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History of rum

ship

The history of rum began in the Caribbean islands during the time of Columbus. In 1493, on their second journey to the Caribbean, the crew of Christopher Columbus brought with them a plant that was to revolutionize the economy of the whole region and the drinking culture of the whole world.

The sugar cane, which Columbus had acquired from the Canary Islands, flourished in the warm and humid Caribbean region. The settlers of the Caribbean Islands, especially in Barbados, soon noticed that of the leftovers from the sugar cane used for making sugar, molasses, it was possible to distil delicious alcoholic beverage. It is known that sugar cane had been used to produce distilled spirit before this time elsewhere in the world (especially by the natives of the island nowadays known as New Guinea), but it is in the Caribbean that the true history of rum begins.

In the beginning, the distilled spirit was not known as rum, and it had many other, some of them rather descriptive names, such as rumballion, which in the contemporary rural slang meant clamour or noise. Another name for the spirit was Kill Devil, which might have referred either to the harsh hangover resulting from drinking or the fact that the beverage was believed to have various generally healing effects. There were also several other names used for rum, but by 1672 the name rum seems to have become the standard and the first written sources with this name are from this period.

The settlers of the Caribbean Islands drank rum to heal various conditions and diseases common in tropical environment, as well as for general enjoyment, whereas the sugar plantation owners sold rum on discount prices to navy ships in order to get them to spend time near the islands give protection from pirates. In the 1730s, the British navy started the custom of each sailor receiving daily half a pint of 80% rum. Due to various intoxication related problems, the spirit was later diluted with about 50% of water. Also, because of the lack of sources of vitamin C, seamen often suffered from scurvy and thus lemon juice was often mixed with the sailors' diluted rum. This form of the drink acquired the name 'grog'. This tradition remained in the British navy until 1969, when it was finally abolished, to the dismay of many a seaman. One of the logical reason for the sailors’ fascination with rum was the fact that it could endure long voyages better than water or beer. Another, more realistic reason, is the fact that strong spirits and a slight intoxication was more or less the only way to make the long, uneventful voyages at sea somewhat bearable.

It is also believed that it was during those long journeys at sea that it was noticed that the taste of rum became better as it aged in the oak casks. It may, however, also been a simple discovery of the distilleries of the time, as it was certainly known at the time that other similar spirits required aging to reach their maturity.

English ships shipped rum from America to Britain, where it also became famous. In the 18th century, rum superseded gin as the most famous hard liquor in the Great Britain. In the same century, due to a new degree by the British parliament prohibiting settlements from dealing alcoholic beverages with each other, ships started to transport raw molasses from the Caribbean to the North American settlements where distilleries produced rum from it. The new law was evaded frequently and smuggling was common.

The shipping of molasses to the American settlements became a part of the famous slavery triangle. In the first part of the triangle, molasses were shipped to New England where rum was produced from it. The rum was then shipped to Western Africa where it was exchanged for slaves. In the last part of the triangle, the slaves were then brought to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean Islands and southern America.

Later, the demand for the sugar of sugar canes decreased in Europe, as a way of processing sugar from sugar beet was invented. This also caused a decrease in the rum production as the sugar cane plantations reduced their production or quit altogether and, therefore, there was less molasses available. The area of rum distribution was for a while restricted to the islands and other individual regions where it was produced.

Nowadays, the smooth differences of aged rums are again becoming famous among the admirers of single malt whiskeys, Armagnacs and other high quality beverages. The strong rums of Guyana and Jamaica are favoured especially among the whiskey enthusiasts, whereas the subtler rums of Martinique and Guadeloupe please the friends of French quality brandies. And there are those who simply prefer rum over any of the other spirits out there and take satisfaction from studying the differences between rums produced by different distilleries.