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|
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.|
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).|
|From 1655 to 1970, daily rum rations were an integral part of life for British sailors.|
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.|
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.