When asked, most people will tell you that Rum originated in the Caribbean. While that is technically not incorrect, not many know that Rum’s history can be traced much further back.
Sweet Sweet Sugar
Rum is very closely associated with two things; sugarcane, which it is made from, and maritime trade. Rum is made from sugarcane and the by-products of the sugar production process, for example, molasses. Sugarcane cultivation in South East Asia can be traced back as far as 4000 BC, and where there are people, there will be some form of fermented drink.
The earliest drinks on record with characteristics similar to Rum can be traced back to the Malay people, who called it Brum, and to an ancient Indian Sanskrit manuscript called the Mānasollāsa (c. AD 1129), where a fermented cane drink called Asava is mentioned.
Another noteworthy mention is that of the King of Cyprus, Peter I, who brought a Rum like drink as a gift for the other dignitaries at the Congress of Kraków held in 1364.
Additionally, the famed explorer Marco Polo, recorded a 14th century account of a “very good wine of sugar” given to him in what is modern day Iran.
Rum As We Know It
In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean and claimed what is today known as the Bahamas, for the Spanish Crown. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that the sugarcane plant flourished in the tropical Caribbean climate.
The earliest recorded Caribbean sugar mills were established on the island of Hispaniola in 1516. It is in these mills and on the plantations that supplied them, that the spirit Rum as we know it was created. However, this is also where the story takes a turn down one of humanities darker sides.
As Europe’s demand for sugar, spices and exotic fruits increased, so too did the need for plantation workers, this became a big cause for the massive resurgence of the age old human practice of slavery.
The demand for African slaves in particular was high, as displaced people had nowhere to escape to. It is believed that the first people to start fermenting molasses were slaves in the Caribbean or Latin America.
As molasses was considered a waste product of sugar production at the time, the slaves had easy access to it and began creating fermented alcoholic beverages from it.
Unfortunately, the slave masters soon caught on and began to capitalize on this new found potential revenue. Shortly after this discovery, the slave masters began distilling the molasses fermentations.
The first recorded Rum distillate was in Brazil in the 1620s. From there the popularity of Rum exploded, due in large part to sailors, this I explored in a previous post “Rum Powered Sailors”.
Rum In North America
After its development in the Caribbean, Rum’s popularity spread to Colonial North America. The first Rum distillery was established on Staten Island in 1664 in order to supply the increase in demand.
The manufacture of Rum soon became early Colonial New England’s largest revenue source. Rum coming out of Rhode Island even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a short time.
This new massive demand for molasses in New England caused a further escalation in the slave trade as a vicious triangle came into being. Rum from America would be traded in Africa for slaves, who were then taken to the Caribbean to work the plantations. The plantations produced molasses, which was then exported back to America to make Rum.
Rum Moving Forward
With the fall of the colonial powers and the abolishment of slavery, cheap sugar and thus molasses experienced a significant drop in production. Coupled with a rising interest in Whiskey, Rum took a back seat in the world of spirits.
In the recent past, Rum has experienced a form of resurgence as a party drink due to the likes of Bacardi and Captain Morgan, to name a few, and now, more and more craft distilleries have begun producing Rum, this is slowly but surely bringing it back to its rightful place as a truly premium spirit.