When most people think of spirits in the United States, they think of Rye, Bourbon, or Tennessee Sour Mash – the Holy Trinity of American Whiskey. What they don’t realize is that another spirit has defined the US – and pretty much the entirety of the Western Hemisphere – almost since Europeans first set foot on the Western side of the Atlantic Ocean. That spirit, of course, is rum.
In the 17th Century, sugar cane and its associated products were to the world powers what oil and its products are today. The European colonies that dotted the Caribbean produced sugar in vast amounts on plantations, and traded with the home-countries as well as with the other, non-sugar-producing colonies. Wars were fought with and for sugar and its spirited offspring, rum. Author Ian Williams (Rum: A Social & Sociable History of The Real Spirit of 1776) often says that the Caribbean “was the Middle East of the 17th Century.”
During the 18th Century rum established itself as a force in the colonial economy. the colonies that made up New England purchased a great deal of molasses to process it into rum – both for local consumption and for use in trade. People often refer to the Triangular Trade of molasses and sugar from the islands being shipped to the colonies to be converted to rum to be shipped to Africa (along with other goods) in exchange for slaves which could then be sent back to the islands to harvest more sugar cane.
When the colonists traded with Native Americans, it was often rum they used as currency. When the traders from New England traded with the plantation owners of the South, rum was usually a large part of the exchange.
Rum was so ubiquitous that it was estimated (according to Wayne Curtis’ …and a Bottle of Rum) that shortly before the Colonials began extricating themselves from British rule, the average American was drinking up to seven shots of rum per day. As the American Revolution neared, rum had seeped into just about every facet of American life.
“No taxation without representation” was the cry of the revolutionaries. The British government was levying unfair (in the eyes of the colonists) taxes on everything that colonials saw as necessities for living, and rum was up at the top of the list. The British heavily taxed (through the Molasses Act of 1733 and later the Sugar Act of 1764) molasses and rum exports from its Caribbean colonies to its colonies on the mainland and outlawed trade with the French islands, which could provide molasses at 1/3 the cost of the British islands.
During the War for Independence, the Colonial Army and Navy ran on rations of rum. George Washington famously ordered a double-ration of rum for his troops on second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1778, and celebrated his first inauguration as President of the United States in 1789 with barrels of rum being offered to his guests.
While rum’s eventual usurpation by whiskey caused it to fall to the periphery of the American consciousness for almost a century, its recent renaissance provides Americans with plenty of options to return to their molasses-soaked roots by drinking any of a number of American-made rums today. Tipplers looking for classic American-style rums can find products such as Prichard’s Fine Rum from Tennessee or Thomas Tew Pot Still Rum from Rhode Island. More modern-styled offerings can be had from Old New Orleans Rum, Maui Rum, Sergeant Classick Rum, or Rogue Spirits – and a host of others.
And if you’re interested in a nice drink to capture the spirit of your forefathers (or just looking for some really interesting rum drinks), there are plenty of options: from the basic grog to a shrub made with local fruits to the more adventurous flip. For a great, refreshing, summer-time drink, you can’t go wrong with Fish House Punch (recipe nicked from …and a Bottle of Rum – but there are quite a few great recipes in books like Dave Wondrich’s Imbibe!).
Philadelphia Fish House Punch
2 oz Rum (used Prichard’s Fine Rum)
1 oz Cognac
1 oz Lemon Juice
2 tsp Sugar
.5 tsp Peach Brandy
Water or Club Soda
Mix ingredients in a tin (save the soda if you’re using that instead of water) and shake with ice and strain into a collins glass filled with ice. If using soda, top with soda. Garnish with fresh peach slices or a lemon wedge.
Of course, America’s history with rum doesn’t end in 1776. Although rum did lose ground to whiskey as farmers pushed into Tennessee, Kentucky, and the rest of what would become America’s “Bread Basket” – thus making whiskey much cheaper and easier to produce than rum – rum would make a comeback…but that’s for Part 2.
This post is part of the Rum 101 series of posts