The origin of rum can be traced to India or China and the surrounding regions of South East Asia where sugarcane was mostly grown. Marco Polo mentions having some in his 14th century logs and Malay people are known to have been drinking rum since 1000AD.
The modern day rum was possibly first distilled on the Caribbean islands where slaves found that after extracting sugar, the molasses could be fermented and then distilled to yield concentrated alcohol. This rum would have little in common with the smooth aged product we drink today but it was the start. A 1651 document from Barbados mentions this, calling the terrible liquor Kill-Devil or Rumbullion.
Interestingly, the word Rum, it is said, comes form Rumbullion or Rumbustion, which was a colloquial way of saying uproar or a loud noise which is pretty much what happened from copious consumption of rum. Other names include Pirate’s Drink, Red Eye, and Navy Neaters. But one likely possibility is that rum comes simply from the Latin name for sugar, Saccharum, which isn’t half as colourful a story!
From here, in the 1700s, the drink migrated to the US where distilleries soon sprang up along the east coast. Men, women and children had an average consumption of 13.5 litres a year. These versions of Americian Rums fared better in quality and competed with each other for taste, with some version becoming an acceptable currency even in Europe, in line with gold.
Rum rations were common among the navy for health reasons (right until 1870) which would be consumed after the water and beer onboard were over. In fact, there was nothing worse than a watered down rum, something the sailors checked by mixing it with gunpowder and lighting it. Only spirit over 57% would light up. And that’s where we get the term proof for strength of alcohol.
So ships had to carry rum for consumption as also for trade. So good was the rum trade that many English navy officers went over to the dark side to become pirates because the money was so good and the rum wasn’t rationed.
As the demand for sugar increased in the 18th century, rum production also sized up. Long story short, the trade of sugar and rum, as it grew, also involved the slave trade from Africa and heavy taxes being imposed by the English, all of which eventually snowballed into the American Revolution!
Even after the American Independence, Rum remained popular in the US for some time till American whiskey took over and rum, sadly, declined forever. That is not the only Revolution Rum was a part of, think of the popular cocktail Cuba Libre which, legend has it was first poured when Cuba won independence from Spain in 1902 and they celebrated by mixing the local rum with a new American import, Coca Cola!
Among all the distillates rum is perhaps the one which retains the maximum flavour of its primary ingredient. Made by distilling sugarcane juice or products thereof, and can be made to yield two different styles – the lighter ones like from Cuba and Puerto Rico and the heavier versions from Jamaica, Barbados and Demerara.
This isn’t just about colour which is mostly adjusted by caramel. Instead, a lot depends on the kind of yeast used, the molasses, and how fast the fermentation goes. Heavy rums are pot-still distilled twice and then aged in oak which gives them a heady nose and a golden hue but the real dark ones all have most probably caramel added to them.
Light rums, by contrast, are made using a patent still which makes for a lighter, less aromatic spirit. Caramel can be added to these too to give them colour but that doesn’t make them a heavy rum.
Rum works with many drinks, from simple water and lemonade to cola and juices like pineapple and coconut. It is very versatile as spirits and thus is used in many cocktails from the light daiquiri to the rich Planter’s Punch and the friendly Tikis.