The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a "very good wine of sugar" that was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.
The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process, can be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic by-products concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests that rum first originated on the island of Barbados. Regardless of its initial source, early Caribbean rums were not known for high quality. A 1651 document from Barbados stated, "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor".
After rum's development in the Caribbean, the drink's popularity spread to Colonial America. To support the demand for the drink, the first rum distillery in the colonies was set up in 1664 on present-day Staten Island. Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry. The rum produced there was quite popular, and was even considered the best in the world during much of the 18th century. Rhode Island rum even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a period of time. Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of 3 Imperial gallons (13.5 liters) of rum each year.
To support this demand for the molasses to produce rum, along with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labour source to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was needed. A triangular trade was established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies to help support this need. The circular exchange of slaves, molasses, and rum was quite profitable, and the disruption to the trade caused by the Sugar Act in 1764 may have even helped cause the American Revolution.
The popularity of rum continued after the American Revolution with George Washington insisting on a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration. Eventually the restrictions on rum from the British islands of the Caribbean combined with the development of American whiskey led to a decline in the drink's popularity.
Rum's association with piracy began with English privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
The association of rum with the British Royal Navy began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon directed that the rum ration be watered down before being issued, a mixture which became known as grog. While it is widely believed that the term grog was coined at this time in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather , the term has been demonstrated to predate his famous orders with probable origins in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology (see Grog). The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970.
A story involving naval rum is that following his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty of rum. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, in the process drinking Nelson's blood. Thus, this tale serves as a basis for the term Nelson's Blood being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term "Tapping the Admiral" being used to describe drinking the daily rum ration. The details of the story are disputed, with some historians claiming the term originated instead from a toast to Admiral Nelson.
Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was based upon the lack of coinage among the population of the colony, and due to the drink's ability to allow its consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of creature comforts available in the new colony. The value of rum was such that convict settlers could be induced to work the lands owned by officers of the New South Wales Corps. Due to rum's popularity among the settlers, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness even though their alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.
When William Bligh became governor of the colony in 1806, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange. In response to this action, and several others, the New South Wales Corps marched, with fixed bayonets, to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.
Caribbean light rum
Until the second half of the 19th century all rums were heavy or dark rums that were considered appropriate for the working poor, unlike the refined double-distilled spirits of Europe. In order to expand the market for rum, the Spanish Royal Development Board offered a prize to anyone who could improve the rum making process. This resulted in many refinements in the process which greatly improved the quality of rum. One of the most important figures in this development process was Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, who moved from Spain to Santiago de Cuba in 1843. Don Facundo's experiments with distillation techniques, charcoal filtering, cultivating of specialized yeast strains, and aging with American oak casks helped to produce a smoother and mellower drink typical of modern light rums. It was with this new rum that Don Facundo founded Bacardí y Compañía in 1862.
Dividing rum into meaningful groupings is complicated by the fact that there is no single standard for what constitutes rum. Instead rum is defined by the varying rules and laws of the nations that produce the spirit. The differences in definitions include issues such as spirit proof, minimum aging, and even naming standards.
Examples of the differences in proof is Colombia, requiring their rum possess a minimum alcohol content of 50 ABV, while Chile and Venezuela require only a minimum of 40 ABV. Mexico requires rum be aged a minimum of 8 months; the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela require two years. Naming standards also vary, Argentina defining rums as white, gold, light, and extra light. Barbados uses the terms white, overproof, and matured, while the United States defines rum, rum liqueur, and flavored rum. In Australia Rum is divided into Dark Rum (Under Proof known as UP, Over Proof known as OP, and triple distiled) and White Rum.
Despite these differences in standards and nomenclature, the following divisions are provided to help show the wide variety of rums that are produced.
Within the Caribbean, each island or production area has a unique style. For the most part, these styles can be grouped by the language that is traditionally spoken. Due to the overwhelming influence of Puerto Rican rum, most rum consumed in the United States is produced in the Spanish-speaking style.
Spanish-speaking islands traditionally produce light rums with a fairly clean taste. Rums from Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico are typical of this style.
English-speaking islands and countries are known for darker rums with a fuller taste that retains a greater amount of the underlying molasses flavor. Rums from Barbados, Bermuda, Belize, the Demerara region of Guyana, Jamaica and also Panama are typical of this style.
French-speaking islands are best known for their agricultural rums (rhum agricole). These rums, being produced exclusively from sugar cane juice, retain a greater amount of the original flavor of the sugar cane and are generally more expensive than molasses-based rums. Rums from Guadeloupe, Haïti, Marie-Galante and Martinique are typical of this style. Additionally, certain rums from the English-speaking island of Trinidad are produced from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. The flavor of light agricultural rums is significantly different than that of other rums; Panama also produces this.
Cachaça is a spirit similar to rum that is produced in Brazil. Seco Herrerano from Panama is also a spirit similar to rum, but also similar to vodka, since it is triple distilled. The Indonesian spirit Batavia Arrack, or Arrak, is a spirit similar to rum that includes rice in its production. Mexico produces a number of brands of light and dark rum, as well as other less expensive flavored and unflavored sugar cane based liquors, such as aguardiente de caña and charanda. In some cases cane liquor is flavored with mezcal to produce a pseudo-tequila-like drink.
A spirit known as Aguardiente, distilled from molasses infused with anise, with additional sugarcane juice added after distillation, is produced in Central America and northern South America.
Within Europe, a similar spirit made from sugar beet is known as tuzemák (from tuzemský rum, domestic rum) in the Czech Republic and Kobba Libre on the Aland Islands.
In Germany, a cheap substitute of dark rum is called Rum-Verschnitt (literally: cut rum). This distilled beverage is made of genuine dark rum (often from Jamaica), rectified spirit, and water. Very often, caramel coloring is used, too. The relative amount of genuine rum it contains can be quite low since the legal minimum is at only 5 percent, but the taste of Rumverschnitt is still very similar to genuine dark rum. In Austria, a similar rum called Inländerrum or domestic rum is available.