Bartender making rum cocktails on a bar.

In Honor of International Rum Day 2023, Let's Look at the History of Rum

6 minutes

In honor of National Rum Day, Tuesday August 16th, 2023, here's a brief history of rum.

What is Rum?

Rum is made by fermenting and distilling molasses, or sugarcane juice from a species of grass called Saccharum officinarum. Depending on where you are in the world the sugarcane may be harvested once or twice a year, or possibly continuously.

Recipes vary, and many factors go into producing a unique spirit that reflects the country and distiller who made the rum. Some rums are produced from molasses, and others from sugarcane juice. Yeast strain, temperature, dilution rate, fermentation length, aging length, aging vessel (usually oak), and still type (pot still or column still) all affect the final product with some distilleries producing heavy, dark, sweet rums and others producing clear light rums and everything in between.

Rum is widely produced around the world but primarily comes from countries that grow sugarcane.

Bartender making rum cocktails

A Brief History of Rum

According to Wikipedia, rum-like spirits and wines produced from fermented sugar can be traced back thousands of years to the Malay People from what is currently Malaysia. Marco Polo recorded having tried a rum wine in the 14th century, and rum was produced in Brazil in the 16th century.

The Rum that we enjoy today is widely believed to have originated in the 17th century on Caribbean sugar plantations, particularly in the West Indies. The development of rum was an offshoot of the sugar production process. As sugarcane was cultivated and processed to extract sugar, molasses, a by-product of sugar production, was left behind. This molasses, which contained fermentable sugars, became the primary ingredient in the production of rum.

The early production of rum was often carried out on small-scale pot stills by individual plantation owners or in makeshift distilleries. The process involved fermenting the molasses with water and wild yeast, then distilling the fermented mixture to produce a spirit with a higher alcohol content.

Rum quickly gained popularity in the Caribbean and became an essential part of the region's economy. It was consumed locally and also became a sought-after export commodity. The British Royal Navy played a significant role in popularizing rum, as they provided a daily ration of rum to their sailors, which became known as the "tot."

Over the centuries, rum production techniques and styles evolved. As sugarcane cultivation spread throughout the Caribbean, different regions developed their distinctive styles of rum. For example, Jamaican rum is known for its robust and full-bodied flavor, while Barbadian rum tends to be lighter and more refined.

American Rum Production

In 1664 the first rum distillery opened on Staten Island, followed by another in Boston Massachusetts 3 years later. Rum was a widely used currency in the slave trade and distillers in Newport, Rhode Island created an extra strong rum that was used as a slave trade currency.

The Triangular Trade

The Triangular Trade refers to the trading of goods along a three-sided route from Britain to West Africa, west Africa to America, and America to Britain. In the 18th century, high demand for sugar, molasses, rum, and slaves was a significant driver of the Triangular Trade where rum was often used as currency to purchase slaves for the American colonies.

Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 Caused the American Revolution (not really)

To combat stiff competition between rum and French brandy (French brandy consumption was falling in favor of rum) France banned the production of Rum in their New World colonies. This led to an excess of molasses that was now not being used to produce rum.

New England distillers were able to purchase this molasses at cut-rate prices and undercut other rum-producing countries. British rum producers objected, of course, which led to the Molasses Act of 1733, a prohibitive tax imposed by Britain on rum imported from the West Indies to the 13 American colonies. This new tax made rum production extremely difficult and resulted in smuggling, bribery, and intimidation of customs officials so the new tax went largely uncollected.

The Molasses Act was set to expire in 1763 so the Sugar Act of 1763 was introduced. The Sugar Act halved the tax on Molasses and promised stricter enforcement. The economic hardship on New England rum producers as a result of the tax, responsible for about 80% of New England exports, along with other perceived injustices may have been a factor in the start of the American Revolution.

Naval Rum

Rum became the drink of choice for the Royal Navy after it captured the island of Jamaica in 1655, and switched the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. Navy rum was a blend of rums from different distilleries across the West Indies.

The Gunpowder Test

I suspect some drunk sailors thought this one up. After all, what sailor wouldn’t want an excuse to play with gunpowder, alcohol, and fire?  The so called gunpowder test was a rather subjective, inaccurate test used to determine the percentage alcohol in rum. If gunpowder soaked in rum could still be lit, it was considered 100 proof (57% alcohol by volume (ABV)). This is not an accurate method, however, due to inconsistencies in powder grain size, and the length of time the gunpowder was allowed to soak in the alcohol, nevertheless, modern-day Navy Rum is sold in Britain at 57% ABV.

Categorization and Regulation

It's difficult to define what constitutes rum because of a lack of meaningful standards. Many countries either don't have specific standards for rum and if they do, there is no standardization between countries.

This leads to a wide variation in rum with many regional varieties produced from either sugarcane juice or molasses, aged or not aged, light or dark (or something in between).

Grades of Rum

Dark Rum – usually made from caramelized sugar or molasses and aged for a lengthy time in charred oak barrels.

Light Rums – slightly sweet with little flavor

Gold Rums – medium-bodied rum aged in wooden barrels, usually oak that may have been previously used to age Bourbon. These rums are somewhere between dark and light rums and are sometimes referred to as amber rum.

Styles of Rum in the Carribean

Flavored Rums – usually flavored with fruit and generally used as a base for cocktails.

Overproof Rums – high-proof rums intended for use in mixed drinks.

Premium Rums – marketed as a bespoke spirit, premium rums usually have more character and flavor and are intended to be consumed straight.

Spiced Rums – somewhat of a novelty product, rum flavored with spices such as cinnamon, rosemary, absinthe/aniseed, and others.

Today, rum is produced in countries around the world, but the Caribbean remains the heartland of rum production. Each Caribbean Island has its unique rum traditions, producing a diverse range of styles, from light and floral to rich and full-bodied.

The history of rum is closely intertwined with the Caribbean's cultural heritage, as it played a significant role in the region's economy, trade, and social fabric. Rum's storied past, from its humble beginnings on sugarcane plantations to its global popularity today, makes it a beloved and iconic spirit enjoyed by people around the world.

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