March 21, 2023

Ye Olde Demon…

One drink I haven’t touched on much in my writing this column is the spirit, rum. That’s mostly because I don’t drink much hard liquor. I do enjoy a well-made spirit from time to time though, and when it comes to my tastes, my preferences include whiskies, tequilas and nice dark rums.

Rum tends to be one of the more neglected spirits in the average person’s bar repertoire, as it gets relegated to cheap cocktails and fruity tooty drinks. Rum has a storied history though with influence around the globe. The drink has quietly earned a place amongst the world’s top premium spirits the last several years thanks to a handful of craftsmen committed to making a quality beverage.

So let’s delve into the history of a drink that excites imaginations, goes hand in hand with tales of adventure, and just plain tastes good when done well, ye olde demon rum.

The origins of rum are as muddled as the drink itself. Precursors to the modern rum date back to antiquity, and fermented sugarcane beverages likely first occurred in India or China. Marco Polo accounted in his voyages of drinking a “very good wine of sugar” in the 14th century around modern day Iran. What people most associate as rum developed in the sugarcane colonies of the Caribbean during the 17th century, when slaves discovered that they could ferment the molasses byproduct of sugarcane processing. Like most fermented beverages at the time, it wasn’t long before someone ran it through a still to produce liquor.

The first major market for rum was Colonial America. Rum was both imported as a drink and distilled locally from the molasses shipped in trade. Rum distillation was the largest industry in New England actually for a period of time, thanks to the technical skill of the colonists and the availability of lumber for cooperage. The colonies produced a lighter style somewhat similar to a whisky. It was prized as a commodity, and Rhode Island rum was even accepted as a form of currency in Europe for a time along with gold.

The disruption of the rum trade by the Sugar Act of 1764 is considered one of the aggravating reasons leading to the American Revolution. Rum was often used in political payments and bribes in early American politics, and even George Washington was known to celebrate political wins with a barrel or two. Rum would remain a popular drink in the U.S. until restrictions from the British Caribbean and the development of the American whisky industry caused its popularity to fade into the background.

I, of course, can’t mention the word rum without making reference to pirates. The association formed thanks to the British navy switching its daily rations (or tot) of liquor from brandy to rum in the mid 1600’s after they captured the island of Jamaica and secured a domestically owned supply. The rum was frequently watered down and mixed with lime juice to form the drink grog. Rum ventured into piracy as the rum trade was lucrative business, and there was no shortage of pirates or old British privateers in the Caribbean to take advantage of that fact. The association only became stronger as the seminal image of the modern day pirate lends itself to the novel Treasure Island, where rum is frequently consumed.

Rum also played a large role in the early colonization of Australia. This was mostly due to the fact that the colony lacked sufficient coinage for currency during its early formation, so rum became a substitute form of payment. It didn’t hurt either that early colonial Australia was a miserable place, and that drinking your payment of rum could help you forget about the fact you were living there.

Despite the British trying to clamp down on rum trading in Australia, it proved to be far too lucrative a business for the Englishmen living in India who were supplying the demand. When William Bligh attempted to outlaw the use of rum as a form of exchange in the colony, he was overthrown in a rebellion from the New South Wales Corp that charged the Government House with fixed bayonets. The rebellion wasn’t quashed until four years later with the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

Despite its reputation as a drink of evil, modern day rum has earned its rightful place as one of the core liquors. It’s a versatile drink for cocktails, or simply sipped neat when aged like other fine spirits. So find your inner pirate and enjoy a swill (responsibly of course).


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