Marauding pirates, drunken sailors and the infamous triangular slave trade are all protagonists in the colourful history of rum.
Words by Natasha Were. Historic images courtesy of Bacardi.
Like the region it has its roots in though, rum has shaken off its murky past, to become one of the world‘s favourite tipples, with premium varieties gracing the top shelves of cocktail bars the world over.
Rum's story is the story of the West Indies. From the arrival of the first Europeans and their expansion into these island outposts, to the rise and fall of a plantation economy and the havoc wrought by lawless privateers, through to its transformation into the sophisticated vacation destination it is today, rum is inextricably linked to the region.
In taking a few stalks of sugarcane with him on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus could not have known that he was shaping the course of history. But the hot, humid climate of the Caribbean proved ideal for sugarcane cultivation and, with Europeans developing an insatiable appetite for all things sweet, it was not long before plantations were flourishing throughout the islands.
Quite where or when the forerunner of the rum we know today was first created is not certain, but like so many enduring commodities, its creation was born out of necessity.
Even in its most primitive and fiery incarnation, rum – or Kill Devil, as it was originally called – offered a productive solution to managing the waste from sugar production: following extraction of the sugarcane juice, and its crystallisation into sugar, a viscous brown syrup remained. This syrup, otherwise known as molasses, was initially dumped into rivers and oceans – until it was discovered that it could be fermented, diluted and turned into an alcoholic brew that was, according to early critics "hot, hellish and terrible."
Foul though it was, the potent brew offered a means to raise spirits, or at least soften the edges of a harsh existence, both for the pirates who terrorised the region, and later the Navy sailors whom plantation owners tempted into port with discounted prices, in the hope that their presence would deter the pirates.
A ration of rum served to sailors in a daily ritual called 'Up Spirits' soon became standard practice in the British Navy, and would remain so until 1970.
Inevitably, the passage of time saw vast improvements in rum production methods and rum rose from being a spirit worthy only the roughest and most undiscerning drinkers, to an exotic beverage that was exported to Europe and the new colonies of North America.
While aging rum in oak barrels added colour, aroma and a smoother taste, and blending two or more rums gave the spirit greater complexity, for much of the latter part of the 20th century rum was considered little more than the almost-flavourless alcoholic component of frothy, fruity cocktails with exotic names. This association of rum with Piña Coladas and Daiquiri-style concoctions did no favours to those producing increasingly elegant, premium rums, however.
As consumers have become more informed about the quality of the spirits they imbibe, their appreciation for truly fine rums has grown. Most bars and restaurants today carry at least one or two premium rums: darker, heavier bodied and exuding warmth and depth of flavour, premium rums are best served straight up, in order to appreciate their subtle complexities.
It's been a centuries-long evolution for this amber nectar, from rough and ready to supremely sophisticated, and its transformation echoes that of the region as a whole. In more ways than one, rum truly is the spirit of the Caribbean.
One of the original purveyors of Caribbean rum, Bacardí‘s 8 was once reserved solely for family consumption. Deep and mellow, with hints of prune, apricot, nutmeg and vanilla, the barrel-aged golden elixir is ideal for sipping or a crafting a delicious cocktail. www.bacardi.com Available in Cayman at Blackbeard's or Big Daddy's.
This aromatic sugar-based rum, which uses only first press sugar cane, is sweeter and smoother than most. Delightfully intricate with honeyed butterscotch, spiced oak and raisined fruit, the light mahogany liquor is aged at high altitude in ex-American whiskey casks for a complex and full-bodied rum. www.zacaparum.com Available in Cayman at Jacques Scott.
Authentically Jamaican, this small batch pot distilled dark rum is rich and complex. With a predominant note of molasses, it also presents hints of cocoa and Demerara sugar. Balanced with gentle spice, it‘s good to the finish. www.blackwellrum.com
Derived from the Latin saccharum meaning sugar, rum, or rhum, as it is called in the French West Indies, was once considered a currency at sea. Known in earlier times as Rumbullion, Kill Devil, Barbados Waters, Red-eye and Nelson's Blood, this golden elixir is distilled from the fermented sugar of the sugar cane plant, in the form of fresh juice, cane syrup or molasses.
Locally made rum, generally prohibited, it is an extremely potent overproof concoction that is sold under-the-counter and usually found during sugar harvest time.
An alcoholic drink made with water, the word is attributed to West Indies Station Leader, Admiral Vernon, nicknamed 'Old Grogham' for the boatcloack he wore. He first ordered the dilution of rum rations in 1740 so it could not be hoarded.
Derived from the 18th century term for British sailors who sucked on limes to prevent scurvy, it came to be known for relaxing. In the islands it is now commonly used to refer to relaxing with friends often whilst drinking rum.
Legend has it that after Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, his body was placed in a cask of Pusser's Rum to preserve it for the long passage back to England. Upon arrival, his pickled body was removed only to discovered that sailors had drilled a hole at the base of the cask through which they had drained most of the rum, thereby drinking 'Nelson‘s Blood.'
Rum made from fresh cane juice, as opposed to molasses.
There is no requirement as to how old rum needs to be for añejo designation, though most are aged more than a couple of years.
Rum made from molasses, as opposed to fresh cane juice.
Straw-colored rum that has aged fewer than the three years.
Rum that has been barrel-aged for more than three years in a barrel of less than 650 litres.
The cask from which the daily ration of rum was issued. Like the modern day ‘water cooler,‘ it served as a gathering point around which rumours were exchanged and gave rise to the term ‘scuttlebutt,‘ meaning 'to gossip.'
An unlawful prank whereby sailors stationed in the West Indies would fill empty coconuts with illegal rum and bring them back aboard the ship.
Generally light-bodied, they are usually clear with a very subtle flavour profile. Primarily used as mixers, they blend well with fruit flavours.
Having aged several years in oak casks, these medium-bodied rums demonstrate smooth, mellow palates.
Rich, full-bodied and traditionally caramel-dominated, dark rums are typically produced from pot stills and aged in oak casks for extended periods.
Typically infused with spices or fruit flavours, spiced rum can be white, golden or dark, and are popular for blending with mixers.
Blended from different vintages or batches to guarantee flavour continuity from year-to-year, aged-rums typically give age statements identifying the youngest rum in the blend.
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