Created in the 17th century on an island in the West Indies, rum became increasingly popular from the 19th century, and its refinement via distillation processes became even more elaborated. Today produced in many countries around the world, it is still mostly enjoyed in the region where it was born. There, in the middle of the Caribbean, rum is more than just a drink: it’s a culture, with its traditions and tasting rites.
A Beverage to be consumed as your heart desires
While it was primarily a drink of slaves and pirates, rum is now an exceptional alcohol, seriously threatening to steal the show from other spirits such as whiskey. What sets rum apart from all others alcoholic beverages, is the perception of it being youthful and friendly. It is not anchored in strict rites that would make it only consumable for the upper classes. Rum is within everyone’s reach.
There is a wide variety of rums, depending on where it comes from and how it is produced. Agricultural or industrial rum, brown or white rum, straight shots or cocktails, it’s up to you to take it how you prefer it. Nonetheless, keep in mind that it should be consumed with moderation, because it remains a strong alcohol and excessive consumption is dangerous for the health.
The journey from slaves’ drink to an exceptional alcohol : throwback to colonial history
Would you believe that at the beginning, the elites of the society did not even want to hear about rum?
Rum appeared in the first half of the 17th century but had to wait until the 19th century to gain true value in the eyes of society.
Originally considered a by-product of cane sugar production, it was reserved for slaves and the poorest social groups. At the end of the 17th century, Father Labat transformed it into a medicine. It was only several decades later that it became a” drink” in its own right.
A success built on wars and falls
In the 19th century, following the rising competition in the field of sugar production and the abolition of slavery, which made the process way too expensive, some distilleries began to concentrate their efforts on rum. The distillation processes were then perfected, making rum taste even better than it was before.
At that time, rum benefited from two key historical events: the Crimean War, during which soldiers receive rations of rum, and the phylloxera crisis which destroyed the French vineyards, making it impossible to produce “water of life” in that region.
Rum production experienced a real boom, well on its way to become the high-quality alcoholic beverage that we know today.
Such a journey reminds you of the fact that as much as every sip of rum is loaded with history!
The origins of rum : between « Devil-Killer » and « Medicine »
Although the origin of rum is still surrounded by a veil of mystery, the first known traces of the drink date back to the first half of the 17th century. Rum is said to have been born on the island of Barbados, one of the English colonies in the Caribbean. At the time, it was generally called “tue-diable” (devil killer) because of its strong alcoholic content. It was still mostly consumed by slaves, sailors and pirates.
Rum, a product of Father Labat
A few years later, in 1694, the missionary, Father Jean-Baptiste Labat, used his knowledge in the field of distillation to improve the production process of rum. He did not intend to push its use as a drink: Father Labat’s first objective was to turn rum into a medicine, especially to treat fever. It was then given great medicinal virtues and was distributed in large quantities, for disease prevention.
It was also at that time that it was officially coined “rum”, and all its previously used nicknames were dropped. The word “rum” originates from the British West Indies.
Rum embarked on the collision of Europe and North America during the next century (the 18th century). Distillation techniques improved, and its use gradually went beyond the field of medicine.
Sugar Cane : A culture at the heart of colonization
Do you know where Sugar Cane comes from ?
We sometimes (wrongly) think that sugar cane originates from South America. In reality, it came from Asia.
After discovering it during their first crusade on the Asian continent at the end of the 11th century, Europeans brought it home. Very quickly, sugar cane became a highly coveted, rare spice… so much so that it became the center of economic stakes and rivalries. Before sugar cane was discovered, the only sources of sugar known by Europeans were fruits and honey, and a such, sugar cane brought in new flavors.
Unfortunately, only a few pieces of lands were adequate for growing sugar cane in Europe, as the plant requires a tropical climate to thrive: a lot of water and little cold.
On board of Christopher Colombus’ Ship
We know that Christopher Columbus discovered America, but he did so much more!
While looking for new lands where sugar cane could be cultivated, he was the first person to bring sugar cane to the Caribbean, on Hispaniola island (which is known today as Haiti – Santo Domingo), in 1493. The first sugar harvest from this plantation reached Europe in 1516. European sailors brought the plant with them during their travels, in order to make it grow on new lands. After the Caribbean, sugar cane spread on to the South American continent, especially in Brazil, which will then become the largest importer of sugar to Europe in 1625.
A drink with a troubled past
The development of all sugar cane plantations greatly increases the demand for labor, and they had to find a solution: slavery.
Among the different plantations in South America, sugar cane plantations used the most slaves by far. Although manual work in sugar cane plantations was easier than in other plantations, it was also more exhausting. Most slaves were young, and masters wasted no time to whip them as soon as they showed any signs of weariness.
Slaves trade for optimallLabor in Sugar cane plantations
Slaves were captured from Africa, and a specific type of trade, “triangular trade”, quickly developed: masters ships would leave from Europe and head to Africa, where colons were looking for slaves. They then sailed to America where they would sell slaves to plantation owners. Finally, they would go back to Europe with food products, including sugar.
At that time, rum was still a drink reserved for slaves, or used as a currency to buy slaves in Africa.
This ended in the 19th century with the abolition of slavery. However, although plantations owners are now paying workers, working conditions are slow to improve.