Friday, February 17, 2012

Rum: A Brief History & Trivia

"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
--Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island

When people visit a Chinese restaurant, they might choose to drink a cocktail like a Mai Tai, Scorpion Bowl, or Zombie. These are all very popular drinks, and in addition, are all rum based. Rum, which was invented over 460 years ago, has a rich, vibrant and controversial history, especially in New England. The U.S. is now seeing a renaissance of small, local rum distilleries and I recently visited two in Ipswich, which I shall profile in the near future.

You will find here a brief history of rum, especially during colonial times and in New England, as well as some rum trivia. Some of the early history of rum remains vague, due to a lack of primary sources, thus some of the information I present may be estimates and approximations. I am also not going to delve much into the more controversial aspects of the rum trade, its strong connection to the abhorrent practice of slavery. That is deserving of its own post.  

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar and rum?
--William Cowper

It all begins with sugar...

By 1500, Madeira, a Portugeuse archipelago, became the largest exporter of sugar in the world. A young Christopher Columbus received training in the Madeira sugar trade and that experience would spark an idea when Columbus eventually journeyed to the Caribbean. During his first journey, as he pondered ways to make money from his discovery, Columbus realized that the Caribbean islands would be an excellent spot to grow sugarcane. Thus, on his second voyage, in 1493, he allegedly brought sugarcane with him to plant in the Caribbean. There is a question though whether the sugarcane died on route and that later explorers were actually the first to plant sugarcane in the Caribbean.

During the mid-1500s, Portugal, which already had expertise from their Madeira efforts, began planting sugarcane farms in Brazil, and soon after started importing slaves from Africa to work on these farms. It did not take long for people to start fermenting sugarcane juice to make alcohol, which became known as cachaça. Cachaça is kind of the precursor to rum, and sometimes is even called a rum, though many consider it its own unique alcohol.

The English landed on the island of Barbados in 1627, and tried to grow tobacco but quickly learned that the crop would not grow well there. They decided to plant sugarcane instead, acquiring the sugarcane, equipment and necessary training from the Portuguese in Brazil. In addition, they also imported slaves from Africa to work on the farms, just like it had been done in Brazil. In time, Barbados would even come to dominate the sugar trade.

"All roads lead to rum."
--W.C. Fields

When sugarcane is processed into sugar, one of the byproducts is a sludgy and sticky dark residue known as molasses, which derives from the Portuguese word melaço. On average, you might derive one pound of molasses for every two pounds of sugar. Initially, as it was considered to be a waste product, it would be fed to cows, pigs and slaves or used as fertilizer. But, the British on Barbados eventually decided to try to ferment it, thus producing the first rum. Rum is a unique spirit in that it is created from the byproducts of the processing of a plant, rather than directly from the plant itself. Vodka, whiskey, tequila and most other alcohols are created from the plants themselves, such as grains, rice or potatoes.

Though rum was produced before this date, the first known mention of rum is in 1651 in Barbados where it was referred to as "rumbullion" or "kill-devil."  "Rumbullion" is allegedly British slang for "an uproar, a brawl or a violent commotion." Most sources claim that "rumbullion" is the origin of the word "rum," and it seems to be a logical choice, but there are several other competing theories of the term's origin. We may never know the truth.

"Rum, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers."
--Ambrose Bierce

The popularity of rum seemed to explode, and rum distilleries started opening throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. In 1664, the first rum distillery in the British colonies of North America opened on what is now known as Staten Island. Three years later, a rum distillery opened in Boston, Massachusetts. Rum production soon became early Colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry. In part, New England was an ideal environment because of their existing expertise in  metalworking and cooperage skills as well as the existence of abundant lumber.

Rum production eventually became an element of the infamous Triangular Trade, the trade of slaves, molasses and rum. As mentioned previously, sugarcane farms in Brazil and the Caribbean imported slaves from Africa to labor on their farms. This formed one leg of the Triangle. Molasses would then be sold to New England, which often purchased it with cod. Cod for molasses became a significant aspect of New England fisheries. This was the second leg of the Triangle and that molasses would be transformed into rum. For the final leg of the Triangle, the New England rum was transported to Africa, to trade for slaves. There were even rum distilleries in Newport that produced a stronger rum specifically to be used to purchase slaves.

As for quality, it was generally though that most American produced rum was inferior to that made in the Caribbean but it was much cheaper, making it more popular. It was also said to be lighter than Caribbean rum. For example, in 1740, a gallon of American rum might cost only 1 shilling and 8 pence while a Caribbean rum would sell for 2 shillings and 5 pence. American rum was inexpensive enough that almost anyone could afford to drink it.

"I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence."
--John Adams

Estimates of rum consumption in Colonial America are difficult to determine, but some historians have attempted to calculate it. Prior to the Revolutionary War, it was thought that rum consumption equated to every man, woman, and child drinking about 3 gallons of rum per year. During the 1770s, it was estimated that the average adult male drank about three pints of rum each week. Taverns were the primary place where people would obtain rum. Consider that in 1656, Massachusetts passed a law mandating that every town had to possess a tavern. In general, the poorer folk drank their rum neat while the wealthier folk preferred their rum in punch or other mixed drinks.

There are differing opinions on the number of rum distilleries in New England and specifically Massachusetts, during the Colonial period. One opinion states that in 1717, there were about 25 rum distilleries in Boston, and Massachusetts produced about 200,000 gallons of rum each year. Another opinion is that in 1738, Boston only had 8 rum distilleries, which increased to 63 by 1750. By other estimates, in 1770, there were over 140 rum distilleries in Colonial America, with 50 in Massachusetts. The country produced about 4.8 million gallons of rum each year, exporting about 600,000 gallons, but also imported another 3.78 million gallons.

Interestingly, in 1727, Connecticut banned the distillation of rum, because they thought it was causing molasses prices to be too high, as well as that they considered rum to be "unusually unwholesome." Fortunately, the ban only lasted six months due to the great demand for rum.

Medford, Massachusetts, became a hot spot for rum distillation, as well as considered one of the best places for quality domestic rum. The designation "Medford Rum" became very popular, and was considered indicative of quality. One of the famous producers of Medford Rum was Daniel Lawrence & Sons, which existed from 1715 to 1905.

"If you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel."
--Robert Louis Stevenson

After the Revolutionary War, rum eventually became replaced in popularity by whiskey, and there was then a boom in whiskey distilleries. Rum production continued to decrease over time and by the start of Prohibition, there were no longer any rum distilleries in New England. But in recent years, new rum distilleries have started to sprout up all across the country, including in New England.

For example, in Massachusetts, you will find rum distilleries such as Berkshire Mountain Distillers, Bully Boy, Ryan & WoodPrivateer Rum, and Turkey Shore Distilleries. In Maine, you will find Sweet Grass Farm Winery and Distillery while in Rhode Island there is the Newport Distilling Company

Raise a glass to this Rum Renaissance!

Some Rum Trivia:

--Some of the other names for rum include Barbados Water, Nelson's Blood, Demon Water, Grog, Red Eye, Pirate's Drink, Navy Neaters, and Splice the Main Brace.  
--From 1655 on, rum became the traditional drink, replacing beer, on Royal Navy ships in the Caribbean. Rum did not spoil on long journeys as did beer. The allotted daily ration was half pint, though that was cut in half in 1825 and then cut in half again in 1850.
--Benjamin Franklin's favorite rum was from Jamaica, and it also happened to be the most expensive rum.
--In Colonial Massachusetts, one suggested way to revive a drowning victim was to blow tobbaco smoke up their rectum (and there were machines which could do this) and bathe their chest with hot rum.
--In 1742, the Massachusetts General court banned the use of rum and wine during funerals, as it was thought funerals were getting too rowdy.
--In 18th century England, men would occasionally auction off their wives for rum. I couldn't find an average price, in rum, for a wife.
--In the 1800's, rum was considered excellent for cleaning hair.
--In the Caribbean, rum is sprinkled on the forehead of newborn babies.
--In Australia's early history, there wasn't enough hard currency in the country so they decided to use rum as money for a time.
--During World War I, some doctors prescribed rum for gas poisoning and shell shock
--At the end of World War I, when the Spanish flu was killing many, France believed that rum was both a cure as well as preventative.
--In 1960, on the evening that John F. Kennedy was elected President of the U.S., he drank daiquiris, a rum-based cocktail.

If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivation of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.
--Benjamin Franklin


Jason Phelps said...

Great stuff! Having gotten up to speed on this in the last few years I was as surprised as most will be to know just how much rum flowed around New England.

Cheers to more people picking up and making a piece of history!


Jason said...

My favorite bit of rum trivia came from an entry in Blackbeard's journal. Apparently he feared a mutiny on one occasion his crew ran out of rum; it was only averted when they found a ship to plunder that had some on board. Who knows how history might've changed...