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Short History of Rum

The history of rum is the history of the Caribbean and North America. From its invention in the 17th century in Barbados (or some claim Brazil), rum has had an international trade influence that no other spirit can rival.  It was an integral part of trade across the Atlantic Ocean from the 17th century to the 19th century, and eventually played a key cultural role in the 20th century.

Plantation Invention

Cover of "rum"

Cover of rum

Rum was made first by plantation African-born slaves. These slaves harvested sugarcane that was turned into sugar and shipped off to Europe. One of the by-products was molasses, and the slaves discovered that molasses could be fermented into a crude alcohol. Then they went the extra step and distilled the fermented molasses into rum. The original rums had a harsh taste and were nothing like today’s aged rums much less the clear rums for cocktails.   But along with the sugar trade, rum was a barter device that connected the countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Colonies, Pirates and Navies

The American colonies were rum-crazy. In fact, much of the sugar was shipped to New England to be turned into rum. And major New England rum makers dominated until the mid-19th century and from then forward, the Caribbean and Latin America, where the sugar originated, became the production centers. The American colonies favored rum over whiskey or gin. And the New England distilleries controlled the market until Americans started to prefer bourbon. The American colonialist liked aged dark rums that got much of their taste from the oak barrels that the rum was aged in.

Rum had a particularly strong connection with sailors. Privateers and pirates were notorious rum drinkers. As often ships crossing the Atlantic had barrels of rum, they had no shortage of it. At one time, it was such an important commodity that rum became a currency for a short period. Rum was also the drink of navies. In particular, the British navy gave a certain portion of rum to sailors. This tradition lasted for more than 200 years and only recently ended.

Old Havana, Prohibition and Caribbean Dominance

Slowly, although Caribbean produced dark aged rums continuously, the Caribbean started to reclaim the rum market with a lighter rum (white or clear) that was especially suited for cocktails. One turning point was the Spanish American War, when American soldiers were exposed to rum cocktails in Havana. This was the beginning of the popularization of mojitos and Cuba Libres (now known as rum and coke). The Prohibition changed the Caribbean even more, in particular Havana’s relationship with the United States. Americans went down to Havana for the rum, casinos and cigars.  Meanwhile, rum from the Caribbean was smuggled in the US (rum-running).

Nederlands: Een fles Bacardi Gold.

Nederlands: Een fles Bacardi Gold. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once Prohibition ended nearly 50% of the worlds rum was produced in Cuba (when Bacardi still produced from Cuba). But Bacardi moved the majority of their rum operations to Puerto Rico and escaped the nationalization when Castro seized power. The Bacardi transplantation could not have been better timed for rums reputation. Bacardi played a crucial role in marketing of rum even during periods where it wasn’t the prefered spirit. It paid off as rum is the second most popular spirit behind vodka. We will go more into the intrigue behind the Cuban rum industry in a future article.

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