The History of Rum
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the history of one of the world’s favorite alcoholic drinks, Rum. It is a drink that has its origins in Asia, was named by the British, and at one point, was the most popular drink in what became the United States of America. However, its history is often very dark, with links to piracy and slavery.
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EAT MY GLOBE – SEASON 8
Kill Devil: THE HISTORY OF RUM
I recently swapped a sarcophagus for a bottle of rum.
Yes. They certainly gave me a rum for my mummy.
A rum. . .
Oh my gah. . .
A rum for my mummy, I love that. Oh. You think that’s a good one?
Hi everybody, I’m Simon Majumdar. And welcome to Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food. And, on today’s episode we are going to be diving into the rich and often dark history of one of my favorite drinks. That is a drink that is now made in dozens of countries around the world, as well as in some of the places that don’t readily come to mind. It’s a drink that has its origins in Asia, even if it is now more associated with Central and South America, and the Caribbean. A drink that owes so much of its dark history to slavery. It’s a drink that fortified both pirates and the sailors of the British Royal Navy until as recently as 1970. And, a drink that has now an estimated global net worth of over $16 billion annually, with a growth anticipated at nearly 7% per annum.
Yes folks, I think that I have given you enough clues. But, in case you were still wondering, on today’s Eat My Globe, we are going to be talking about the suitably rich and dark history of rum.
Okay, so let’s do what we always do here on Eat My Globe. Let’s get a useful definition of what it is we are going to talk about. And, later on, get a useful etymology of that name, rum. Which will give us a good starting point to as where we are going to begin our journey.
Now, to begin this journey, let’s look to one of the greatest of cocktail historians, David Wondrich and his new book, “The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails.” I do this, not only because it’s already an essential new book in my culinary library, but also because I have invited David to appear on next week’s episode of Eat My Globe, to talk about this spectacular book, and quite frankly, I am sucking up big style in advance.
In any event, David describes rum as,
“rum is a general term for any distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane (Saccharum Officinalis), whether it is from the juice of the cane, the sugar crystalized from it, or the byproducts of sugar making, including cane syrup (the juice boiled down almost to the point where the sugar in it crystalizes), skimmings (the impurity-rich froth skimmed off the juice as it boils down), or molasses (the concentrated, uncrystallizable syrup that drains off the sugar).”
Which is as good a definition as I think we can possibly arrive at. Thanks, David. See you next week.
What it immediately tells us is that the history of rum, begins with the history of sugar cane. Now, I’m not going to go into a long history of sugar in this episode, primarily as I have already done an episode of Eat My Globe on the subject fairly recently. So, if you would like to go and find out more, do go and check out that episode. But, I think a brief history taken to the point where sugar cane came to the Americas might be useful for putting rum into context.
Sugar cane – that Saccharum Officinalis mentioned in the definition – has its origins in New Guinea around 8,000 BCE. There, the tall grass of about 10-20 feet, was harvested, and primarily chewed on by the population, to extract the juice. About 70-75% of the contents of sugar cane is water, and about 13-15% is sucrose.
Its use was then spread across Asia by trade between countries such as China, the Philippines and India. One of the earliest references to a sugar mill can be found in Indian writings that date back to the year 100. In fact, the word, “sugar” comes from the Middle English, “sugre,” which came from the French, “sucre,” which came from the Italian, “zucchero,” which came from the Arabic, “sukkar,” which came from the Persian, “shakar,” and finally, the Sanskrit word, “śarkarā.”
It was not until the around 500 BCE do we begin to see sugar being refined by the Indians, possibly because the process would make sugar easier to consume, and easier to transport for trade. We also see sugar becoming known to the Persians around 510 BCE, when Emperor Darius I invaded northern India, and is said to have remarked on sugarcane as,
“the reed that gives honey without bees.”
I’m not sure if there is any evidence to this quote, although it has become part of the sugar story. However, it was definitely the Persians who developed a more sophisticated sugar refining technique, which they kept secret from everyone, until Arab invaders came to their territories in 642 CE. These Arab invaders took creations with sugar to a new level, creating treats that were suitable for aristocracy, such as marzipan by molding sugar with ground almonds, and making it part of their medical practice, where sugar was expected to have benefits.
It was here that the Europeans first began to encounter sugar. Before that, their only source of sweetness had come from honey. Crusaders from Europe bringing sugar with them back from the first crusades around 1099. Sugar was popular, but enormously expensive in Europe, once people encounter it particularly as the Venetians, who had been trading with the Arabic world for many years, and had developed almost a monopoly on its import into Europe. In early 14th century London, when adjusted to 2016 dollars, sugar was about $50 a pound.
As sugar became more popular, however, the European nations looked to grow it in Europe. Spain colonized the Canary Islands, which results in the enslaving of the local population and using them to work in the first sugar plantations. Unfortunately, although they do begin to ship sugar back to Spain in reasonable amounts, by the beginning of the 15th century, the islands were pretty much deforested, the population had been decimated, and the sugar supply was drying up.
It was at this point that we see the European nations begin to take sugar cane with them to the Americas to see if it could be grown there. This begins with the Portuguese, who brought sugar to Brazil, and the Spanish taking it to the island Christopher Columbus claimed earlier, Hispaniola – now Haiti and the Dominican Republic – on his second voyage in 1493.
Now, that was, as I said at the beginning, a pretty whirlwind trip through the early history of sugar, and if you want to hear more I really do recommend going and listening to the episode that I created on the often very dark history of sugar. However, I did want to at least take the story to where sugar had reached the Americas and the Caribbean with European colonists, as this will explain why a drink made from a plant that is not indigenous to these areas came to be.
Now, back to rum, or at least right now, some of the proto rums or other drinks that came out of refined sugar cane.
Arrack, according to David Wondrich, was a drink that was known to be distilled by the Delhi Sultanate at the beginning of the 14th century. It was made by distilling sugar cane with raw sugar and some spices once or twice in pot stills and soon became a popular drink associated with my father’s homeland of Bengal. I’d like to think that my forefathers drank Arrack, and that is where my love for rum and other distilled spirits originated.
Arrack became known as “Bengal Arrack” and then later as Bengal Rum. It was also used to form the basis of a rather fearsome sounding drink known as “Bouleponge” which consisted of Bengali arrack, sugar, and nutmeg with lemon juice and water. The name apparently comes from the German, “bowle,” and either the Persian word, “panj,” or the Hindi word, “pānch,” which means “five” for the five ingredients, and also mirrors the English pronunciation for “bowl of punch” – “bowl o’ punch.” So, essentially, it was a bowl with five ingredients.
In the 16th century, we see sugar plantations grow in the Americas – in Brazil and in the Caribbean. By the end of the 16th century, Brazil had become the largest sugar supplier to Europe, producing some 15,000 to 20,000 tons per year.
The amount of sugar now being refined meant that there was plenty of molasses produced too. Molasses being that very dark and sweet by product of the sugar industry that David Wondrich talked about earlier. Now, while much of it was sold as a product to be used as a sweetener, at some point the slaves of the plantations began to make beverages from the molasses. It was initially made just by fermentation, but then later by early forms of distillation.
The drink was not, as far as we can tell at this time, known as rum, but that does raise the question of how the drink we now know as “rum” – the one that David Wondrich was kind enough to supply a wonderful definition earlier – got its name.
The origin of the name, “rum,” has come under some debate. In the then-British Caribbean, the drink was known as “kill devil.” But by the mid-17th century, the name “rum,” which originated in Barbados, had become in regular use. There are those who think that the name came from the Latin name of the word for sugar, that is, “saccharum.” There are those who think that the name is an homage to a British Admiral in the Royal Navy known as “Old Rummy,” who prescribed rum to prevent scurvy. However, the view that most people take is that it comes from the British term, “rumbullion” or “rumbustion,” that were slang terms for “tumult” or “uproar” and there was a reference to the impact of this potent liquid on people who encountered it in pubs in the colonies. The name was mentioned by a “Giles Silvester” of Barbados in 1651, saying,
“The chiefe fudling they make in the Iland is Rumbullion, als Kill-Divill, and this is made of sugar cones distilled a hott hellish and terrible liquor.”
The name was soon shortened to “rum” in places where the British were in charge, such as Jamaica – which started its commercial production of rum with the opening of Mount Gay in 1703, and of the Appleton Estate in 1749 – and Trinidad, which also produced that cocktail essential, Angostura Bitters. And, as a quick aside, if you want to learn more about the history of Angostura Bitters, make sure to check out my conversation with author and legendary bartender, Sother Teague, on another episode of Eat My Globe.
Now, back to rum. The name “rum,” was changed to “ron” in countries where the Spanish held power, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, and “rhum” with an “h” in French territories such as Martinique.
So, these drinks called “rum,” “rhum” or “ron” were made from, again as David said in his introduction, from the molasses, the skimmings, and the wash that was left over after the first distillation, which was known as “dunder.”
Some of the sugar cane crop, when ready to be harvested, could first be burned to remove leaves. This seems strange, but the sugar cane is so full of water content that they won’t burn, but any predators, such as scorpions, will. The sugar cane must then be harvested in 24 hours after burning to stop any bacterial infection. Traditionally, this harvesting or “cutting” is done by hand with workers using machetes. The harvested cane is then cleaned, cut into smaller sizes and milled, allowing it to be processed.
From this, two types of rum are made. The “rum traditional” from the molasses, which is found in most areas. And, that which is made from the sugar cane juice which is called, “Rhum Agricole.” Traditionally, this type of rum appears from Martinique, and the name, “Rum Agricole,” dates back to the mid-1800s when that area had a crash on its refined sugar market, which led to the lack of sugar byproducts. Hence, thus, the use of “Agricultural Rum” or “Rhum Agricole.” It is now awarded an appellation of controlled origin or AOC by France.
Rhum Agricole is produced in a similar way to Brazilian Cachaca, but as David Wondrich describes it, Cachaca is
“much gentler than rhum agricole and much cleaner in flavor than most molasses rums.”
It is preferable to produce rum using a molasses with a minimum of 52% sugar. This is then mixed with water, and a cultured or naturally occurring yeast to create fermentation. The rum that is produced, depending on the level of flavor components or “congeners” becomes either “heavy” rum – with a lot of the congeners – or “light” rum – with fewer congeners.
According to the Difford’s Guide, for where I turned to a great deal of this distilling information, the “light” rums tend to come from the former Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Heavier rums come from the former French and British colonies such as Jamaica, Martinique and Barbados. The rums are then distilled either in a primarily alembic “pot” still or sometimes column “coffey” stills, in a way that will be very familiar to anyone who has listened to my episodes on gin and Scotch.
And, once out of the still the resulting liquid is put into oak barrels. Rums will arrive in the barrels a slight brownish in color and, like other dark spirits, such as Scotch, the barrel will not only be used for storage, but also to add color. And, in case you were interested, white rum is distilled in stainless steel barrels, and then the rum is charcoal filtered to make it that clear color that so many of us enjoy with our cocktails.
Before we go back to the story, let’s just take a quick break.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
Over a short period, by the mid-17th century, the production of rum in places such as Barbados had gone from being solely for the locals to being plentiful enough to trade with England’s North American colonies. And sugar planters began to see rum as an important addition to their revenues for sugar and molasses. It was also a useful product to barter with the North American colonies for essential equipment for plantation supplies.
The people in the American territories began to develop quite a liking for rum. So much so that by the time of the American Revolution, they were drinking nearly 3.7 gallons annually per person. In fact, even much earlier in 1699, author Edward Ward, declared rum as,
“the comforter of their souls, the preserver of their bodies, the remover of their cares, and the promoter of their mirth.”
That’s what I say every time I’m sipping rum too. The promoter of their mirth.
Early American colonists imported plenty o’ rum. They also drank plenty o’ rum too including a drink called “flip” – a frothy drink with rum, beer, and sugar or molasses – and a drink called “toddy” – a drink with rum, water and sugar. They also made their own rum from imported molasses. The first American rum distillery opened in 1664 in Staten Island and later that century, others in New England also started distilling rum.
American colonists had easy access to molasses because American ports were closer than Europe to the Caribbean. And, according to UCLA Professor of History, Dr. Carla Pestana, there was already existing trade between the territories, and the currents that the ships would take would bring them close to North American territories anyway. The prices were also favorable to them. French King Louis XIV prohibited the import of rum in most of France because it competed with French wines and French brandy, which meant that the French Caribbean sugar plantation owners had a lot of inventory of molasses that they had to sell to American distilleries at a discount.
By 1765, American rum distilleries made around 4.8 million gallons of rum. So successful were the people of New England with their production of rum that it became the most successful export of New England where 80% of their export was rum. Significantly, and this is where rum’s dark and shameful history comes in, rum became an integral part of the slave industry.” This was a trade between New England, particularly Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the African West Coast, and the Caribbean, by which the molasses from the Caribbean were exported to New England to make rum, rums were exported to Africa in exchange for slaves, and slaves would be sent to the Caribbean to work in the sugar plantations. And this cycle repeated.
Back in the American colonies, George Washington was known to be quite the enthusiast of rum. Prompted, perhaps by a visit to Bridgetown, Barbados at the age of 19 – a trip undertaken in 1751 to 1752 with his half-brother, Lawrence. This was, I believe, his only ever trip outside of what was to become the United States, and obviously had quite an impact. It is narrated in a journal that is now being restored. Apparently, after this journey, he would buy rum by the hogshead, which is a cask that holds over 100 gallons.
And, Paul Revere, a hero of the American Revolution, who rode on horseback from Boston to Lexington to warn his compatriots that the British were coming, he supposedly stopped off along the way in Medford, Massachusetts at the home of a captain of the local militia for a rum toddy – that rum drink made with rum, sugar and water that I talked about earlier. And, that captain of the local militia coincidentally happened to own a rum distillery that created rum so strong that it would make,
“a rabbit bite a bulldog.”
The majority of the molasses that went into making American rum came from, as we saw, the French, which one can imagine, given that this was still a British colony and was competing with the British Caribbean rum makers, this did not go down too well with the folks back home in Blighty. The British tried to counter this by imposing a law known as, “The Molasses Act” in 1733. This was an act that imposed a 6-pence per gallon tax on molasses from any non-British colony to the British American colonies. The idea being to protect the sugar market for the British Caribbean sugar cane plantations. Unfortunately for the British, this legislation became pretty much useless, because the Americans were very successful bribing the willing customs officers to let the produce go through. Also, according to our friends at the UCLA Department of History, there were not many customs officials in the territory at the time to enforce the laws.
This act was later supplemented by the “Sugar Act” of 1764, which was a particularly fearsome act with wider remit and harsher penalties to avoid smuggling. It looked like it might finally be the downfall of the rum industry in New England. In 1765, the Boston Evening Post printed a letter about the Sugar Act saying,
“. . . every cargo of the American product is deemed prohibited goods. . . . if, therefore, this traffic is prohibited, the colonies must be ruined. . . .”
The rum distillers in New England opposed the Sugar Tax, boycotted British imports, and proclaimed “no taxation without representation.” It was an argument that was going to lead towards bigger disagreements between the colonists and the British that would culminate in the American Revolution. Revolutionaries often met in pubs and distilleries where even John Adams, a future American president, noted in his diary that they drank rum punch in these meetings.
Los Angeles Times writer, Tom Standage argued,
“For although the schism between Britain and its colonies did indeed begin over the taxation of a drink, the drink in question was not tea. It was rum. . . . The real spirit of 1776, in short, is to be found in a bottle of rum.”
Although the American Revolution gave birth to a new nation called the United States of America, rum itself would lose out in the end, as, by the 19thcentury, American distillers started making whiskey from corn they grew rather than continuing to make rum, for which they would have to import molasses.
Now, this mention of smuggling brings us to two groups of people with whom rum is always associated within an historical setting. The first one is anyone who is a fan of “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies will be aware of. And that is the 18thcentury pirates’ declared love of rum. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it in his classic novel, “Treasure Island,” the protagonist could hear the voices of men as the Jolly Roger, the pirate flag, waved,
“there was a sound in their voices which suggested rum.”
The second was the daily rationed tot of beloved rum for the members of the Royal Navy. A tradition that lasted from around 1655 to all the way to July the 31st1970.
In the 1500s, British sailors were entitled to 5 quarts of beer a day to quench their thirst. This was because, back then, the British Navy’s water was likely sourced from polluted rivers back in England, and on their travels, stored in barrels where algae would grow resulting in rancid and sour tasting water. Yukk.
By the 1600s, at the time when England had begun its expeditionary voyages around the globe, carrying such quantities of beer became impossible, and the captains of the individual ships began to look for an alternative. Some began to offer wine and brandy, but in 1655, when the British fleet stayed three months in Barbados and then captured Jamaica, they began to offer rum.
Royal Navy sailors would call out,
“Stand fast for the Holy Ghost,”
. . . between 11 am and noon, and this is when the rum began to be distributed. This was, at the beginning, to be a quarter pint of rum, twice every day, which sounds rather fun to me. However, it was reduced in the 1740s. And why was the rum ration reduced?
Well, it’s a great story, which is another one you can use to bore people with at dinner parties. I know you love this.
In 1740, to reduce instances of drunkenness in the Royal Navy, Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the rum ration be watered-down and he created a concoction of a quart of water to a half pint of rum mixed with brown sugar and lime juice. The lime juice was presumably to counteract the threat of scurvy. Admiral Vernon was nicknamed “Old Grog” because of his coat, which was made out of “grogram,” a type of coarse cloth made out of silk and wool or silk and mohair. This watered-down rum Admiral Vernon invented became known as “grog” after its creator, Old Grog. And sailors would often store up their rations to drink in one binge, and would wake up feeling worse for wear or as we might put it, “a little groggy.” So, if you have ever wondered where that unusual word comes from for being slightly unsteady on your feet, now you know.
And, in a second, “bore people with food facts at dinner parties” moments, you see you get double trouble here, you may have seen the term, “Navy Strength,” on the label of your favorite spirit at your local bar. So, “Navy Strength,” refers to spirits with drinks being marketed at 57% alcohol by volume. And, according to Simon Difford, it’s actually based on a misunderstanding. Before 1816 and the invention of the Hydrometer by Bartholomew Sikes, there was no way that anyone could accurately tell the amount of alcohol in a drink. So, the British Royal Navy created their own method. They would mix a small amount of pure rum with a small amount of gunpowder. They would then try and light that. If the material ignited, it was PROOF of the alcohol. If the material went off with a bang, it was OVERPROOF of the alcohol, which meant stronger alcohol. When Bartholomew Sikes invented his hydrometer to accurately measure the amount of alcohol, the government adopted it and decreed that 100 proof equates to 57% alcohol by volume. The Royal Navy compared its gunpowder and rum method with the results of the hydrometer and found that alcohol that ignited – that is, PROOF of alcohol – translated to 54.5% alcohol by volume on the hydrometer. The Royal Navy then adopted this 54.5% alcohol by volume standard as “Navy Strength.” But, current alcohol marketers apparently confused “PROOF” with “OVERPROOF” because alcohol labeled “Navy Strength” today is 57% alcohol by volume, which would go off with a bang if a mixture of rum and gunpowder is lit. So, there you have it. True “Navy Strength” alcohol as envisioned by the Royal Navy would only ignite at 54.5% alcohol by volume, whereas current “Navy Strength” alcohol as created by modern day marketers would go off with a bang at 57% alcohol by volume. Also, do NOT even try lighting a mixture of gunpowder and alcohol at dinner parties or at any other time.
I love that. So that’s where the word, “Proof,” comes from.
So, back to history. As the Royal Navy ships became more and more sophisticated, the idea of sailors who had had a drop of rum being in charge began to be less suitable. And, on the 31st of July 1970, the very last “grog” was served to the sailors of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy on a day now known as “Black Tot Day.” On that day, sailors put on black armbands and acted out fake funerals. I think, those of us who have some rum in the house should go and drink a tot of some note, just to support all those who were fortified by this great system.
Now, aha, my matey.
Let’s talk about pirates. That, of course, you will have known about by the novel I mentioned earlier, Treasure Island, and by those rather dreadful films, the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” They are dreadful.
The term, “pirate” is taken from the Greek word, “peiran” meaning “to attempt.” The Latin language adopted it from the Greek to form the work, “pirata.” Although the pirates of the Caribbean who actually became known by this word, they actually had their origins as the word, “Buccaneers.”
The term, “Buccaneers,” comes from a small group of people who lived on Hispaniola – now Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and Tortuga, where they hunted wild pigs and whose name came from the frames where they smoked their catch. They were given this moniker by a book published in 1684 called, “Bucaniers of America” written by a Dutch author Alexander Esquemelin. And, their main targets were those of the Spanish ships coming from the New World back to Madrid carried various treasures. This self-governed band would later become regulated “privateers” for the British, Dutch and French, before becoming the pirates we see in the movies.
Initially, pirates preferred to drink wine and brandy because those were what they plundered from Spanish ships. Remember, as I said earlier, the initial targets of pirates were the Spanish. Back then, the Spanish banned rum exports because the Spanish wine and brandy lobby did not want the competition. So, when the pirates attacked Spanish ships, they plundered wine and brandy, and not rum. As the Spanish empire began to fade, however, pirates began attacking British trading ships, where rum could be found a-plenty. And by the 18th century, rum became associated with pirates and their, shall we say, activities.
Rum became such a part of pirates’ lives, so much so that Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, the most fearsome of all pirates, who sailed the seas in the “golden age of piracy” between 1690 and 1720, was recounted as saying, in “Pirates on the Chesapeake,”
“Such a day, rum all out! -- Our company somewhat sober: -- A damn'd confusion amongst us! -- Rogues a-plotting: -- Great talk of separation -- so I looked sharp for a prize: Such a day took one, with a great deal of liquor on board, so kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again.”
Apparently, Blackbeard’s drink of choice was rum mixed with gunpowder, which he would ignite, then drink as the flames were still burning. Lovely.
Even Blackbeard’s demise involved rum – well, rum and a lot of bloodshed. The story goes that he was decapitated and his skull was later refashioned as a rum punch bowl that has supposedly been used at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia.
In 1721, Britain passed the Piracy Act, which granted the Royal Navy more powers to combat pirates and which allowed for greater penalties for those caught engaged in piracy. The age of the pirate, at least in the Caribbean, was more or less over.
In the 1800s, the consumption of alcohol in the United States grew rapidly. It went from 5.8 gallons of alcohol for those who were of drinking age in 1790, to 7.1 gallons of alcohol in 1830. In comparison, as of 2016, Americans drank an average of 2.35 gallons of alcohol. So, 7.1 gallons back in 1830 is way far more than we used to drink today And, to be clear, it was not all rum. In fact, I would imagine that by this stage, the majority of it would have been whiskey, cider and beer. But, along with this, we also see the development of temperance movements. A lot of these were founded by women because they saw the dangers that alcoholism wrought in the lives of the men who suffered from it and in the lives of their family, and many of them were Civil War nurses who witnessed the effects of alcohol in the military. During the Civil War, about 4,625 Union soldiers were hospitalized for drunkenness, of which 98 passed away from it. In 1843, a large petition was undertaken to stop the US Navy’s “spirit ration,” saying
“the use of intoxicating liquors…creates and confirms vicious appetites, fosters habits of intemperance, and vice, [and] predisposes the human system to disease.”
The temperance movement, which was promoted by both the “Women’s Christian Temperance Movement,” which was formed in 1872, and the “Anti Saloon League,” which was formed in 1893, began to push for total temperance.
During World War I, American servicemembers were faced with the temperance movement, where wartime posters depicted American soldiers as sober and patriotic while their German enemies as intoxicated aggressors. American allies – such as those in the British, French and Canadian militaries – however, supplied the Americans with brandy, wine and rum.
Private G. Boyd, a Canadian soldier from the 8th Battalion, who fought on the frontline battling not only bullets but both the heat and cold, once said,
“if we had not had the rum we would have died.”
An officer in the 1st Battalion, called the Cameronians or the Scottish Rifles, of the British army, Alexander Stewart, wrote in his diary,
“The finest thing that ever happened in the trenches was the rum ration, and never was it more needed than on the Somme; and yet some blasted ignorant fool of a General, damned in this world and the next, wanted to stop it, and I believe for a time did. The man must have been worse than the lowest type of criminal, can have had no knowledge of the conditions in which the troops existed, and have been entirely out of touch with the men who were unfortunate enough to have him as their commander. He should have been taken up to the line and frozen in the mud as many men were. I would have then willingly have sat on his head, as he was a danger to the whole army. Curse him. Those who have not spent a night standing, sitting or lying in the mud with an east wind blowing and the temperature below freezing point may consider that I am extravagant in my abuse of the men who denied the soldier his rum ration. Those who have will know that I have been too temperate in my language.”
He’s an angry man, wasn’t he? I’m not surprised if he was denied his rum.
The Americans had success in prohibiting alcohol sales with the advent of Prohibition, but even those who were the biggest fans would not be foolish enough to suggest that the institution of The Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution actually stopped the sales of alcohol in the United States. In fact, from our point of view, it led to the creation of one of the words or phrases that comes readily to mind when we think of today’s subject, “Rum Running.”
It is a phrase that originated soon after the advent of Prohibition in the 1920s and referred to those who ran illicit deliveries of whiskey, rum, and other liquors and Champagne to the United States from locations around the world. It took a while for the Coast Guards, Bureau of Prohibition agents, and local law enforcement to get their act together, and that meant that the early 1920s was a great time to make money for the booze carrying criminals. These miscreants were also known by another familiar name, “bootleggers,” which apparently had its derivation from the 1880s when the term was used for those who concealed bottles of liquor in the tops of their boots during trading talks with Native Americans.
Much of the liquor that was illegally imported was held on ships just outside of American naval territory on an area known as “Rum Row.”
Famous bootleggers, like William “Bill” McCoy, would anchor their ships there for their US customers to sail up to and load up their ships while they left the motors still running for a quick getaway. He would post signs on the riggings of his ship to show the availability and prices of the spirits he had on offer.
Mistakenly, McCoy is credited with being the source of the term “the real McCoy” because of his quality spirit. However, that credit should more likely go to another McCoy, Elijah McCoy. He was an African American inventor who patented 57 inventions mainly in the growing railroad industry of the mid to late 1800s to the turn of the 20th century.
Anyway, the bootlegger McCoy, ended up falling foul of the law and was captured in 1923. He ended up spending time in prison, and then began building ships with his brother, Ben. By 1926, with the arrival of special ships to the Coast Guard, the days of the rum runners was almost over. And, in 1927, the Supreme Court of the United States decreed that ships bearing an American flag could be detained up to 34 miles from land.
In the 1980s, rum was actually the largest spirit in the world in terms of sales. I don’t think we’re at that level now, but rum is still one of the world’s greatest drinks and is now made around the world in dozens of countries. For my own preference, let me give a shout out to some of the most well-known and perhaps, some of the least well-known names before we go.
It may surprise you to know that the largest rum producer in the world based on sales volume is not from the Caribbean, or the Americas, but from the Philippines. Tanduay Rum sells nearly 24 million 9-liter cases every year. Wow. It beats out second place Bacardi by nearly 6 million 9-liter cases every year. Also, in that top list, one can find Captain Morgan and Havana Club, which comes in at third place and fourth place, respectively.
On the list far below that, and one of my and my wife’s favorite rums is Ron Zacapa from Guatemala. I’m also a fan of Appleton Estate 21-Year-Old Rum from Jamaica.
You might also want to check out the rums that come under the G.I. or Geographical Indication status. That is, rums that are made in a specific place, using only ingredients from that place. These include, amongst others, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, etcetera.
Finally, in what are known as the boutique rums, I would suggest you try out Rhum J.O. VO Vieux Agricole from Martinique, particularly as David Wondrich notes that Martinique, along with Barbados, were the
“cradles, if not the birthplaces, of Caribbean rum making.”
Now, on that note, I am going to go and sit down and pour myself a nice large glass of dark, full-flavored rum, and read this episode back. Just in case.
See you next week folks.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 16, 2022
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.