Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum….but where did it come from?
As it was World Rum Day over the weekend (July 11th), we wanted to look at all things Rum. There are various associations’ rum has across different sides of the globe and across a variety of cultures, so what better way to celebrate rum, than to look into the history and origins of where it came from, and some of the historical facts that you may not know.
Let’s start with the basics - rum is a distilled liquor made by fermenting then distilling sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice.
Produced in various grades rum comes in different forms. The light-bodied rums are typified by those of Cuba and Puerto Rico and are commonly used in cocktails, whereas the heavier, darker and fuller-flavoured rums of Jamaica are typically consumed straight or neat, or, now more commonly consumed with mixers.
The history and origins of rum play a part in the culture of most islands of the West Indies - first mentioned in records from Barbados in around 1650. They were called “kill-devil” or “rumbullion” and by 1667 were simply called rum. Having famous associations with the Royal Navy, rum also funded less honourable activities such as piracy, slavery, organised crime, and military insurgencies.
The first distillation of rum in the Caribbean took place on the sugarcane plantations there in the 17th century. Plantation slaves discovered that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. Then, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol, and removed some impurities, producing the first modern rums.
However, in the decade of the 1620s, rum production was also recorded in Brazil and many historians believe that rum found its way to Barbados along with sugarcane and its cultivation methods from Brazil.
By the late 17th century rum had replaced French brandy as the exchange-alcohol of choice in the triangle trade. Canoe men and guards on the African side of the trade, who had previously been paid in brandy, were now paid in rum.
After development of rum in the Caribbean, the drink's popularity spread to Colonial North America. To support the demand for the drink, the first rum distillery in the Thirteen Colonies was set up in 1664 on Staten Island.
Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of 3 imperial gallons of rum each year.
Rum’s popularity continued after the American Revolution; with George Washington insisting on a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration. This in turn led rum to play an important role in the political system; candidates attempted to influence the outcome of an election through their generosity with rum. The people would attend the hustings to see which candidate appeared more generous. The candidate was expected to drink with the people to show he was independent and truly a republican.
We all know that rum has a key association with piracy, but why? It all began with English privateers' trading in the valuable commodity. Some of the privateers went on to became pirates and buccaneers and continued with their fondness for rum. The association between the two was then heightened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655, when a Royal Navy fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. Plus, British sailors received regular rations of rum from the 18th century until 1970.
Navy rum was originally a blend mixed from rums produced in the West Indies. It was initially supplied at a strength of 100 degrees proof, 57% alcohol by volume (ABV), as that was the only strength that could be tested before the invention of the hydrometer. This is where the term "Navy strength" is used in modern Britain to specify spirits bottled at 57% ABV.
Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was based upon the lack of currency among the population of the colony, and due to the drink's ability to allow its consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of amenities available in the new colony, it became very popular. Eventually, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness - although their alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.
Rum was also intimately involved in the only military takeover of an Australian government, known as the Rum Rebellion – a coup d’état. When William Bligh became governor of the colony, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange. In response to Bligh's attempt to regulate the use of rum, in 1808, the New South Wales Corps marched with fixed bayonets to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.
Finally, let’s talk about the grades and variations used to describe rum. Grades depend on the location where a rum was produced:
Dark rums – commonly from areas such as Jamaica, Bahamas, Haiti, and Martinique, dark rums are also known by their colour, such as brown, black, or red rums. These are classed as a grade darker than gold rums. They are usually made from caramelized sugar or molasses and are generally aged longer, in heavily charred barrels, giving them much stronger flavours, with hints of spices detected, along with a strong molasses or caramel overtone. They commonly provide substance in rum drinks, as well as colour.
Flavoured rums - are infused with flavours of fruits, such as banana, mango, orange, pineapple, coconut, starfruit or lime. These are generally less than 40% ABV (80 proof). They mostly serve to flavour similarly themed tropical drinks but are also often drunk neat or with ice.
Gold rums - also called "amber" rums, are medium-bodied rums that are generally aged. These gain their dark colour from aging in wooden barrels (usually the charred, white oak barrels that are the by-product of Bourbon whiskey). They have more flavour and are stronger tasting than light rum and can be considered midway between light rum and the darker varieties.
Light rums - also referred to as "silver" or "white" rums, in general, have very little flavour aside from a general sweetness. Light rums are sometimes filtered after aging to remove any colour. Most light rums come from Puerto Rico. Their milder flavours make them popular for use in mixed drinks, as opposed to drinking them straight. Light rums are included in some of the most popular cocktails including the Mojito and the Daiquiri.
Overproof rums - are much higher than the standard 40% ABV (80 proof), with many as high as 75% (150 proof) to 80% (160 proof) available. Two examples are Bacardi 151 or Pitorro moonshine. They are usually used in mixed drinks.
Premium rums – are in a special market category, as with other sipping spirits such as Cognac and Scotch whisky. These are generally from boutique brands that sell carefully produced and aged rums. They have more character and flavour than their "mixing" counterparts and are generally consumed straight.
Spiced rums - obtain their flavours through the addition of spices and, sometimes, caramel. Most are darker in colour and based on gold rums. Some are significantly darker, while many cheaper brands are made from inexpensive white rums and darkened with caramel colour. Among the spices added are cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, pepper, cloves, and cardamom.