Welcome to A Brief History of Rum. We drank all the rums and cocktails + read all the rum and tiki books we could get our hands on. It’s been hard work, but someone had to do it. By the end of this article, I hope you have a newfound fascination for this underappreciated spirit, or a deeper appreciation if you (like us) are already singing, “YO HO YO HO A PIRATE’S LIFE FOR ME!” on the regular. We’ll start by diving into the birthplace of rum – the Carribean – and then venture to sunny California and talk Tiki. But we can’t stop there. California is only part of the story when it comes to Tiki history, so we’re also flying nonstop to Hawaii to talk Polynesian culture and its influence on what we view as ‘Tiki’ today.
Sugar Addicts and the Abuse of Slave Labor
Rum is a spirit distilled from the components of harvested sugarcane, a grass twice as tall as you or I that grows abundantly in tropical climates like its native country of Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and islands in the Caribbean like Barbados. Before the birth of rum, sugarcane was grown in the Caribbean to produce refined sugars that were sent back on British ships.
The harvesting of rum was an extremely difficult process, and African slaves were brought to the Caribbean to harvest and process the sugarcane. Sugar was the oil of its time. Between 1709 and 1807, 2.5 million slaves made the journey across the Atlantic on British ships alone. All of this granular sugar production had a byproduct: molasses. Eventually on the island of Barbados, where slaves outnumbered Europeans two to one, the first pots of fermented and distilled molasses a.k.a. RUM were made. This traditional and original distillation process is today referred to as “pot stilled.” First drunk mostly by locals, rum production then expanded across the Caribbean.
Rum didn’t reach the gin-drinking Europeans until the British Navy got ahold of it. Sailors then were given a ration of rum each day. Over time the sailors grew dependent on the substance and being drunk was their evening activity. To solve the issue of drunken sailors the British Navy started cutting the rum with water. This eventually evolved into adding sugar and citrus (lemon, limes) and was given the name grog. It got you drunk, it cured your scurvy, but it probably didn’t taste as good as the first cocktail we are going to talk about today, even though it has all the same ingredients.
Daiquiri No. 1
We’re gonna have to jump forward in our narrative timeline to the Prohibition Era of the ‘30’s to discover this classic cocktail. Birthed in Cuba and made infamous by The Cocktail King of Cuba Constante Ribalaigua at Bar La Florida in Havana, the daiquiri will go down in history as one of the simplest and most elegant cocktails known to mankind. Get your coupes chilled, it’s daiquiri time.
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce Demerara syrup
2 ounces blended lightly aged rum
Just add your ingredients (sour, sweet, spirit) to a cocktail shaker with crushed or cubed ice, shake, then double-strain into your chilled coupe glass. Traditionally there was no garnish on the daiquiri, but a lime slice on the rim won’t hurt. If I don’t have a coupe handy I will just open-pour (ice and all) into whatever glass I have and top it with more crushed ice to keep it cool. It will be just as tasty, maybe just not as elegant.
A note on citrus: always, always, for the love of God, use fresh squeezed juice when you are making a cocktail. The cocktail you create is only as good as the sum of its parts and this drink only has three ingredients! If you don’t like squeezing juice, you probably don’t have a great reamer. My personal favorite is the oxo two-in-one citrus juicer. It juices, strains, and measures all with one foul twist.
A note on sugar and syrups: all but one of the recipes you will find in this article calls for 2:1 Demerara syrup. It adds an even sweetness to cocktails without diluting it with unnecessary water. Using Demerara sugar, as opposed to white sugar, is an attempt to mimic the more unrefined sugars used at the time of the cocktail’s creation. Easily spotted due to its large granular structure and darker coloring from residual molasses, Demerara sugar results in a more complex flavor that adds a little something extra to your drink. Yum! Sub raw sugar or light brown sugar in a pinch – and of course using simple syrup made with white sugar is fine too! But if you couldn’t tell, we like elevating things a bit when we can. Check the resources at the end of the article for our simple syrup recipe.
A note on rum: in our first cocktail of the day, the daiquiri, we recommend using a blended lightly aged rum like the ever excellent Appleton Estate Signature Blend rum from Jamaica. This decision is also an attempt to mimic the rum that was likely used in the daiquiri at the time of the drink’s creation. Today, it’s common to see a white rum used for the daiquiri. You can and should try it both ways and in the end make your daiquiri however you damn well please! This is all about enjoyment after all.
The Rum Revolutions
We last left off with the idea that rum didn’t become popular in Europe, especially England, until British naval sailors got a taste for grog on their long voyages at sea and brought home with them a thirst for heavy bodied and high-proof rum. Today, that type of rum can be distinguished as ‘Navy Style.’
Below is a handy map of the Caribbean with all of the islands we name drop through the article highlighted. We’ve already mentioned Barbados: the birthplace of rum, Cuba: home of the daiquiri, and Jamaica: home to Appleton Estates Rum.
Rum was also an important part of the American Revolution. Long story short, the British made it difficult for American colonies to produce rum by taxing the shipment of material required for the production of rum from all parts of the Caribbean. First there was the Molasses Act of 1733, then the Sugar Act of 1763. These acts were contested by the colonies, which helped spark the idea of an American Revolution. After the War of 1812, Britain began freeing their slaves and it became almost impossible to produce rum due to increased costs. Rum popularity and production declined greatly in America. This coincided with the rise in popularity of a new spirit, whiskey, that was grown and produced in America and had no ties to those people across the pond.
On the island of Martinique in the town of Saint-Pierre, sugar producers were having to slow down production due to the increasing size of the sugar beet industry in Europe, which was making more affordable sugar on their own soil. They had all of this sugarcane and didn’t know what to do with it, so Martinique distilleries started producing rum with the fresh cane juice that previously was crystallized into sugar. This new style of rum became known as rhum agricole and grew in popularity from 1820 on.
Bacardi, the King of Column Still Rum
On the island of Cuba, which was colonized by Spain, rum production was temporarily outlawed due to Spain’s concern that it would interfere with their wine market. However, it was difficult to keep the rum distilling from happening, and rum production became legal on the island in 1764. In 1832, the newly invented column still allowed for the distillation of lighter refined rums, and the Bacardi family grew their rum distillery + popularized column still rums during American prohibition. People flew to Cuba in droves and discovered iconic cocktails like the aforementioned daiquiri.
This trend of cleaner and less-aged rums continued to grow in popularity. And by the 1940s, Americans were enjoying their Rum & Cokes. By the 1980s, these cheap and flavorless rums started adding spices and artificial flavors to the mix. If you know anything about cocktail culture, you know that around this time was the death of cocktails. Thankfully, with the resurgence of cocktail love in the 2000s, premium aged rums once again became popular. People wanted authentic flavor, and the Caribbean was up to the task. Modern distilleries like Appleton Estates out of Jamaica are proud of their rum heritage and expertise, and it shows through their high quality blends crafted by master blender Joy Spence, the first ever woman master blender. Check her insta for more rum love. <3
Queen’s Park Swizzle
Another break from the story means another cocktail! The Queen’s Park Swizzle gets its name from the Queens Park Hotel, where the cocktail was originally served, in Trinidad. The ‘Swizzle’ part of the name is from the technique used to make the cocktail – you swizzle it! Let me explain: On the island of Trinidad, a plant with long distinct branches grows, called the Swizzle Stick Tree. Back in the day, these were stuck into a highball glass and were rubbed between the bartender’s palms to twist the stick and agitate the drink vigorously. This technique chilled and incorporated the drink quickly, resulting in a frosty ice crust on the outside of the glass. Today, we use a bar spoon to get the job done, but if you want to go that extra mile you can still get the OG swizzle sticks from Cocktail Kingdom.
4 mint leaves
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce Demerara syrup
2 ounces black blended rum
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add your mint, lime juice, and syrup to a highball glass. We like throwing in a cube of coarse Demerara sugar at this point as well, to help with the muddling and to give the drink texture. Muddle gently. Add the rum and crushed ice till the glass is ¾ full. Now swizzle the contents vigorously, moving the bar spoon up and down in the drink and incorporating all of its contents thoroughly. Do so until you have a frosted layer on the outside of the glass. Top with additional crushed ice to fill the glass full and dash your bitters on top. Garnish with a mint sprig and a napkin wrap. It’s easy – unfold a cocktail napkin and roll it like a bandana you want to wear around your head. Instead, tie it around your drink for a convenient spot to hold this frigid concoction.
A note on black blended rum: this type of rum is arguably the only type that’s flavor is actually determined by its color. It’s black because of the addition of molasses after the rum is distilled. We love Goslings Black Seal Rum for this cocktail, affordable and without diminishing flavor. But Appleton Estate or any other rum will really do. The important thing is you find the rum that suits you. Speaking of which, here’s a little rum cheat sheet for you to reference next time you’re overwhelmed in the rum aisle. These rums are readily available where I live, and my understanding is they are readily available nationwide!
Rum Shopping List
Pot Still \ OG rum. Funky flavors. Less refined.
$ \ Pusser’s British Blue Bottle
$$ \ Smith & Cross
Column Still \ Lighter in flavor. More refined.
$ \ Flor de Caña Gran Reserve
$$ \ Flor de Caña 12 Year
Blended Aged \ Usually combines multiple ages to create a balanced flavor. The number on the bottle typically signifies the youngest aged rum of the blend.
$ \ Appleton Estate Signature Blend
$$ \ Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year
Dark \ Added molasses after distillation for flavor. This is the only rum where the color denotes flavor. Many rums have color added for visual brand consistency.
$ \ Goslings Black Seal Rum
Rhum Agricole \ Distinct flavor and process. Uses fresh cane juice. ‘Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique’ is a label you will see that can only be legally given to a rum produced on the island of Martinique using fresh cane juice.
$$ \ Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique
Rum Wrap-up \ Aloha Tiki
We talked about the complex history of rum, introduced you to the distinct categories that comprise this spirit, and wrapped things up by praising the current boom in the premium rum market + growing diversity of voices within it. Want more rum goodness? Interested in Tiki culture? Check out Part Two of this rum saga, where you’ll be introduced to the creators of Tiki, learn of its rise and downfall, and how we can start to deal with the problematic aspects of its modern revival.
Smugglers Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki, Martin Cate \ Link
Ian Burrell Global Rum Ambassador \ Link
Simple Syrup Recipe
Add two parts Demerara sugar to one part water in a pot. Use a scale to make the process quick and accurate. Bring to a light boil and stir till fully dissolved and clear. Let cool and store in a glass jar or bottle. I store mine in salvaged and washed clear glass beer bottles. Throw a pour spout on the top like the ones you use for olive oil to experience a drip free pour.