History | 26 July 2017A Short History of Rum Share article facebook twitter google pinterest When we think about the origins of rum, pirates come to mind. While it’s true that this is the namesake for well-known brands like Captain Morgan and Sailor Jerry, to get a true glimpse of the origins of rum, you need to look closely at the history of sugarcane. Get more rum history and facts in Rum Curious. Origins of Rum Long before a pirate girded his saber and swung across the ship’s bow, that tall, tan-and-green perennial grass, sugarcane, changed the world. Like many of the early crops, sugarcane exact discovery date is hotly debated. Sugar scholars disagree on its botanical history, and the theories are separated by a few thousand years. India, China, and New Guinea have all been linked to sugarcane’s discovery between five thousand and eight thousand years ago since each region’s ancient people harvested sugarcane for food. In ancient Chinese literature, a man named Gu Kaizhi started chewing on cane stalk until his teeth sunk deep into the sweeter roots, where he found “better realms.” Perhaps the most notable early discovery of sugarcane comes from the expeditions of Alexander the Great, whose unprecedented military campaign took troops through Asia and Africa. In 325 BC, Alexander the Great’s admiral, Nearchus, referred to India’s sugarcane as the “reeds that . . . produce honey, although there are no bees.” These ancient sugarcane references are few and often confused with grain cultivations. It wasn’t really until the Persians and Arabs created and perfected the refining of sugar in the seventh century that sugarcane’s origins and benefits were studied more thoroughly. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Arabs introduced sugar to the Mediterranean region of Europe. Spain, Portugal, and Sicily embarked into sugarcane trade that transformed Europe while bolstering their power. The majority of the sugarcane was in Arab territories, where slaves were forced to cultivate cane for distribution throughout Europe. But the Portuguese explored the coast of Africa and discovered the Madeira Islands, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands in the early fifteenth century. Sugarcane cultivation was possible here, and the Portuguese could produce sugar without Arab control. It was with sugar that the Portuguese could grow their power. The Portuguese enslaved Africans to conduct labor at the eighty sugar mills and two hundred plantations in Madeira, which became the world’s biggest sugar exporter by 1500. This production spread to the Canaries and Santiago in the Cape Verde islands, which required more rainfall for adequate sugarcane farming. By this time, the Spanish, Dutch, and English were seeking territories to cultivate their own sugarcane. That’s when Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane to the West Indies, where the Spanish set up sugar mills in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Mexico. As the Portuguese did in Madeira, the Spaniards used African slaves as their primary labor force for sugarcane. The Portuguese continued their sugarcane expansion to Brazil, while the Dutch entered the slave trade to sell to those running sugarcane plantations. The Dutch also took control of Pernambuco, Brazil, in 1630 and embarked on their own sugarcane industry. By this time, the English colonies in the Caribbean were deeply rooted in sugar and slavery. Slaves planted the sugarcane, fertilized it, cut stalks, and transported it to a mill, where the cane was crushed and juice extracted. They strained the juice and placed it in boiling pots until the sugar was crystallized. Slaves also seined the boiling matter to collect the molasses—the syrupy byproduct from making sugar Their owners sold the sugar, but the molasses was set aside, where rainwater was added and it fermented naturally. Molasses could be sold and used as a sweetener too, but the fermented molasses was enjoyed by the slaves and by poor whites. At some point, somebody distilled this fermented molasses, and rum was born. The earliest known spirit distillation using sugarcane comes in Brazil in the 1500s, where cachaça was distilled. Also called pinga or aguardiente, cachaça is distilled sugarcane juice. It was given to slaves and Indians, and cachaça became a currency for buying slaves too. As for cachaça’s distilled-molasses cousin, rum, the first records come in the seventeenth century. According to the 1651 account of Royalist refugee Richard Ligon, this libation was known as “kill-devil.” Ligon lamented that “it lays” men asleep on the ground. Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados offers an interesting and early look at a sugar plantation and kill-devil’s importance. He wrote, “if the stills be at fault, the kill-devil cannot be made.” Ligon also wrote that “liquor” was mixed with chicken guts as a disease remedy. Despite its apparent occasional medicinal usage, kill-devil caused severe hangovers and made many people sick. (Maybe they didn’t understand drinking responsibly in 1651?) Of course, the most likely reason for sickness is that they were drinking bad spirit. But Ligon also showed a slight bit of appreciation for the spirit, saying the earliest form of rum, combined with a cool breeze and tobacco, offered relief from the intense heat. Essentially, kill-devil was an alias for rum: it’s more official titles were rombustion, appearing in a Dutch newspaper in 1652, and rumbullion, which was used to place an order in 1660 in Bermuda. While it’s easy to see possible origins for the word here, one etymologist suggests that rum comes from an English and Dutch interpretation of the Romany word rom, defined as “excellent, fine and good.” Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: AU: Once the drink of sailors and swashbuckling pirates, rum is the most versatile — and the most varied — spirit in the world. It is consumed neat as a sipping drink, on the rocks, and in a dizzying variety of cocktails like the mai tai, mojito, and pina colada. In Rum Curious, author Fred Minnick first takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the world of rum, describing its many styles; explaining the great variety of fermenting, distilling, and maturing processes; and highlighting distillers and distilleries. He then teaches the reader about tasting rum — revealing the experience offered by brands ranging from the familiar to the unusual and obscure. A final section provides recipes for classic and innovative rum cocktails from around the world. Rum Curious is the one book the reader will need to understand and appreciate rum in all its glorious variety. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.