In this new three part series we take a closer look at our liquid and the story behind it - going back to its roots, getting into the process, and observing its impact on modern culture. 

Rum is a drink full of colour both in flavour and spirit but it also has a dark and troubled past. The origins of the name are unclear but its roots can be traced back thousands of years and is very closely linked to the cultivation of sugar cane - and that’s where we begin. 

Cultivation of Sugar Cane 

Rum is fermented from sugar cane and the latter’s cultivation began in New Guinea six thousand years ago before spreading across South East Asia and India. The Persian invasion of India in 510 BC meant sugar cane spread to new regions before an Arab invasion of Persia expanded its reach even further. 

As the Arabs empire grew, sugar cane followed them, reaching Europe where plantations were set up in the Canary Islands, Madeira, and the Azores. 

Christopher Colombus and the New World

A significant moment in the spirit’s history was when Christopher Colombus sailed to the New World via the Canaries, taking some sugar cane with him. It seems people are very fond of taking sugar cane wherever they go. As the Spanish colonised the Caribbean, sugarcane, you guessed it, spread to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. 

It was the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil that intensified the production of sugar though - leading to the creation of cachaça, the Brazilian close relative of rum produced from cane juice.

Throughout the 1600s, the Dutch, British and French then took sugarcane to the other Caribbean islands, resulting in the region becoming the largest producer of sugar in the world. 

The Slave Trade

As demand for sugar grew, so did the requirement for labour and this was met by the vulgar slave trade from Africa. Evidence shows that the slaves themselves discovered that the molasses by-product from the sugar refining process could be fermented and turned into an alcoholic drink. It’s said plantation workers took to rum as a release from the horrors of their daily lives. 

It wasn’t until the mid 1600s though that rum as we know it was first produced. With the introduction of distillation techniques the first genuine rums were produced in Barbados before its popularity spread throughout the Caribbean and North America. 

More and more rum distilleries then popped up in the regions, with shipments of molasses heading to the distilleries in North East America. The rum was then shipped throughout the American colonies, Caribbean and to Africa where it was used as a commodity in the purchase of new African slaves, bound for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. 

This trade of slaves, molasses and rum became known as the ‘Triangular Trade’ - a real dark chapter of rum’s story. 

Rum’s popularity continued to grow throughout the following decades with millions of African slaves arriving in the New World to meet the demands for sugar and rum. Then in the late 1700s when France and subsequently Britain, in 1807, banned slavery and began patrolling the seas to capture ships carrying slaves. 

Soon after the American Revolution, the Northern States of America ended their use of slave trade. However, it didn’t stop the trade in slaves as they were shipped to the Southern States which hadn’t abolished the trade. 

This continued until the absolute abolition of the slave trade in the US. As the ‘Wild West’ opened up and farmers begun growing barley, maize, rye and wheat - whiskey replaced rum as the main spirit in America. 

The Royal Navy

Here in the UK we often associate rum with the history of the Royal Navy being used as a way of keeping spirits of sailors up during long voyages at sea, as well as being a way of making brackish water safer, and easier to drink. 

In 1655, when the Royal Navy captured the island of Jamaica, the daily ration of French brandy was switched for rum - beginning the long connection of rum and the Royal Navy. 

The daily ration, called a tot, would continue until Friday 31st July 1970 - bringing an end to over 300 years of tradition - this day was to be known as Black Tot Day. 

Next up in our series, we’ll take a look at the process behind the rum. In the meantime, grab yourself a bottle and soak in the history.