The last ten years have been all about whiskey. The aged spirit made a roaring comeback thanks, in large part, to Matthew Weiner’s hit series Mad Men. Distilleries have popped up all over the nation as America’s signature drink re-found its place on every bar shelf around the country.
And, you know what? That’s great. American whiskeys — bourbons, ryes, blends — are a fantastic representation of the whiskey oeuvre. But as long as we’re re-embracing dark liquor, maybe it’s finally time to bring back America’s true national spirit: Rum.
Some of you are probably thinking, “but there’s nothing more American than whiskey.” Not true, friends. America was rum country for nearly two centuries before whiskey came to real prominence. Plus, there’s a good argument that American independence is directly tied to our love of the sweet brown stuff, literally.
So, let’s dive into rum, how it’s the quintessential American drink, and what bottles you should be looking for right now.
The Early Days of Rum
Before you start buying cases of American rum and chanting U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A with your newly found national pride in all things rum, we have to point out that American colonial rum has a very dark history, much like most of American history. Let’s also be clear: There’s no singular moment when “rum” came into being. The Malay people were distilling and drinking sugar spirits called “brum” thousands of years ago. Marco Polo even talks about drinking a sort of “wine of sugar” while traversing Iran in the late 1200s.
So, humanity has been distilling and getting lit on a type of rum, one way or another, for millennia.
The rum we think of today does have a point of conception, though. It was born in the Caribbean due to slavery. Slaves were allowed to use the waste of the sugar manufacturing industry of the late 1500s — in short, molasses. The slaves then turned that molasses into rum as a sort of analgesic for the pain of everyday life. Once the slave owners realized that it tasted good, they stole it for themselves (par for the course, when you’re talking colonial history).
In one of the most ironic twists of fate ever, rum became beloved in the European colonies so much so that it drove and massively amplified the slave trade. In what was called “Triangular Trade,” slaves would be transported to the North and South American colonies to grow and process sugar cane (and other agricultural products), those raw materials would be shipped to Britain and Europe and turned into rum, textiles, and other goods which would then be sent to West Africa to trade for more slaves.
Around and around that horrific trade went for nearly three centuries.
As more and more British colonialists flooded into the American colonies in the latter half of the 1600s, they brought rum distilling with them. It’s believed — though it may be a myth — that the first rum distillery in America opened on Staten Island in 1664. It is known however that there definitely was a rum distillery in Boston by 1667 and 100 years later there were 50 rum distilleries in Boston alone.
This kinda pissed off the British back home. One, the colonialist were taking a cut off the top and, thereby, lowering the amount of rum they could produce in England to then trade for slaves in West Africa. So, in 1733, the British levied the first tariff on the molasses trade against the colonies, The Molasses Act. At the end of the day, American colonists found a way to avoid the tariff though. The new American rum distillers simply stopped buying their molasses from French, Dutch, or Spanish Caribbean colonies and only bought from British ones, to avoid the dreaded Molasses Act tariffs.
In the meantime, rum became the drink of the colonies. On average, every man, woman, and child in the American colonies were drinking three imperial gallons of rum yearly by the 1750s. That’s 461 US ounces, or 1.25 ounces (a shot) a day. Given that little kids and babies probably (mostly) weren’t drinking a shot a day and there were plenty of Puritan teetotalers, that’s a lot of rum being guzzled by the majority of adults. Rum was so big that it was the biggest industry in the American colonies leading up to the American Revolution. Rhode Island rum was so popular that it was used in place of gold as currency.
Let that one sink in. The biggest industry in America as our fight for independence neared wasn’t timber, or cotton, or whiskey, or guns. It was rum.
Then 1764 happened. This is the year the American Revenue Act was passed by the British Parliament to basically punish the Americans for avoiding the molasses tax of 1733 and skimming huge amounts of raw materials from the British West Indies without paying a tariff on them — molasses for rum being the biggest one. Case in point, the act was popularly called The Sugar Act. And from it was born the rallying cry that would drive the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation.” It boiled down to, “Don’t tax our molasses because we love rum, damn it!” War ensued.