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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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01.10.07

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum

Bartender, Pour me a Drink: Alcohol and Spirits, Food History


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There are few other phrases that so quickly conjure images of pirates riotously celebrating another Caribbean conquest as that hearty “yo ho ho.” But why rum? Quite simple, really—because, beginning in the 1600s, the Caribbean (or West Indies, as the region was then known) was all about sugar, and what better thing to create from sugar by-products than rum? But rum was more than just a nice way to blind oneself at the end of a successful day of pillaging. For a few hundred years, it was a surprisingly important part of international economics, politics, and events.

There is some disagreement as to the origin of the name of rum, but the most common etymology given is that it comes from “rumbullion,” which means “a great tumult or uproar”—which seems appropriate. Though fermented sugar-based beverages date back millennia in the southern regions of Asia where sugarcane had its origins, rum was born in the New World. The first mention in written record of the distilled drink we now know as rum was in Barbados in about 1650. Not knowing how to treat the various fevers and blights that affected Europeans in the tropics, rum became the cure-all for every problem, from Yellow Fever to disappointment.

Sugar was in great demand (this was the era when coffee, tea, and cocoa consumption was on the rise), and sugar plantations were spreading like wildfire through the French, Spanish, Dutch, and English colonies in the Caribbean, as well as in South America, especially Portuguese Brazil. Distillers were close on the heels of the growers, and these colonies were soon cranking out copious amounts of the new beverage. They offered rum at low prices to European navies, with the express purpose of keeping the military close to shore. The spread of sugar plantations meant an explosive growth of wealth in the region, and pirates who had once happily pillaged Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from mines in Mexico and South America now turned to wealthy plantations and island towns. The presence of the odd naval vessel offered a degree of protection.

The British Navy rather liked this easy access to rum. In fact, the British Navy began specifying a daily ration of rum by the 1730s—a half-pint per day of 160-proof rum for each sailor. Alas, on those occasions when sailors pitched in parts of their rations to help one of their mates celebrate a birthday, the death of the celebrant was not uncommon. The ration was eventually diluted with an equal amount of water, which produce the drink called “grog.”

Not too surprisingly, giving rum to guys in boats made the spread of rum both easy and swift. By the late 1600s, a thriving export trade had developed. Rum punches began appearing at parties in Great Britain, and rum replaced gin as Britain’s dominant spirit in the 1700s.

When Britain passed laws forbidding the direct trade of spirits between colonies (a law designed to protect British distillers), the New England colonies began trading lumber and salt cod for molasses from the West Indies, and then built their own distilleries. New England’s rum became a key element of international commerce and an essential part of the notorious “Triangle Trade.” Slaves were brought from Africa and traded in the West Indies for molasses. The molasses was carried to New England, where it was distilled into rum. The rum was then sent back to Africa to trade for more slaves.

Rum became the drink of choice throughout the North American colonies, surpassing the previous beverage staples of cider and beer. In fact, it became such an important item of colonial trade in the 1700s that it was among the factors uniting the soon-to-be-independent Thirteen Colonies. Not that they were simply united by drinking the stuff, but as trade intensified, with goods moving among the colonies, the colonists simply got to know their neighbors—and their neighbors’ trade goods and foods. And finding their needs met through trade with other colonies, the colonists became increasingly independent of the Old World.

Rum became the major liquor distilled during the early history of the United States. From the time of the American Revolution until President Andrew Jackson squelched the practice in 1832, American servicemen were all given rum as part of their rations. (Surgeon General John C. Calhoun had been lobbying against rum for some time, noting that sobriety was generally desirable among people who were being given guns. Jackson specified that the military receive coffee and sugar instead.) British sailors, on the other hand, continued to receive regular rations of rum (or, rather, of grog) until 1970!

Rum remained so important in Canada’s maritime provinces that, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the right to continue producing Screech, a locally distilled over-proof rum, was one of the demands for acceptance of confederation (Canada having previously limited the alcohol content of rum).

Even as rum distillation spread to other countries, the Caribbean remained one of the two major producers, along with Australia, which began producing rum shortly after settlement began in the late 1700s.

Rum played a different part in the early days of colonial Australia than it did in the Americas, but it was still a mighty significant part. Rum was a valued commodity in a harsh, thirsty land. With the help of the New South Wales Corps (a British military force formed solely for the controlling of the new continent, known at that time as New South Wales), it became the colony’s primary currency. Wages were paid and purchases made with rum. Through import monopolies, the New South Wales Corps maintained control of the trade and, therefore, of the colony, for nearly 20 years.

Such liquid assets were easily forged, and illegal stills abounded. Of course, the problems involved in an economy built almost entirely on an illicit liquor trade are legion, and England eventually sent a stern disciplinarian out to solve the problems when they installed Captain William Bligh (of Bounty fame) as Australia’s fourth Governor.

The scope of the problem had been underestimated, as almost all military officers and free settlers were involved in the rum trade at some level, and Bligh’s interference and accusations merely served to precipitate the Rum Rebellion. Bligh was arrested by Major Johnston, Commander of the New South Wales Corps, in January 1808, and spent more than a year in confinement. When news finally reached London, a new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, was sent out, this time accompanied by a full regiment to back up any orders he might wish to make. Macquarie was a bit more judicious than Bligh, and, rather than directly attacking the rum trade, he simply worked on expanding and developing the colony until land became more profitable than rum. However, while no longer the key to the country’s economy, rum remains an important product in sugar-rich Australia.

Rum is still a popular drink worldwide. It is often drunk neat in the hot countries where it is produced, but it is widely used in mixed drinks and cocktails, as well. It is also a popular flavor for cakes, sauces, and other sweets. I rather fancy it in the form of hot buttered rum, a New England tradition that makes cold winters more amiable.

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