mass bootlegging of rum from then nearby Caribbean islands, giving rise to the terms “rum runner” and “rum rows”- lines of boats that sat in international waters, packed with liquor to be smuggled to the mainland.
Antigua distillery is formed.
Havana Club company, one of the world’s most popular rums, is formed in Cuba. After the trade embargo between America and Cuba, Barcardi release an imitation product.
Captain Morgan, a Jamaican rum, begins to be produced by Canadian drinks giants Seagrams. It goes on to be one of the best selling rums in the worlds.
Barcardi leaves Cuba for the Bahamas in the wake of the Cuban revolution. It eventually sets up in Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Miami. Havana Club is nationalised by the Cuban government, and the founding family flee, later selling their recipe to Barcardi, who use it for a Puerto Rican Havana Club.
United Spirits launches McDowell’s No. 1 Rum, which becomes the worldwide best seller by the 21st century.
The British Navy tradition of giving a ration of rum to sailors every day, after over 300 years.
Pusser’s Navy rum is founded, emulating the Royal Navy recipe for rum by blending 5 Caribbean rums together.
Ron Zacapa is first introduced, to commemorate Zacapa town’s foundation in Eastern Guatemala.
El Dorado is launched by Demerara Distillers. The rum carries Scotch style ages statements, representing the youngest rum in the blend. This is differs from Spanish rum styles, which often uses the Solera system, whereby the oldest rum in the blend is featured on the label, and French style rums which often use the Cognac classification systems. El Dorado set a new standard for aged rums.
Having began life as a “slave drink”, and spent so long as the spirit of ruffians and pirates, by the 21st century, rum was truly a global and luxury spirit. Rum is now one of the world’s bestelling spirits, and is a firm feature of bars across the world. Rum is now a mainstay of many classic cocktails, a key part of Caribbean culture, and sells over 1.4 billion litres globally each year.