Yesterday, by a chance of fate, I had the good fortune to taste a drop of El Dorado 12 Year Old Rum. Wow! I am only an occasional rum drinker, with vague memories of imbibing and enjoying rum and cola when in my salad days before moving on to other spirits, but this rum truly impressed me. It was smooth and flavorsome with a well-defined quality that made me want to sip it straight or over ice. I was sold.
Okay, so that’s my plug – honest and sincere. But being something of a history buff, this unexpected pleasure drove me to do some research. I wanted to know the story of this spirit. Everything has a story to it, and knowing that story brings added pleasure to what may be a more mundane pursuit. What follows is a quick overview of rum’s history, and I’d be delighted to know that you were sipping on a tot while perusing it.
Rum as we know it today originated in the Caribbean in the 17th century. There were precursors, however, going back to ancient China and India. The Malay people called it brum (though there are almost as many attempts at explaining the etymology of the word ‘rum’ as there are languages). In the 14th century Marco Polo noted tasting “a very good wine of sugar” in what is now Iran. But rum truly came into its own in the Caribbean islands as well as in South America. Traditionally, Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum, though it was also produced in Brazil as early as the 1620s. Early nicknames for the liquor were kill-devil, demon water, Nelson’s blood, screetch and rumbullion.
It was the plantation slaves who discovered that molasses, which is a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. Its popularity grew from there as visiting ships (and pirate ships) brought it to the rest of the world. When the British Navy discovered it, it became their staple drink, replacing brandy. At first they enjoyed it straight, though later, for the sake of a little more sobriety, it was mixed with water or sometimes beer and became known as grog. The British Navy continued to partake in a daily ration of rum until 1970. Even today, on special occasions sailors are allowed to “splice the mainbrace” and enjoy a “tot” of rum.How did Colonial America take to rum? The first rum distillery in the colonies opened in Staten Island in 1664, followed by one in Boston in 1667. Rum soon became the colonies’ largest and most prosperous industry. For a while, Rhode Island Rum was accepted as currency, like gold. Before the Revolutionary War it is calculated that the equivalent of every man, woman and child in the Colonies drank an average of three imperial gallons of rum each year. George Washington insisted on having a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration. Throughout the 19th century rum was often used as a political tool. A politician running for office often offered copious amounts of rum to his constituents in the hope of winning them over.
And so rum has continued in popularity right up to the present day, with many millions of appreciative consumers. To which I might add – as of yesterday – many millions and one.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills