On the blogby Alfred
March 30 2017

The pirate’s nectar : a short history of rhum…

by Alfred

Motivated by the recommendation from our precious advisor Steven Molloy of a Guatemalan rum and with the new version of our Alfred application which includes rum among the spirits managed in cellars or for online shopping, we wanted take a look at the slightly sulphurous history of this beverage that colours our summer at the same time that it evokes, for many, the tropical sun that we miss at this time of the year.

Brown or white, agricole or commercial, served pure in bars or on the roadside in the Caribbean, lined with cherries and umbrellas in tourist spots, embellished with mint in the popular mojitos of a generation, rum is everywhere, always, ubiquitous culturally in the south or as evocation of heat in the north.

The great return of rum

Its popularity is also in serious rise. Just like vodka a decade ago, rum is experiencing a resurgence, with brands emerging everywhere, from Connecticut to Kingston, from Australia to Montserrat. The world drinks about 20 liters of it per second, less than vodka, but its rate of progression places it in front of its competitor with a 40% increase against 25% over the last decade. In some circles, we no longer speak of food and wine pairings but of accompanying food in rum festivals, in destinations like Barbados, Grenada, as much as in Berlin or Rome. The International Rum Council, is an online community with awards, forums and a visual “museum”, also offering rum themed cruises. There is even now a National Rum Day on August 16th. Rum is now taking advantage of this gentrification of spirits: what was described by a colonial visitor of the West Indies as “a hot, infernal and terrible liquor” is back in fashion … again. It’s periodic, you just have to remember the great era of the rum and coke and all those Tiki themed restaurants … that are also coming back in fashion.

The sugar-born drink that turns sailors into pirates

Formerly, in the Caribbean, pirates had a formidable and effective method of recruiting their crews in ports among the ranks of legitimate English sailors. They tried to get them drunk intensely and methodically. Once drunk they could no longer respond to the call of their captains and the English ships left abandoning a part of their crew for whom the only survival solution was to themselves become pirates! Obviously, it was rum that served as a magic potion to transform a sailor into a buccaneer…

Since rum is made from sugar cane, it is clear that its entire history is linked to the plant’s course, its location and the market context that presided over it.

According to food historians, sugarcane has been known since prehistoric times and originated either in New Guinea or Indochina, the precise place of origin being uncertain. Its cultivation gradually spread to the neighbouring islands, then it reached India and China where its exploitation developed. There are writings that speak of the extraction of sugar from cane in China around six centuries before Christ.

The first mention of sugarcane comes from a text by Alexander the Great, where he describes it as “a wild reed of India that makes honey without bees”.

From the 15th century onwards, following the conquests of Muslim countries from the East to the West, sugarcane spread and prospered. The sugar trade was then flourishing.

Christopher Columbus, the responsible of it all

In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the island of Hispaniola (Haiti-Santo Domingo of today). Gradually, sugar became the main Caribbean crop. Curiously, as the distillation process was developed, it was discovered that it was more profitable to transport sugar in the form of rum rather than in its raw form, in the same way as in the 18th century, whiskey was the the most effective way to ship corn from the American frontier to the east coast.

During the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the Caribbean and South America, the cultivation of sugarcane exploded. In 1625, Brazil became the main supplier of sugar to Europe, but there was no question yet of a fermented or distilled beverage.

It is in the middle of the 17th century that there are records that mention the distillation of sugarcane on the territory of Barbados. The rum was then the drink of the poorest, and of black slaves that were paid in rum. The European settlers despised this drink with such a bad reputation. It was also used on the coast of Africa as a bargaining chip in the slave trade.

But soon, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana or Trinidad, in fact the whole of the West Indies, the French Antilles and all the islands of the Caribbean Sea were soon acquired to the cause of rum, which quickly brought dreams of adventure. Could we imagine a Blackbeard without rum? The narratives of the adventures under the flag adorned with a skull would have lost a good part of their romanticism.

Rum, the ultimate medication for sailors

Its supposed medicinal virtues made it an obligatory component of rations aboard the ships of the era. In fact, these grogs, mixtures made up of two volumes of water for one volume of rum with a dash of lemon juice to fight scurvy had a logic. The water that stagnated in the barrels quickly filled with germs that alcohol could destroy.

Masters of the Greater Antilles, the Spaniards had little interest for the Lesser Antilles. The French thus took possession of them in 1635. The sugarcane was already there. It is at that moment that rum started its expansion. In parallel, 18th century France, through the West India Company, became an important sugar merchant thanks to its colonies. The rum, however, remained a local product, very often part of contraband.

America was another vector for popularizing rum. Before corn whiskey became the national drink of the United States, rum, originally known as rumbullion, a word from the Devon dialect that designates a brawl, was America’s favorite spirit . In 1769, Thomas Jefferson, then 24, described the contents of the wine cellar of his new house in Monticello listing “15 bottles of Madeira, 4 Lisbon for common use, 54 bottles of cider and 83 rum “.

At the time of the American colony, molasses from cane was shipped to distilleries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut to be converted into rum. The colonists drank a great deal, but a lot of it was shipped from New England to Africa to exchange it for slaves who were going to work in the cane fields, harvesting sugar to make more molasses, a sort of commercial circle. The distillers of New England were, as one historian wrote, “the central bankers of the slave trade.”

Rum replacing wine and eaux-de-vie

In France, as a result of the phylloxera crisis of the 1870s, a crisis that decimated most of the French vineyard and halted the production of spirits, rum became important. Until the First World War, rum was definitely the favorite drink in all Parisian cafes. French ports like Bordeaux and Nantes proudly recall their long history in the wine trade, but much less is told about their profitable years in the trade of rum and slaves that they practiced as much as the people of New England with all the power of their colonial empire.

At the same time, a crisis in the sugar industry deprived distilleries of molasses. They then turned to the juice of the cane which they started to distill directly. This is what gave rise to rhum agricole, as opposed to the industrial rum obtained through the distillation of molasses. The first is more aromatic, the second more fat and spicy and accounts for 90% of the world production. The Cuban style, and more widely the Hispanic style, owes its success to its lighter rums, using double distillation very often. They are perfect for cocktails.

Fortunately, rum has survived its dark past and is becoming more and more popular amongst the younger generation, especially because of the new cocktail culture, as well as with connoisseurs who like to sip much more complex rums straight up. The subject is inexhaustible and we will certainly talk about rum again over the next few months.

A few Resources

If you wish to explore a little more the world of rum, here are some interesting resources.

An exceptional site that provides a wealth of information on rum: http://www.ministryofrum.com/

An online community, all about rum (on Facebook, in French)

La Barraca, a well known Montreal bar that specializes in rum.

And, in addition, here are 4 suggestions of various rums suggested by members of our team, all available at the SAQ.

Havana Club brown, a classic with a Cuban flavour, perfect for cocktails with a caramel taste, $ 33.50

Zacapa Centenario 23 ans Sistema Solera No.23, a brown rum from Guatemala, spicier, with a good dose of sugar, $ 79.75

El Dorado 12 ans Demerara, from Guyana, another good choice, quite complex and rich, $ 36.00

And, as introduced in our Précieux Conseils of March 30:

Botran Reserva 15 from Guatemala, complex and dense, to drink without mixing it, like a good scotch,  $43.00

It is now time to cheer like a pirate !

Map of the Caribbean countries producing rum

AlfredThe sommeliers community in your pocket.

Begin your Alfred journey today: Sign Up