Today, we’re taking a look at the often violent and cruel but never boring history and culture of rum. Rum came about when European colonists brought sugar cane which is native to Asia to the Caribbean and South America, and African slaves to work the plantations. They also brought a knowledge of distillation from making whisky or brandy which they applied to either the byproduct of sugar refining, molasses, or the sugar cane itself. 

This began as a rather rough and ready drink but it was discovered how the raw spirit improved and mellowed on the journey from the Caribbean. Eventually aged rum from Barbados, Jamaica, and elsewhere came to be highly prized. Today rum isn’t just made in the Americas, there are sugar cane spirits from Fiji, Australia and even Scotland (from imported molasses, natch).

Here are a few facts that you probably didn’t know about rum but if you did already, I’m sure you’ll tell us on social media. 

Jamaican rum

Molasses fermenting at Long Pond in Jamaica – whatever you do, do not drink this stuff!

You really wouldn’t want to drink undistilled rum

While whisky is essentially just distilled ale and you can drink the wash if it’s offered to you on a distillery tour, you really wouldn’t want to do the same thing with rum. To make rum the molasses (or sugar cane juice) is mixed with water and ambient yeasts (or cultured ones) convert all that sugar into a drink of about 8-9% ABV. Whatever you do, do not drink it, because it is a powerful laxative. Remember that when visiting a rum distillery. 

Rum means violence

Rum doesn’t just have a savage history, the word itself has violent origins. It probably derives from a West Country word ‘rumbullion’ meaning a fight or disturbance. Another synonym for rum was ‘kill devil’. There’s another theory that ‘rum’ actually comes from the Latin for sugar cane, saccharum. But that’s a lot less fun.

The Royal Navy invented the Daiquiri

From 1731 every sailor in the Royal Navy was given a pint (roughly a modern American pint, 473ml) of rum a day. To dilute this fearsome drink, in 1740 Admiral Vernon came up with a concoction of one part rum mixed with four parts water with lemon juice and brown sugar. Yes, it’s essentially a Daiquiri. Not only did the diluted rum stop sailors getting too hammered but it would also have helped prevent scurvy. It became known as ‘grog’ after Admiral Vernon’s nickname, Old Grogram because of the cloak he wore made of a waterproof fabric called grogram.

Amazing rum facts - Captain Morgan

The real Captain Morgan, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him

Captain Morgan was a real person

He’s not just that handsome swashbuckler on a bottle of rum, Captain Henry Morgan was a real person and probably a complete bastard. He began his career as a privateer, essentially a licensed pirate, plundering Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and America. His most famous raid was in 1671 on Panama City which became a byword for brutality. He later became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and owned some of the largest slave plantations on the island.

Rum caused the American revolution

You thought it was all about tea, didn’t you? No, actually it was because the American colonists didn’t want to pay tax on molasses. The tax was to pay for the Seven Years War against the French – which fans of The Last of The Mohicans will remember vividly. So the colonists smuggled molasses from the French Caribbean into New England where it was made into rum. The British had turned a blind eye to this for years, the revolt sparked in 1773 when they tried to collect the taxes. It led to rioting and the boycott of British goods. The Boston tea party was actually a group of wealthy smugglers protesting against cheap tea from the East India Company that was undercutting their rum. 

Header image shows slaves loading rum barrels from ‘Ten Views in the Island of Antigua’ (1823) by William Clark. Image credit: British Library