Rum, A Tropical Treat
Fine Rums are at Their Best When Served Neat in a Snifter or Just Over Ice
Posted: June 1, 1994
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If you think the Boston Tea Party was about tea, then ask yourself this: Would grown men really get that worked up over a cup of tea? Actually, it's a rum story, and like much of rum's history, it is full of the fiery passion that only love or a good measure of grog can ignite.
Rum making, in one form or another, has been practiced wherever sugar cane has grown. Scribes in ancient India, writing around 800 b.c. told of a potent drink called gaudi, which was made from the brown sticky residue left after cane juice had crystallized into sugar. It was the ancient Egyptians who first distilled molasses into a crude spirit. They, in turn, passed the distiller's art on to the Moors, who took it with them across the Mediterranean to Spain, where, during their long residence, they eventually planted up to 75,000 acres to cane. After the Christians reconquered Iberia in 1492, sugar cane followed Columbus to the New World, where rum production soon became a cornerstone of the West Indies economy.
By the mid-1600s, rum making had also become one of the chief economic activities in North America, especially in staid New England. By 1700, per capita rum consumption in the 13 colonies was about four gallons a year. Yankee ingenuity led to the darkest hours in rum history when New Englanders discovered that rum was good currency along the African coast for slaves, who could then be traded in the English, French and Spanish island colonies for molasses, which went back to New England for distilling into more rum (forming the infamous Rum Triangle trade route). It was this trade with the enemy that upset the British overlords, who passed the first Molasses Act in 1733, imposing high tariffs on sugar products from non-British islands, a law that was largely ignored. It was a second law, passed in 1763, which gave the Royal Navy the right to enforce the tax, that really galled the early Americans. By 1773 they had had enough, the pints went round, and the Tea Party ensued.
Meanwhile, the British Navy was waging its own battle with "kill-devil" rum. In 1731, rum replaced beer as the official shipboard libation, with a ration of one cup of 80 proof given neat to all hands twice daily. The results were disastrous: drunken sailors were constantly falling out of high riggings or tumbling overboard to drown. By 1740, Adm. Edward Vernon, known through the West Indies fleet as "Old Grog," decided he'd had enough of such foolery. He ordered that the rum ration be mixed with a quart of water, sugar and lime, and the famous Navy Grog was born. The sailors still managed to get their fill of raw rum in seaport taverns. Many passed out in drunken stupors only to awaken on the heaving deck of an outbound ship flying the Jolly Roger. That rum and pirating went hand-in-hand is evidenced by an entry in the journal of Edward "Blackbeard" Thatch, who, worried that sobriety was making his men rebellious, wrote: "I look'd sharp for a Prize; --such a Day, took one with a great deal of Rum on board, so kept the Company hot, damn'd hot, then all Things went well again."
Rum also played an important role in keeping spirits high during Prohibition. Rum-running from the islands to the Atlantic seaboard proved impossible to control. A shipment of 5,700 cases bought in Nassau in 1925 (which also included much rye, Scotch and gin), sold to rumrunners five miles off the New Jersey coast for $342,000, was worth $684,000 by the time it reached shore and eventuallysold for about $2 million on the streets of New York--an impressive profit ratio by any measure.
Rum's future, as with all spirits in these times of New Age sobriety, may be hard to divine. One thing's for sure, the respectability of the superpremium brands does little to belie the spirit's checkered past.
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