You wouldn't trust a skinny chef, and I'm drunk as hell

What to Drink: Rum Pt. 1

Rum, a drink celebrated for years for its delicious versatility, drank by all manner of people throughout history; politicians, spies, sailors, colonists, hollywood stars, slaves, soldiers and more. I hope to take you on a journey through the history of rum and what made it what it is today

This is a post focusing primarily on rum’s history, if this is not the sort of thing for you I highly recommend sticking around, but perhaps looking at the final part in a couple of weeks which focuses more on some recipes and other applications.

So to begin, Rum is a spirit made from sugar. It’s a little more complicated than that but we will get to that later.

Before I start, I highly recommend ALL to read “And a bottle of rum: a history of the new world in ten cocktails” by Wayne Curtis, an absolute gem of a book.

As far as historians can tell, rum was invented in the 17th century on the British Island colony of Barbados, there are a few other claims to the throne however, it may have been invented in Hispaniola/Cuba, or by Portuguese colonists in Brazil, or by the French on one of their Caribbean islands, or possibly by English alchemists in the 1400s,  or earlier by Arab scholars or even earlier by chemists tinkering near the cane fields of coastal India.

There is evidence as early as 350 BC of sugarcane being used to make sugar and fermented drinks; there is a famous quote from Alexander the Great’s general, reporting from a journey from the river Indus to the river Euphrates he had seen  an “Indian reed [which] brings forth honey without the help of bees”

Sugar was mostly used as an expensive spice for cooking, or in medicine. It is not until Columbus’ expeditions and the Spanish started colonizing various tropical islands that we begin to see serious sugarcane amounts being planted. Although sugar was planted at these islands when they were colonized (Puerto Rico: 1508. Jamaica: 1509. Cuba: 1511) the main intent was to mine for gold. It was the portuguese who saw the potential for sugar and began establishing plantations in Brazil using a workforce based on slave that they kept in check using a fermented sugarcane drink known as “garapa doida” (crazy sugar cane juice.) By 1625 Brazil was supplying most of Europe’s sugar. but were they distilling it? The answer is probably no. Commercial distilling was not yet fully developed. It was not until the British started taking some of the Caribbean islands that we see the first mention of rum, or killdevil. Kildevil was mentioned in passing by a chap naming all of the things served to him at a meal as a fiery spirit.

Barbados was first colonized in 1627, when 80 colonists arrived by ship, this had swelled to more than 75,000 by 1650. After trying and failing to plant tobacco, the colonists turned to sugarcane, which flourished.

One of the more difficult things to do when managing a sugar plantation, was what to do with the waste. Processing sugar creates a by-product called molasses – a dark, viscous liquid that resisted any further attempt at refining. In the mid 1600s molasses was a nuisance, too bulky to ship and no demand for it anyhow. Any number of uses were found but none really of any use; cow feed and cures for syphilis and such. But for the most part, molasses was industrial waste, better discarded than anything.

But along the way, some genius (and thank god for this man) figured that the molasses contain enough sugar to allow  yeast to work its magic, and as distillation was thoroughly working its way throughout the new world tropics it may be safely guesstimated that around this time, the distillation of rum finally presented itself.

Alright, now we know roughly when this practice begun, here are a few facts from the end of the 17th century/beginning of the 18th to help cement Barbados claim to fame as the first producers of rum. In 1652 a visitor to the island mentioned “the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-divil, and this is made of sugar canes…” A 1658 deed for the sale of the Three Houses Plantation included in the sale “four large mastrick cisterns for liquor for rum.”
(Thank you to Wayne Curtis for those fantastic quotes)

Barbados is also home to the oldest still producing rum distillery, the Mount Gay distillery. There is evidence to show the distillery producing the rum as early as 1667, but it is not until 1703 that we have the hard evidence of a deed list listing a still house.

Rum had been established earlier than that though, we know that by 1698, 207 gallons of rum had been imported to England. This is a paltry amount in comparison to 100 years later however, where we see 2 million gallons imported to England. So what happened between 1700 and 1800? We see the transformation of rum from a harsh spirit to a desirable product, and this gets the British navy interested.

Whilst it was the prevailing drink of choice in these islands for many years, it was inevitable that rumbullion would eventually make the move, to test the waters so to say. It slowly grew a small following among colonies in New America and other shores alike.

That’s it for part one of rum, seeing as it is SUCH a goliath of a topic to cover, it is very likely that I will split the topics into 4 parts, but they will all hopefully be as interesting as this one. Next time we see the navy come into play. As always the last one will focus on modern drinks/cooking etc whereas the first parts will be history. Hope that was interesting for you guys, see you in a few days!


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