Rum from the top of the world
History of Rum

Today's press would have us believe that rum has become "the new vodka" - the latest drink for trendy socialites who may be seen flocking to the rum bars springing up daily in the world's most fashionable capitals. To rum aficionados, however, this must seem somewhat amusing.

For a start, rum is hardly new - it's been part of history for more than three hundred years. And the notion of rum bars being a thoroughly modern invention will surprise anyone who has visited the Caribbean - the islands are packed with everything from posh pubs to ramshackle huts dedicated to the pursuit of rum-drinking. And they've been there a long time.

Some say that vodka is the most popular spirit in the world; others say rum. While there's no doubt that Bacardi is the best-selling individual spirit brand in the world, it's unlikely that anyone will ever establish the wider truth. Travel to any rum-producing country and you stumble across men swiggling rough rum from unlabelled plastic bottles. Where does this come from? Does a local distiller supply it or is it unrecorded moonshine?

One of the joy's of rum is that it comes in an array of richly diverse guises. It's easy to say that rum is the distilled product of fermented molasses or sugar cane juice, but there is a world of difference between an unaged, fresh-from-the-column-still white rum that you drink with cola and a pot still-produced, golden rum, aged for years in oak casks and deep with nuances of flavour. They are two totally different drinks.

Things are complicated further still when one explores cultural attitudes. In Mexico, for instance, rum is usually consumed "straight up" while most of Europe sees it as a mixable spirit. In Central Europe, rum is rarely perceived as a premium product and the Spaniards claim Cuban rum to be the only genuine article. Not to mention the fact that in the Caribbean rum is sprinkled on a new baby's forehead, that Jamaicans believe in the topical healing properties of rum, or that rum plays a significant role in Haitian voodoo ceremonies.
Historical Highlights
What's in a name ?
It is thought that the name "rum" was first coined in Barbados, although no one really knows how or when it originated. Compared with some of the more exotic language used to describe it in the past, however - rumbustion, Barbados water, redeye, rumscullion, Devil's death and rumbo - "rum" sounds rather dull.

And what about "Kill-Devil", as English author Richard Ligon aptly described Bajan rum in the 1640s when rum was so crude and strong it could "overpower

the senses with a single whiff". Indeed, as Ligon wrote, "It lays them to sleep on the ground!" - permanently in many cases.

Ten years later, another idiom appeared in a report written by anonymous visitor to Barbados: "The chiefe fudling they make in the Island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar cane distilled, a hott, hellish and terrible liquor." Rumbullion was already part of the Devonshire dialect at this time, used to describe "a great tumult", which speaks for itself if the rum was anything like as vile as these old writings suggest.

Nelson's Blood is yet another lovely epithet, gleaned from the widely held belief that Nelson's body was brought back to England in a barrel of rum. In truth, the cask was filled with brandy but either way he's said to have had a smile on his face.

Rum is made from the natural by-products of sugar production and it could be said that the Caribbean rum industry was established, albeit indirectly, by Christopher Columbus. After his initial voyage across the Atlantic, Columbus was back again in the West Indies in 1493 and this time he took with him sugar cane cuttings from the Canary Islands and planted them in Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Sugar making quickly spread around the Caribbean islands but it generated enormous amounts of molasses syrup for which no good use could be found to begin with. In the production of sugar, the cane is crushed to extract the juice, which crystallizes into blocks of sugar when heated. A substantial p-art of the liquid remains unsolidified and this waste material was called 'melazas' due to its hone-like sweetness (in Spanish, 'miel' means honey); in English, this became molasses.

It was eventually noticed that this sticky syrup fermented when left in the sun and by the 1650s mixtures of molasses, cane juice and water were being distilled. From its capacity to 'mount up unto the head', this early rum was called 'kill-devil' on Barbados, where English colonists had settled. The French on neighbouring islands rendered this as 'guildhive' and a rum distillery was a 'guildhiverie'.

The modern English word 'rum' is thought to be short for 'rumbullion' (although the meaning of this is obscure) and was in use in its shortened form by the 1670s; the French call it 'rhum', which is made in a 'rhumerie', and Spanish-speakers 'ron', made in a 'roneria'.

Rum became very big in the British colonies on the east coast of America. At first, rum was traded for pine logs and dried fish but eventually stabilized concentrated molasses was shipped there for the colonists to make their own. In fact, taxes that London wanted to impose on the colonists' rum played their part in the discontent that led to the Boston tea Party in 1773. Rum even displaced gin as the preferred spirit in England in the 18th century and rum punch became very popular. There were 300 punch houses in London alone and every genteel sitting room had a punch bowl on the credenza.

Rum was the drink of the buccaneers on the Spanish Main; many of them were commissioned by their governments to attack shipping in return for 10 percent of the plunder.

The Royal Navy issued rum rations as far back as 1655 as a shipboard substitute for water and beer, which went bad within weeks. Unfortunately, too many men were falling out of the rigging due to the influence of the daily half-pint of 80% vol/160 US proof rum allowance that was standard by 1731.

It was subsequently mixed with an equal amount of water to mitigate the effect and the rum ration remained part of navy routine until it was phased out in 1969.
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