To celebrate National Rum Day, we take a deep dive into pirate-infested waters and explore the rich and dark history behind this fascinating drink.
The History of Rum
When we think rum, two things come to mind, pirates and tropical Caribbean islands.
Have you ever wondered how long rum has been produced though? The answer is, staggeringly, over 2000 years!
In fact, a drink similar to rum was used in India around 350 BC, where sugarcane extracted from New Guinea was used to treat the sick. Let’s continue our rum journey, and skip forward in time to the late 14th century, when a collection of remote islands were discovered. These islands had it all, they were in a tropical environment, had plenty of water, food, and just so happened to be the perfect habitat for sugarcane, which, at the time, was highly valued, and consequently led to the colonization of the Caribbean. For a bit of historical context of what was going on elsewhere at the time - England had colonised the “New World” and formed New England, making it a main hub for travellers and colonisers.
Sugarcane, similar to high-valued spices at the time, required a lot of water and even more manpower.
The men and women who were brought to work in these islands quickly discovered that ‘molasses’, a by-product of the sugar refining process, could be transformed into alcohol through fermentation. The first few attempts at creating this spirit was known as “Kill Devil”; being given this name for its strong effects but unpleasant taste.
However, as these spirits became more popular, people started to pay this infamous liquid more attention. By mixing it with sugar, limes and other tropical fruit; people did anything they could to help conceal the strong taste. Little did they know that they were creating the first rum cocktails.
As the spirit grew in popularity, it gained the name “Rumbullion/ Rumbstion” meaning mayhem or violence and distress – most likely named after its effect on people who drank it. The name was eventually shortened to its more popular name, Rum.
The Beginning of the Rum Decline
As rum took the Caribbean islands by storm it quickly made its way to New England, where it had a new use. Not only was it being used as an alcoholic drink, but rum also kept colonists warm during the harsh winters, making them less reliant on the European import of alcohol and similar goods.
Seeing the popularity of this new drink, towns such as Salem, Boston and Newport became distillation epicentres, where imported molasses was fermented and made into rum. There were over 100 distilleries by the mid-17th century.
Around the same time, the British navy adopted rum as their drink of choice. This was driven by the capture of Jamaica and Spanish rum distilleries, providing the English with their own supply of sugarcane.
Soldiers who were discharged from service or revolted against their ships, leading to a rise in pirates, since they had a better lifestyle to many and were seen as “free”. With rum’s popularity and increasing numbers in many ships that frequented the Caribbean, their association with rum grew. They could sell the rum for a good amount of gold but more often than not it would find its way into a wooden cup.
The Rising Demand For Sugar
As time went on, sugar became in high demand in Europe, and to meet this demand, farmers in the Caribbean required more workers to help with the labour of sugar cane plantation. These men and women came from Africa and were usually bought for a variety of resources coming from Europe, placing rum at the centre of the Atlantic slave trade.
This wasn’t all, tensions were rising between the ‘New World’ (Americas) and England, leading to the American Revolution during the period of 1775 and 1783.
After British Surrender in 1781, the Americas found themselves low in molasses due to the disruption of shipments during the war. At the same time, Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived with expert knowledge of growing grains (especially those that would grow well in middle-America).
Grain spirits such as whiskey and beer were more affordable and easier to produce, so they quickly took over rum’s popularity and prevalence in the Americas
So, now you know the history, let’s get down to the FAQs about Rum!
What is Rum?
Simply put - rum is a spirit made from fermenting and distilling molasses, a product created during the process of refining sugar. The clear liquid is later added to an oak barrel and left to age.
What are the different types of Rum?
There are 3 different variations of rum. What makes them different is how long they are left to age and what kind of barrel they are kept in. Different types of barrels give the original clear liquid a darkened tint.
Dark Rum: These rums are aged the longest and, as the name implies, these rums are dark in colour due to the charred barrels used in the ageing process. This gives the rum a rich flavour, adding hints of spices to a strong caramel overtone.
Gold Rums: These rums are aged in a wooden barrel, giving them a slightly golden brownish colour. These tend to be slightly lighter and easier to drink than dark rums but are still slightly stronger on the pallet than light rums.
Light Rums: These rums have little flavour and are mostly sweet; they are not aged for long and thus cannot develop a complex taste. They can sometimes also be filtered after ageing, causing them to lose their colour and taste.
Flavoured Rums: These rums are infused with fruits after fermentation. Popular flavours include banana, coconut, mango and orange.
Spiced Rums: These rums obtain their flavours by adding more spices such as cinnamon, rosemary, cardamom and even caramel to the mix.
Where do I start and which is the one for me?
We recommend starting off with something light. Clear/light rums aren’t as strong in flavour and are a great addition to any cocktail. Once you’ve acquired the taste for the drink you can try cocktails with darker rums and slowly make your way into drinking them neat (by itself) or on the rocks (with ice). Make sure to explore golden rums to get a feel for something slightly stronger while you’re getting used to the taste.
Where can I buy good rum?
You’re in luck! We have an amazing selection of rum and rum cocktail gifts in our collection. Check them out on our site.
- Rum was so valuable in the 18th century it used to be used as a form of currency.
- In the 1800s rum was used as shampoo to clean the hair. If that wasn't weird enough, many thought it was a good way of preventing hair loss!
- Some other names Rum has acquired throughout the decades are: Demon Water, Navy Neaters, Barbados Water, Grog and Pirates Drink.