The History Of Rum

History of RumThe history of the alcoholic beverage Rum closely parallels that of sugar.  Sugar, is a naturally occurring carbohydrate occurring in a variety of plants can be dried to a crystalline substance that easily dissolves in water and can be fermented to produce rum.  One plant high in sugar is sugar cane, a thick, tall grass originating in the present day East Indies and Indonesia.  The Chinese traders spread the plant to Asia and then to India.  In turn, it was brought to the Middle East and North Africa by the Arabs.  There, during the Crusades of the 11th century, it came to the attention of the Europeans but was used for sweetening and not for rum.

As Portuguese and Spanish explorers ventured into the Atlantic, they brought sugar cane plants to the Canary Islands and the Azore Islands, but there was no rum.  In 1493, as Christopher Columbus sailed on his second voyage to the Americas, he picked up cuttings from the cane plants in the canaries and transported them to Hispaniola, a Caribbean Island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  Portuguese explorers soon brought cuttings to Brazil.  Rum was still not the main concern.

The climate of the Caribbean proved to be ideal for the cultivation of sugar cane, and production of sugar was spread quickly around these islands.  Europe had an insatiable demand for sugar, leading to the establishment of many sugar cane plantations and sugar mills in the various colonies of the English, French, Spanish Portuguese and Dutch.  These mills were used to crush the harvested cane in order to extract the juice.  They then boiled the juice to create crystallized sugar.  Juice remaining after the crystallization of the sugar was called melazas, from the Spanish word for honey, and the English transliterated the term to molasses, eventually used to produce rum.

Molasses, a sticky syrup used to produce rum, continues to contain a large amount of sugar.  The operators of the sugar mills noticed that if molasses left in the warmth of the sun it would ferment and could be distilled into rum.  Within half a century, the industrious sugar mill operators learned this former waste product could be distilled into a spirit, rum.  In the colonies of the English, the beverage that was soon to be known as Rum was called Kill Devil, from the ability to produce a nasty rum hangover or from its use for medicinal purposes or rumbullion from uncertain origins.  Rumbullion over the years was shortened to the modern word rum.  In France rum is rendered rhum and in Spain rum is ron.

Those living in the tropics found Rum useful as a cure-all for the aches and pains they suffered.  Because rum was plentiful, plantation owners often sold rum, at a discounted price, to the naval ships stationed in the Caribbean to encourage them to remain present in the local waters, as this served to discourage marauding pirates.  The British Royal Navy provided aration of rum for sailors of a half-pint of Rum in the 1730s.  Subsequently, the rum ration was modified to grog, 160 proof rum mixed 50/50 with of water.  The rum ration continued among British sailors until 1969.

The rum connection with the navy brought Rum to the rest of the world.  By the late 17th century, there was a thriving export traded.  In England, rum was mixed into punches and soon became more popular than gin for the 18th century.  It also found its way to North America and became popular there as well.  In trade for rum with North America, the rum producing Caribbean islands receive lumber and dried cod, which remains a culinary staple in the Caribbean.  Soon, this changed so the islands were exporting molasses to New England distilleries.  This allows the plantations to go around the parliament’s laws that protected British distillers by forbidding the colonies from making direct trade in spirits.  At best, however, the rum law was honored in breech.

Shipping molasses for the manufacture of Rum in New England rum distilleries became a part of the rum slavery triangle.  Molasses was shipped to New England where Rum was manufactured.  The Rum was then shipped to West African ports in trade for slaves.  The final leg of the rum slave triangle involved the shipment of slaves to the Caribbean and South America.  The sugar plantations put them to work in farming sugar cane for producing more rum.

With the American Revolution, there was a disruption of trade of rum and North American whiskey production lead to the slow decline of rum as the national tipple of the Americans.

During the 19th century, rum production in the USA slowly decreased, and the last of the New England rum distilleries closed with the enactment of Prohibition in 1920.  Although called rum runners during Prohibition, the smugglers were responsible for bringing whiskey into the USA.  As the Europeans began to extract sugar from beets instead of cane, the amount of molasses produced for rum production also decreased thus further impacting the production of rum.  For the most part, rum was only produced in countries where sugar cane grew.

Today, Rum has grown more popular, primarily due to the spread of air conditioning and tourism growth on the rum producing islands.  In the last half of the 20th century large numbers migrated to the warm weather areas where Rum remained a dominate spirit primarily due to modern air conditioning.  In addition, air conditioned hotels lead to an increase in the number of tourists from North America and Europe in regions where rum remained popular, leading to an increase in the popularity of mixed drinks based on rum.  Today, white rum provides serious competition for Vodka in several distinctively non-tropical rum markets.

Aged rum has also gained a new standing with consumers of single malt Scotch, Armagnacs, and a some Bourbons who are starting to appreciate the subtle complexities offered by these rums.  Guyana and Jamaica continue to offer pot still rum that is appealing to drinkers of Scotch whiskey, and the complex French rum of Guadeloupe and Martinique mirrors the flavors of the brandies from Cognac and Armagnac.

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