A new book examines the troubled past and sweeter present of one of our favorite spirits.
Like any other spirit, rum has inspired culture far beyond the cocktail world: from Don the Beachcomber-era tiki bars and Hemingway wannabes, to boozy spring break culture and Jimmy Buffett beach bums. It also has a fraught history mired in colonialism, slavery, economic oppression and organized crime. Rum, whether you know it or not, has shaped the United States as we know it today—and the Americas as a whole, flowing through the politics and cuisines of countries from Jamaica to Brazil. And it was part of the origin story of modern mixology, dating back to early rum punches and grogs.
In Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit, spirits writer Fred Minnick dives deep into the context and taxonomy of this island drink. He grounds recipes and flavor notes with research on the political, economic and social forces that have shaped the role of rum in today's world. Here are some of his dispatches, covering many eras of our global love affair with rum:
The use of sugarcane was first perfected in the Arab world.
"Perhaps the most notable early discovery of sugarcane comes from the expeditions of Alexander the Great, whose unprecedented military campaign took troops through Asia and Africa," but "it wasn’t really until the Persians and Arabs created and perfected the refining of sugar in the seventh century that sugarcane’s origins and benefits were studied more thoroughly. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Arabs introduced sugar to the Mediterranean region of Europe."
Empires were built on sugarcane—some were practically founded on it.
"The majority of the sugarcane was in Arab territories, where slaves were forced to cultivate cane for distribution throughout Europe. But the Portuguese explored the coast of Africa and discovered the Madeira Islands, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands in the early fifteenth century. Sugarcane cultivation was possible here, and the Portuguese could produce sugar without Arab control." This was the beginning of a violent colonial legacy: "The Portuguese enslaved Africans to conduct labor at the eighty sugar mills and two hundred plantations in Madeira, which became the world’s biggest sugar exporter by 1500."
The history of rum is a history of slavery in the Americas.
The sugarcane industry was made possible by slavery—writes Minnick, "slaves planted the sugarcane, fertilized it, cut stalks, and transported it to a mill, where the cane was crushed and juice extracted. They strained the juice and placed it in boiling pots until the sugar was crystallized. Slaves also seined the boiling matter to collect the molasses—the syrupy byproduct from making sugar." Enslaved people may have even developed the rum-making process: "Molasses could be sold and used as a sweetener too, but the fermented molasses was enjoyed by the slaves and by poor whites. At some point, somebody distilled this fermented molasses, and rum was born."
In our country’s infancy, rum was the drink of choice.
"Rum was the trending spirit in the 1700s," writes Minnick. "American colonists loved rum, consuming 3.7 gallons a year per person, and accepted the spirit as gifts from its politicians. When running for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, George Washington supplied voters with 28 gallons of rum and 50 gallons of rum punch.” Rum was everywhere: “Around 1765, American distilled some 4.8 million gallons of rum along the East Coast, making it more available than whiskey in major cities such as Boston."
Sailors really did love it.
Primary sources suggest rum has been connected to the pirate stereotype since the 17th century. But it was also everpresent on more legal sailing vessels. "Starting in 1731, the British Royal Navy received a daily pint of Jamaican rum for each man and a half. The sailor rum ration decreased over time, but the tradition lasted until the 1970s." It was actually seen as a necessary item to have on board: "In 1762, in An Essay on the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen, in the Royal Navy, Dr. James Lind wrote that rum ‘proves the best and quickest restorative which a Sailor can have at Sea.’ Lind suggested sailors consume the rum in a punch His recipe included fruits or fruit juice, vinegar-based shrubs, vegetable acid, cream of tartar, a half-pint of spirits, and a half pint of water."
Rum played a role in a nascent American Revolution.
After the Seven Years’ War, "King George III demanded American colonists help pay for the war debts. As part of the increased taxations upon the American colonies, many of whom were loyal British subjects, the Crown passed the Sugar Act of 1764, which forbade colonies from importing rum." In protest, some activists in the states staged a protest that has since been overshadowed by a similar one involving tea. Writes Minnick, "boats were frequently impounded for harboring smuggled molasses and rum. In 1771, the Portsmouth Molasses Party boarded the ship Resolution to save its one hundred hogsheads of smuggled molasses, an action that foreshadowed the Boston Tea Party two years later."
The United States could have been a rum nation. Instead, we chose whiskey.
"As a country, the United States chose to encourage the development of whiskey over rum, perhaps to discourage duties being sent to Great Britain and to ameliorate farmer revenue sources for grains." Beginning in the early 19th century, "the Americas were systematically creating an economic disadvantage for rum distillers and importers. Consumers paid upward of 300 percent more for rum than whiskey."
The Prohibition era also saw the rise of cocktail culture, with rum at the center.
When drinking was illegal, drinking culture continued to flourish: "password-protected speakeasies also kept rum’s taste and mixability alive, serving rum punches, flips, sours—and new cocktails, such as the El Presidente." Minnick writes that "rum was so popular in the speakeasy that true rum was hard to come by. Many illegal bars purchased spirits that the seller called rum, but which were actually poison liquor, likely made in somebody’s basement, bathtub, or in the woods under cover of night."
Even decades after Prohibition, rum is still political.
In the 20th century, Minnick argues that "rum’s biggest story was Bacardi’s exile from Cuba when Fidel Castro confiscated the country’s rum distilleries in 1960. The family set up facilities in Puerto Rico (where it’s now headquartered), Mexico, Brazil, the Bahamas, and the Canary Islands, earning far more than would have been possible under Castro’s regime had he allowed them to stay.” In 2008, “the US government subsidized the world’s largest spirits company, Diageo, to open the Captain Morgan distillery on the United States Virgin Islands. Diageo will receive nearly $3 billion over thirty years, including a $165 million distillery and payments to keep the cost of molasses low."
Enjoy your newfound knowledge with this cocktail from an earlier time:
An early drink, as described by George J. Kappeler (author of Modern American Drinks, 1895).
Jamaica Rum Punch
Fill a mixing glass half-full of fine ice, add 1 tablespoon of fine sugar, a little water, the juice of half a lemon, one jigger of Jamaican rum and one jigger of Irish whiskey; mix well, strain into a fancy bar-glass, trim with fruit, or leave on ice, and serve with straws.
Excerpts reprinted with permission from Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit by Fred Minnick, $11.50 on amazon.