Y’arr! Ahoy me hearties, and this be another installment of the Booze Nerd. This month we sample the finest cup in all of the seven seas!
Okay, I’ll stop. But you might have guessed already that this month’s post is all about the favorite drink of pirates everywhere–rum.
A Rotten Sweet Tooth
The history of rum is inextricably linked with the colonization of the so-called “New World” and the lore of pirates and sailors during the age of sail. Derived from what was once the world’s most valuable cash crop–sugar cane–rum fueled commerce and revolutions, and was a crucial component of the terrible slave trade.
Sugar cane probably originated on the island of Papua New Guinea and spread throughout the eastern world, reaching China, India, and later the Middle East. Eventually the Spanish and the Portuguese began to cultivate it as well. It was first brought to the Americas by Columbus himself, who found the shores of Hispaniola to be fertile soil. When the colonists gave up on finding gold, they turned to agriculture, and soon refined sugar became one of the world’s single most valuable exports.
Europe quickly became addicted to the white stuff, and the plantations couldn’t keep up with demand. So the colonial powers betrayed their Enlightenment principles and turned to the cheapest source of labor they could find–Africa.
Rum was a vital currency in this despicable economy. Traders’ ships departed from New England loaded with rum, which they would use to buy slaves in Africa. They would then sell the slaves for sugar and molasses in the Caribbean, and then sell these raw ingredients in New England, where much of the rum was first distilled. The terrible “triangle trade” was one of the principle engines of commerce of the eighteenth century.
The Original Sugary Drink
When sugar cane is refined, it leaves behind a thick, black, syrupy residue the Spanish called melazzes (from the word miel which means
“honey”). Molasses contains yeast left over from the pulped sugar cane, and when left long enough, it will ferment on its own.
This sludgy by-product was considered garbage at first, but someone (most likely the plantation slaves themselves) eventually discovered that distilling molasses produced a potent, if only quasi-drinkable spirit.
Sugar cane had been distilled before, notably in India and China where it was often mixed with rice wine and called brum or arrack. Even so, rum is a distinctly New World product and has ever since remained tangled with the lore of the Caribbean.
Rum was first called “Kill-Devil,” likely for its reputation as a potent, raw spirit. There are many theories about the origin of the name we now know it by, but it probably derived from the British slang “Rumbustion” or “Rumbullion,”–rough or rowdy–which is a good way to describe the state of those who’d tipped back a few cups of the stuff.
The British Navy became quite enamored of rum as a replacement for the beer usually carried aboard ship. While beer spoils after a few months at sea, rum does not. Spiked with a little lime juice as a remedy for scurvy, the drink grew so popular that British sailors everywhere became known as “Limeys.” You also have the earliest origins of one of the world’s best darn cocktails, the Dark & Stormy.
Ever since, rum has been pretty much regarded as the drink of sailors everywhere. The British Navy provided it as a daily ration (the “tot”) for its sailors until as late as 1970! An extra tot (given with the order to “splice the mainbrace”) was awarded to sailors as a sort of hazard pay for dangerous duties. Even in those boisterous days of sail, the Admiralty recognized the dangers of full-strength rum and cut it with water or beer, and thus “grog” was born.
You say you wanna Revolution?
Rum also became very popular with the gentry and nobility as a principle ingredient in punches, especially in the Colonies. French brandy remained expensive to import, but rum was cheap and plentiful. The King of England naturally enjoyed huge profits from the rum trade, and he didn’t take it kindly when the upstart American colonies started buying their rum from the cheaper French purveyors. He levied two Molasses Taxes, one in 1733 and the other in 1765. Forget the Boston Tea Party. It was these taxes on cheap booze that first got the Colonies riled and planted the seeds for Revolution.
While rum played an important part in the emerging American nation (Washington reputedly swayed voters with promises of free rum punch), the War made rum scarcer, what with naval blockades and warships everywhere. So the new country turned to inland sources of alcohol and began to distill their own hooch from things like rye, barley, and wheat. Americans developed a taste for whiskey and bourbon, and rum was forgotten. Europe’s tastes returned to brandies and gin, and while the demand for sugar remained high, rum once again became the drink of the rowdy sailors and the poor.
Drinks fall in and out of fashion all the time, though, and rum began to make a big comeback in the late 1800s. Americans renewed their interest in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American war, and personages no less than Theodore Roosevelt extolled the virtues of new drinks like the daiquiri, the Cubre Libre and the refreshing mojito.
Rum really took off again post-World War II. American sailors returning from posts in the Caribbean had a thirst for the drink unmatched perhaps since Colonial times. The proliferation of tiki culture in the 1950s and ’60s cemented rum once again in the popular imagination.
…And a Bottle of Rum
Traditionally, all rum was dark and molasses-y until better methods of distillation produced clearer, “purer” rums. Today, there are literally hundreds of regional varieties produced by several distilleries.
In truth, I still have a lot to learn about choosing a rum myself, but I can offer you some basic guidance in choosing one for yourself next time you head to the store. Of course, there are also some high-quality “sipping rums” meant to be enjoyed like you would a scotch or fine cognac rather than in mixed drinks.
Light Rum: Usually clear, with a very delicate flavor, light rum is designed to be mixed rather than consumed straight. Good in mojitos.
Gold or Amber Rum: A somewhat more flavorful variety of rum, usually aged for a short time in charred oak (often Bourbon casks). The flavor is definitely more complex than that of a light rum.
Dark Rum: Closer in nature to the rums of old, dark rum has a heavy molasses character and hints of spice. Dark rum is aged much longer and is often drunk neat or with a little water or ice. That said, some of my favorite cocktails are made with dark rum, which adds a full, rich flavor to any mixed drink.
Speaking of rich, full flavors, sometimes you’ll see the term “hogo” used describe the flavor of certain dark, heavy rums. This comes from the French haut-goût and essentially means “unpleasant smell.” Remember what I said about rum’s origins as a potent Kill-Devil brew? Don’t be afraid though. When you’re ready, I encourage you to try some rum with a strong “hogo,” because the powerful aroma means complex flavors and a savor on the palate.
Of course, there are many more varieties of rum than I could possibly list here. Of particular note are the rhum agricoles which originate in the French colonies and are distilled from the sugar cane juice, not from molasses. Some premium rums meant to be enjoyed like you would a scotch or cognac and not necessarily mixed in a cocktail. Most of my experience with rum has been in mixed drinks. Here are a few of my favorites.
One of the signature rum drinks of our time, wildly popular highball originating in Cuba. I recommend using real sugar for muddling the
mint leaves instead of simple syrup.
Muddle in a mixing glass:
- 8-10 mint leaves
- 4 lime wedges
- 1/3 oz sugar
- 2 oz light rum
In my opinion, possibly one of the best summertime cocktails, period. The rum is the perfect foil for the peppery ginger beer. This recipe calls for precise measurements, but depending on my mood, I’ll adjust the proportions of rum to ginger beer.
- 2 oz dark rum
- 3 oz ginger beer
Punches were popular during the age of sail, you might say they were the proto-cocktail. They deserve their own Booze Nerd post sometime, but here’s a good place to start your punch adventures.
- 2 oz dark rum
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1/2 oz lemon juice
- 1 oz orange juice
- 2 oz grapefruit juice
- Angostura bitters (to taste)
- Peychaud bitters (to taste)