Rum’s the Word

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017

As the holidays approach, our thoughts turn to rum. At least mine do, and if yours don’t, I suggest you rethink how you’ve structured your life.

Rum fraternizes well with eggnog and party punches, and makes a welcome holiday gift. Interestingly, rum also happens to be the spirit of summer — lighter, brighter variations of it go into beach drinks with little umbrellas, and swizzles and Collinses. But rum is perfectly fine for sipping in the dusky winter and the blushing spring too. As a writer for Fortune magazine put it in 1933, “Rum makes a fine hot drink, a fine cold drink, and is not so bad from the neck of a bottle.”

Rum, in short, is the ultimate shape-shifter. And as you reach for that second cup of punch, I’d encourage you to pause briefly to consider how rum — not bourbon, not rye — is in so many ways the spirit of America. Not only in its endless versatility, but in how it has played momentous roles in our political and cultural past. Rum was created in the New World, for the New World, by the New World. It is America in a glass.

Rum, as you may know, is a byproduct of sugar processing. Sugar making produces molasses, and molasses — when fermented and distilled — produces rum.

So rum was basically the younger sibling of the sugar industry. As the island colonies of the West Indies became sugar kingdoms in the mid-1600s, rum was there — sales of rum and molasses provided enough capital to keep plantations running, making sugar sales pure profit. Which also means that rum is deeply connected to an unfortunate part of that boom: the slave trade. Without captive labor bought and sold, sugar would not have prospered as it did, and rum would likely have been a minor actor. As with the history of cotton, it’s not a bright nor particularly noble part of the New World’s history, but it’s an indelible part of it, and a bit of it is also in every glass. Any effort to gloss over that fact would be dishonest.

Once established on the islands, rum proved too footloose to remain confined to West Indian grog shops, and so it made its way to England’s sister colonies to the north. As all arable island land was pretty much given over to sugar production, most sustenance had to be shipped from the mainland — dried cod, salt pork, grains. In the empty holds of the return ships, rum sailed north, and demand surged. Rum proved to be the original energy drink in a calorie-starved environment; it offered instant warmth and pep to winter woodcutters and Grand Banks fishermen alike.

Rum from the islands emerged as one of the first colonial luxuries. It offered a welcome alternative to rustic hard cider and beer, which most every British and French colonist knew how to make. Rum initially even bore the stamp of approval of the clergy. “Drink is in itself a creature of God,” wrote Puritan minister Increase Mather in 1673, “and to be received with thankfulness.”

The colonies soon evolved into a sodden Republic of Rum, leaving beer and cider behind. Rum was enjoyed in growing numbers of taverns, which led to a power shift, with publican topping preacher. The pulpit had long been the broadcast network of the Colonial Era — information flowed from those stentorian voices above. But with the rise of the tavern emerged a sort of colonial proto-internet. Tavern-goers gathered and swapped information freely — on taxation, on politics and, of course, on how to drink rum.

In colonial taverns rum was drunk by the dram, naturally. But primitive production techniques (there was no scientific way to even measure alcohol content of a spirit until the 19th century) created a powerful brew, and drinkers had to seek ways to mask or improve the taste of their tipple. The modern cocktail culture has a reputation for adding everything that ever grew or moved into a glass, but the colonists arguably had them beat.

While imports like pineapples, limes and lemons were generally available at coastal ports, inland drinkers of the time proved especially adept at employing whatever they had at hand. Most early Americans lived a scrappy, hand-to-mouth existence, and those who wanted to drink had to exercise creativity. Consider these lines from a song dating to the 18th century:

Oh we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, of parsnips, of walnut-tree chips.

Swedish clergyman and missionary Israel Acrelius, who traveled widely in the colonies in the years preceding the American Revolution, mentioned in his journals some 18 different rum drinks he’d observed drunk in the colonies. These included a drink made with rum, milk, sugar and nutmeg, which was regarded as a refreshing summer drink. He also noted it was “good for dysentery and loose bowels.”

Rum didn’t remain an exotic import for long — it soon served as the basis of a booming manufacturing industry in the northern colonies. Enterprising sorts figured out that they could import cheap molasses, run it through a still, and pocket the added value. Prior to the Revolution, rum was the second most important industry in the colonies, after shipbuilding. By the mid-18th century, the colonies had at least 160 rum distilleries, possibly many more that went unrecorded.

The surge in rum production didn’t escape the attention of the British Crown. The colonies were making and trading a product that had no benefit for the mother country, and they were often obtaining their molasses — illegally — from rival French island colonies.

This impudence would not stand. England passed the Molasses Act of 1733, hoping to end the trade of this raw material among the colonies. The act, of course, wasn’t targeted at baked beans and brown bread. It was aimed squarely at rum.

The British molasses decree, in turn, performed a bit of political magic. Out of 13 disparate, often squabbling colonies, the act helped forge a unified republic. It brought together an assemblage of folks with varied interests who learned how to work together to achieve a goal. And the upstart colonists prevailed — the act was repealed. This resistance served, in effect, as a trial run for more famous rebellions to come, especially when the Crown imposed taxes on tea and paper. Irked colonists didn’t overthrow the old order solely because of rum, but it taught them how it could be done, which they used to impressive effect three decades later.

In one of history’s larger, less noticed ironies, the American Revolution — fueled in large part by rum — helped doom the spirit. Trade with the southern island colonies became difficult, owing to a more complex geopolitical map. And the haste of the newly minted Americans to flood through the Cumberland Gap and over the Appalachians had at least one unanticipated consequence: It opened up lands ideal for growing barley, rye and corn, all of which were economically converted to whiskey, and shipped east — often through the port of New Orleans.

Within a generation of the American Revolution, the Republic of Rum was fading from prominence. A new Kingdom of Whiskey was arising to take its place.

But that’s another story.

About the Author

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, available wherever fine books are sold.