Whether mixed with fruit juice in a frosty glass festooned with a paper umbrella or brewed in a warm mug fragrant with hot butter, rum is a liquor always blended with history. Read the whole story below.
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From colonial commerce to Caribbean economy to Prohibition smuggling, rum has a romantic and even shady past. And now, cocktail experts say, this spirit is hotter than a hot toddy.
The origin of the name "rum" is open to debate. Many say that the name comes from "rumbullion," which means an uproar—a word that is found in writings from Barbados in the late 1600s. Dutch sailors drank rum in heavy, stemmed glasses called rummers. Whatever the source, we first see the term in America in an act of the General Court of Massachusetts in 1657 in which the sale of liquors "whether knowne by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc., etc" was banned. By that time, not only was rum a popular tavern drink in toddies and grogs with pre-Revolution consumption at a whopping thirteen liters per year for each citizen, but rum was also a commodity that became an integral part of the New England slave trade.
Known as the "Triangle Trade," the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century demand for the molasses used to make rum as well as sugar for Europe required labor in the Caribbean sugar plantations. New Englanders took a few of their own natural resources—timber and salt cod—to the Caribbean, traded for the molasses, turned it into rum to buy slaves from Africa, and then sold the slaves to the South and to the Caribbean to what? Make more molasses for New England rum. So profitable was this circle of commerce that some say the Sugar Act of 1764 banning molasses from the West Indies and putting a tax on sugar may have fueled the American Revolution.
Rum is also associated with those most romantic, if dastardly, of British sailors: pirates. Rum improved its reputation and increased consumption in the Caribbean when the British navy took over Jamaica in the mid-1600s and rum became the drink of choice. When slavery was abolished there, an original rum distiller moved to Cuba where he set up a distillery that was eventually taken over by the Bacardi family. The Bacardi distillery is now in Puerto Rico, and while there are distilleries all over the globe—including in California and the southern United States—most rum is made from Caribbean sugarcane. In the Prohibition era, "rum-runners" smuggled the liquor from the islands to U.S. speakeasies. The legacy of New England rum thrived in pre-Prohibition distilleries like Ben Burg & Felton and Son in Boston, Massachusetts, which finally closed its doors in 1983.
Most rums are made from the thick syrup left over from boiled and crystallized sugarcane juice (molasses) or from just the juice itself. The juice is fermented, then distilled and aged in wood to improve quality. Rum varies from region to region, island to island, with Spanish-speaking islands like Cuba and Puerto Rico producing light rums good for mixing in cocktails. Jamaica and Bermuda produce dark, richer rums for sipping and cooking, and the islands once controlled by the French produce rums made with sugarcane juice rather than molasses.
Now we have light, gold, dark, flavored, and premium rums just for sipping neat. But it’s the cocktail culture that lets rum shine in minty Mojitos, tangy Cuba Libres, the tiki bar–inspired Mai Tai, and, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, the Daiquiri. These warm-weather refreshers are burning up the bar scene, thanks in part to some hefty marketing.
Paul Russell is owner of Portland’s Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Maine, and cocktail culture is a specialty. "Why is rum hot? I hate to admit it but with the power of marketing dollars behind Captain Morgan, one of the fastest growing segments in the liquor trade is rum. Bacardi finally caught on to the mojito craze, and their advertising has helped as well."
"Rum is tropical, and many of us associate rum drinks with fruit, umbrellas, and white hot Caribbean sand. Rum mixes well with just about anything and has a sweeter taste than many spirits without actually being sweet," Paul says. "I think what makes rum such a hot product is its versatility. It comes in many shades—from clear to molasses black—with just as many varieties in flavor based on the terroir and method in which it is made in the many different countries of origin. This, unlike any other spirit I can think of, gives it a unique appeal to the discerning palate."
Orchard Street Chop Shop Chef/Owner Chris Kozlowski agrees. His Dover, New Hampshire, steakhouse carries many premium rums great for sipping.
"Rum is finally gaining the recognition it deserves," Chris says. "Many producers are starting to make better quality and super-premium rums since there is a call for it. Many of these rums are still much less expensive than good scotches and cognacs and have a better balance and flavor."
Chris’s recommendations include Gosling’s Family Reserve (Bermuda), Metusalem Gran Reserva (Dominican Republic), and Ron Anejo Anniversario "Pampero" (Venezuela).
Michael Gehron of The 100 Club, a private club in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, feels that even now, the romance of rum is rooted in its history.
"Rum to me brings on the intrigue of the Prohibition era, smuggling, and the Roaring ’20s to adventure on the high seas and the Revolution. So if you really want to delve into it, rum is a taste of history."
Paul Russell, owner of Portland’s Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Maine likes his rum cocktails classic, reaching back into the Cuban history of the liquor. His El Presidente is from Prohibition era Cuba and is named after former Cuban President Mario Garcia Menocal. Paul prefers a very smoky rum from Martinique.
CLICK HERE FOR Special Summer Rum drink recipes from Taste of the Seacoast Magazine...