Rum is a distilled alcoholic drink made from sugarcane byproducts, such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation. The distillate, a clear liquid, is then usually aged in oakbarrels.
The majority of the world’s rum production occurs in the Caribbean and Latin America. Rum is also produced in Australia, Portugal, Austria, Canada, Fiji, India, Japan, Mauritius, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines, Reunion Island, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Rums are produced in various grades. Light rums are commonly used in cocktails, whereas “golden” and “dark” rums were typically consumed straight or neat, on the rocks, or used for cooking, but are now commonly consumed with mixers. Premium rums are also available, made to be consumed either straight or iced.
Rum plays a part in the culture of most islands of the West Indies as well as in The Maritimes and Newfoundland. This drink has famous associations with the Royal Navy (where it was mixed with water or beer to make grog) and piracy (where it was consumed as bumbo). Rum has also served as a popular medium of economic exchange, used to help fund enterprises such as slavery (see Triangular trade), organized crime, and military insurgencies (e.g., the American Revolution and Australia’s Rum Rebellion).
According to Maria Dembinska, the King of Cyprus, Peter I of Cyprus or Pierre I de Lusignan (9 October 1328 – 17 January 1369), brought rum with him as a gift for the other royal dignitaries at the Congress of Kraków, held in 1364. This is feasible given the position of Cyprus as a significant producer of sugar in the Middle Ages, although the alcoholic sugar drink named rum by Dembinska might not have resembled modern distilled rums very closely. Dembinska also suggests Cyprus rum was often drunk mixed with an almond milk drink, also produced in Cyprus, called soumada.
Another early rum-like drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a “very good wine of sugar” that was offered to him in the area that became modern-day Iran.
The first distillation of rum in the Caribbean took place on the sugarcane plantations there in the 17th century. Plantation slaves discovered that molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic byproducts concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first modern rums. Tradition suggests this type of rum first originated on the island of Barbados. However, in the decade of the 1620s, rum production was also recorded in Brazil. A liquid identified as rum has been found in a tin bottle found on the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628.
A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
After rum’s development 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 British colonies of North America was set up in 1664 on Staten Island. Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry. New England became a distilling center due to the technical, metalworking and cooperage skills and abundant lumber; the rum produced there was lighter, more like whiskey. Rhode Island rum even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a period of time.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 (14 l) of rum each year.
To support this demand for the molasses to produce rum, along with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labor source to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was needed. A triangular trade in rum, molasses, and slaves was established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies to support this need. The exchange was quite profitable, and the disruption to the trade caused by the Sugar Act in 1764 may have even helped cause the American Revolution. In the slave trade, rum was also used as a medium of exchange. For example, the slave Venture Smith, whose history was later published, had been purchased in Africa for four gallons of rum plus a piece of calico.
Rum started 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.
Eventually the restrictions on sugar imports from the British islands of the Caribbean, combined with the development of American whiskey, led to a decline in the drink’s popularity in North America.
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