George Washington is remembered as being one of the most respected individuals in American history. He was the General of the Army that defeated the British, he was the first President, and he was one of the great provocateurs before the American Revolution. He was a distiller, making his own beer and whiskey. He also knew quite well what spirits the people of colonial America liked to drink. He ordered 28 gallons of a particular spirit to distribute while he was running for the House of Burgess in Virginia. He also demanded it as a ration for his troops during the brutal winter they spent at Valley Forge and made sure that the fighting men got it before the officers did. When the war was over and Washington attended his inauguration, he (illegally) had a barrel of the finest imported. Whiskey was not a major American drink until after the war. The spirit that Washington, and all colonists were so fond of, was rum.
Rum was rough when it was first made. It was called kill-devil by most, but also referred to by several British slang words like rumbustion or rumbullion, both of which were terms referring to an upheaval. As it started to rise through the gentry, it became more refined with very basic distilling technology. It also became more popular as a drink to take on long voyages. Most ships of the era were outfitted with large supplies of beer and water. Rum did not go bad like the beer eventually did, nor did it suffer the same contamination that water was suspect to. Moreover, it was discovered that the long trips to Britain and America in oak barrels mellowed the rum and made it a much better quality liquor. It became a staple not only in the British navy, but on the pirate ships that were attracted to the Caribbean area for its developing wealth. The British were not prepared for the strength of the new spirit over beer. Rum started to be mixed with water, brown sugar, and lime. This had two effects: it stopped the sailors from being dead drunk and it gave them enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. This gave the British a distinct advantage in sea combat. It remained a staple until 1970, when having buzzed sailors and modern weapons seemed to be a bad idea.
America loved it as well. Rhode Island created rum that was as good, if not better, than rums coming from the tropics. The colonies were awash with it. Rum was in punches and any other drink you could ask for while traveling. It was also part of the slave trade, with people selling molasses to the colonies to get money to buy slaves. On average, colonists were drinking about four gallons per person per year. England took note of that, and imposed the Molasses Act in 1733 and Sugar Act in 1764, taxing the ingredients that helped to make rum. In 1775, the American Revolution began, and the rum started to flow out of America. Molasses became harder to come by. Not long after the revolution, as Americans moved west, whiskey started to be made in larger quantities in Ohio and Kentucky. Rum fell out of favor for a very long time, making a brief reappearance during Prohibition, then again after World War Two during the Tiki drink craze that swept the fifties and sixties.
Rum is distilled from one of two sources, either of which must come from sugar: molasses or sugar cane juice. Sugar cane juice is a little rarer (and known as rhum), so the bulk of the rum we all drink is made from molasses. It makes sense; the original rums were distilled from molasses, which was no more than a sticky, hard to dispose of byproduct when people were making sugar. There was just enough sugar left in it, with the help of some yeast, to turn it into something that was drinkable. Since rum was originally distilled among the many islands of the Caribbean, there is no one way for any particular rum to be created. Different yeast strains, stills, and methods are all employed by the various companies, making no two rums alike. It is hard to categorize all of the rum that is available in the market, but these are some common distinctions:
- Light (silver) rum – They are milder and sweeter in general than most rums. The bulk of silver rum comes from Puerto Rico or Brazil (called cachaca). These are the ones you will find in most cocktails.
- Gold rum – They usually have been aged in charred oak barrels, which gives them a little more color than the younger silvers. These barrels usually come from bourbon, which adds richness to the flavor.
- Dark rum – Deep brown or red in color, these are more often used in cooking. They are aged longer, adding richer molasses and caramel tones to them. Dark rums usually come from Jamaica, Haiti, or Martinique.
- Overproof rum – Gold colored rum with a very high ABV (Alcohol by Volume), usually around 151 proof.
- Spiced rum – Spices are added, usually to gold rums, to enhance the natural flavor of the rum. They can also be darkened with caramel color.
- Flavored rum – Usually silver in color and lower in ABV, they make up for it with added flavors. The flavors selected, usually tropical in nature, blend well with the natural sweetness of the rum. They are usually added to a mixer as an enhancement.
Some places still offer gunpowder rum (exactly as it sound: run mixed with gunpowder), and there are many fine sipping rums as well that are made in pot stills and very small batches.
Rum is starting to make a comeback from a very long hiatus. The craft cocktail movement, with its love of the classics, has brought this spirit back. The first cocktails were made of rum, littering the early years of America with recipes. Fish House Punch, flips, shrubs, and daiquiris (who have their own day on July 19th) all are cocktails that have a strong rum base. Mojitos are a wonderful summer cocktail, and the mai tai is considered a classic of the tiki era. Everything about rum invites fresh and tropical, perfect summer sipping. The complexity of rum offers an excellent base for cocktails.
From pirates to presidents, rum has been a spirit that has stayed close to the hands of people who enjoy a cocktail or two. Bourbon is considered the “spirit of America”, but the people who built America were fonder of their rum than whiskey of any sort. In recognition of the spirit and the day, find a restaurant with a patio that will make you a classic daiquiri. Summer is only going to last for so long, so enjoy!