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Fifteen men on the dead man's chest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum
Drink and the Devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

Rum.  We think of it as a Caribbean elixir.  A spirit from the islands.  An essential ingredient in many exotic cocktails that conjure up images of gaudy sunsets on beaches with bent palm trees, tropical latitudes, flip flops, shorts and Hawaiian shirts...steel drum music, pineapple skewers and poolside bars. Tiki torches at twilight.  Fun...and good stuff, no doubt, but not really American, where real liquor is distilled from grain.

While much of that imagery rings true, it might surprise you to know that long before bourbon became ensconced as "America's spirit", in the late years of the 18th century,  it was rum that filled the mugs and tankards (and bellies) of the first colonists.  The first rum distillery in the Colonies was established on Staten Island in 1664, with another one springing up in Boston 3 years later.  Distilling rum was the largest and most prosperous industry in early colonial America.  By 1750, Rhode Island had 22 distilleries, and had established for itself a reputation as the "rum capitol of the world", churning out such a superior and sought after product that it was, along with gold, accepted as currency in much of Europe.  I thought the state was only famous for its chickens.

Where was rum first made?  How is it made?  How did it become so prevalent in global trade?  What are the different types of rum?  

For those who are curious, this is your primer.  Your "Rum Diary".

As corn is to bourbon;  as barley is to scotch;  as the blue agave plant is to tequila;  or the juniper berry to gin...indeed, even as the plum is to (gasp) is sugar cane to rum.  And so the story of rum must begin with sugar cane.  But while sugar cane is native to South and Southeast Asia, and was later grown throughout Mesopotamia, it was always primarily grown for the sugar itself.  Sugar made its way to Europe, as everything always did, and Europe developed a sweet tooth.  

Sugar was always the primary goal.  It was Christopher Columbus who introduced  sugar cane to Hispaniola...not for rum, but for something to sweeten Europe's tea and coffee.  It wasn't until the world's political economy evolved into mercantilism, and plantation agriculture spread, that rum was created.  This took place in the 17th century, and it was the British who came up with the spirit, as a byproduct of their extensive sugar plantations in the Caribbean Islands.  So...the story of rum begins in the Caribbean:

Our Caribbean cruise map

Since rum developed as a byproduct of sugar making, let's spend at least a paragraph describing how sugar is, or was, made.  This is very abbreviated, and it doesn't go into the slave labor that went into the growing and harvesting of sugar cane...that is a whole nuther diary.  Sugar cane was grown in the Caribbean, and parts of South America, on a plantation scale from about 1500.  That's only 8 years after its introduction...but by then the demand for sugar was so great that the African slave trade began to supply more labor in the sugar fields.

It is an amazing episode in World History that a collection of disparate islands became the focus of so much international intrigue and competition, especially when you consider their economic fates today.  Were it not for tourism, most of these islands would be barely scraping by, and some of them are barely scraping by anyway.  But there was a time when the colonial outposts in the Caribbean were so profitable, largely due to the sugar trade, that they were the bargaining chips in imperial conflicts that took place in other corners of the world.  Again...that is gist for another diary.  This one is about rum.

"There’s naught no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion."
Lord Byron

Sugar was made thusly:  The cane was cut and run through a crusher, which rendered juice.  The juice was boiled over wood fueled ovens in a series of three cauldrons.  Each cauldron served to condense the sugars in the liquid...until the last cauldron held the most condensed sugar liquid, which was allowed to cool in a separate container.  The sugar crystals would form around a core of molasses.  It was the sugar crystals that were of primary desire.  Now...this refining process could be tweaked and prolonged, and over the years greater efficiencies were acquired in extracting the sugar crystals...but in the end, the plantation owners were always left with a byproduct from which no further sugar could be derived.  That was raw molasses.

You know how hotdogs came about?  Lips and assholes?  Everything but the squeal?  Such was, I am guessing, the inspiration for rum.  Except for the gross imagery.  It was simply utilitarianism, and mankind's never ending search for new ways to become intoxicated.  The left over molasses was still quite sweet, if somewhat caramelized from the multi-step process of boiling it down.  Plantation owners in the Caribbean discovered that it could be fermented.  And if it could be fermented, it could be distilled.  Oilla.  A new revenue stream was born.

The original makers of rum in the Caribbean were motivated by profit, and perhaps even the desire to produce a cheap product that would ameliorate, to some extent, the harsh existence of their labor force.  Okay...that's probably a stretch.  But it did serve that purpose.  It also caught on with the merchant sailors who plied the triangle of trade between the West Indies & American Colonies, England and Africa.  The British Merchant Marine spent a lot of time on the high seas.  Water went bad quickly, and something more palatable was always in high demand.  There was beer, which often was even less palatable than the water in the cisterns...and there was brandy.  Cheap brandy.

The rum that was being produced newly in the sugar plantations was high proof...about 160 proof, to be exact.  Talk about taking your breath away.  But it was also very coarse and raw...crudely made, with a dark and burnt taste to it, with a lot of off tastes.  The plantation owners had the raw material...molasses...but they lacked technology.  They were raw material suppliers in the Mercantilist system...not end product suppliers.

Enter the American Colonists.

Okay...How many of you have heard of the community in North Carolina's Outer Banks called Kill Devil Hills?  Some of you?  Ever wondered where the name comes from?

"Kill Devil" is a colonial term for rum.  Don't ask me why...but it was.  The maritime trade between the Caribbean and the American Colonies and England was extensive, and the outer banks of North Carolina were the scene of many a shipwreck.  Those ships usually had rum onboard.  It was standard cargo...both for commercial purposes and for supplying the daily needs of the sailors.  When a ship would founder, as the story goes, the locals on the Outer Banks would salvage what they could from the ship, and hide the casks of rum in the sand dunes.  Hence...Kill Devil Hills.

Whereas rum may have been borne in the Caribbean, it was perfected in the American Colonies.  That's simply because of technology.  We had a vast supply of hardwood forests, a vast supply of European immigrants who were skilled in cooperage, or barrel making, and a pretty good base of metal workers.  Paul Revere was a silversmith, but he, and just about everyone like him, could make a good pot still just as easily as a teapot.  That may sound a little smug...but it is the truth.  We had the raw materials to make barrels for aging, and we had mechanical expertise to produce a finer we began importing the raw molasses, and an industry was borne.

Though the spirit was invented in the Caribbean, American distillers would be the world's superior distillers for about a hundred years.  Only England's greed knocked our rum industry off the rails, with the imposition of the Sugar Act in 1764, which imposed a tax upon molasses and sugar from the Caribbean in order to raise revenue for the British Crown, which has always been just getting by hand to mouth.  

There are some historians who suggest that the Sugar Act, and it's result in making rum production in the colonies both less profitable and, for consumers, more expensive, led to the American Revolution...or at least contributed largely to it.

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

Perhaps the most famous quip attributed to Winston Churchill, which he claims he never said, is this one.  As the story goes, Churchill, upon being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, suggested converting the British fleet from coal to oil, and converting to a smaller, more mobile fleet.  A stodgy traditionalist within the bureaucracy protested that he would be going against every tradition of British Naval history, to which he is said to have scoffed:  "Don't talk to me about naval's nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash."

But that he had said that...alas, he said on several occasions that he never uttered those words...even while allowing that he wished that he had.  The fact is, though, that with the advent of rum, the British Navy promptly changed its rations.  Gone was beer and brandy, and in was rum.  160 proof rum, I might add.  A pint a day.  It wasn't until the 1970's that the daily rum ration was abolished in the British Navy, though the British Navy ceased being a force on the world stage perhaps a hundred or more years prior...maybe, as I think about it, since the invention of rum.

So....who still makes rum, and what's the difference, and is one better than the other?

Well...the oldest rum distillery that has been continuously in operation is in Barbados...Mount Gay Distillery.  It is useless to discuss who makes the best's a matter of taste, but for a mass produced rum, I think Mt Gay is in the top three.  Barbados is the home of rum...there's also Cockspur, which is also quite good.  Jamaica, another former British colony, has it's Appleton Estates.  Some swear by Jasmaican rums...I'm guessing many of them are Jamaicans.  There's a lot of island nationalism associated with judging rums, unless you don't come from any of the islands.

Some French speaking islands, like Martinique, make a different kind of rum.  Instead of using molasses, they use the clear cane juice.  Rhum agricole, as it is called, is not nearly as readily available here in the States, and I've never tasted it, so I can't say for sure what the big diff is.

Like you, Bacardi was the first rum I ever tasted...and it was mixed with coke.  The Cuba Libre was a cocktail that was developed not in the aftermath of the Castro Revolution, but Cuba's independence from Spain.  Rum, coke and a twist of lime.

Ernest Hemingway made the daiquiri famous, a simple but delicious concoction of white rum, lime juice and simple sugar syrup.  It caught on in the 40's among those who didn't read because of FDR's "Good Neighbor Policy", which excepted rum from the wartime rationing that made whiskey, vodka and gin hard to come by and more expensive.

I discovered rum when I was in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica and Ecuador.  Central and South America also make their own liquor from sugar cane.  Some call it rum, some call it other things.  Back in the 80's, when I was there, it was usually a state monopoly.  In Costa Rica they called it Guaro or Cana.  In Ecuador it was aguardiente.
One could go to the state "rum factory" with your own bottle...think of a Gallo wine jug...and get it filled up to take home.  It wasn't as good as Caribbean rum, but it would definitely get you jacked up.

The best drink I ever had in Ecuador was, believe it or not, a rum (aguardiente) drink that was served up by street vendors in the capitol, Quito.  Quito is tucked up high in an Andean valley, elevation about 9,300 ft.  At night it gets cold there.  The (mostly) indigenous street vendors would have stands in Quito at night where they would serve up Canelazos, a heated concoction of factory rum steeped with cinnamon sticks and a squeeze of citrus (sour orange) would take the chill off.  I've often thought it's a shame you can't do that here in America.  I never saw any staggering drunks there...but many people would stop by a vendor for a warm bracer on a chilly night.

I have tasted a lot of rums over the decades, and they are definitely not all alike.  I think many people tend to think of rum as a sort of "gateway" adult beverage, that leads you on to other and more sophisticated libations.  That's too bad, because if that's what you think about rum, you haven't tasted a broad enough spectrum.  Try Ron Zacapa Centenario, made in Guatemala, and aged longer than many fine scotches.
It is as smooth and mellow as any cognac you can name.  Only better.

Rums have a lot a variation from one brand to another, and even within brands.  The flavors and feel on the tongue are so much more apparent than, say, vodka, which has a higher "hip" quotient and is deemed more sophisticated.  I would love to see a blindfold test with 50 people, tasting 15 rums and 15 vodkas, to see how they rate each sample.

I would bet the farm that that sample would rank the artisanal rums over the more mass produced rums much more consistently that they would the so called artisanal vodkas over the mass produced vodkas.

Originally posted to Keith930 on Fri Dec 21, 2012 at 08:47 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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