I can’t begin this blog without clearing the air and being honest with whoever is kind enough to read this… if you see the About Me section, you will see that I am not THAT young!!
I started this blog as a way to share my passion for rum with other rum lovers, but also to introduce rum to those of you for whom rum is simply a drink that Long John Silver sang about in Treasure Island1. For me, rum is not better than a whisky2, a brandy or a bourbon in the same way I don’t think an apple is better than a pear or a banana – it comes down to a personal preference. To many though, the idea of drinking a rum straight up in the same way they would a whisky instils the fear of God into them yet everyone that I have asked to try a rum has said it was comparable to a good whisky… only sweeter.
There are a number of reasons about why when it comes to spirits, rum finds itself as the lesser-loved sibling to Gin, Vodka and Whisky. These 3 have glorious histories where they have been openly loved by royal families, used as medicine and currency, and have roots that go all the way back to Greeks of Alexandria3. They are also popular in areas of significant global wealth (Europe and North America) so the capital available to invest in production, marketing and promotion doesn’t compare to the available capital in the Caribbean and Latin America where the majority of rum is produced4By contrast, rum finds itself with a history that most people associate with the 3 S’s: sugarcane, slaves and sailors – not quite the same prestige. The business of rum has a bit of a dark and shady past, historically linked to the Caribbean sugar trade which, as is well-documented, was part of a triangle that also involved the exchange of molasses and slaves5. It was Plantation slaves that first discovered that molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) could be fermented into alcohol. This alcohol was then distilled to remove impurities to create the first modern rum. In 1651, a document in Barbados6 stated that “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” Some of the other early names for rum were Nelson’s blood, kill-devil and demon water which starts to explain where that “fear of God” I referred to earlier comes from!
It is also the strong association with the Navy – particularly in the UK that has put people off drinking rum. The British Navy first gave a daily ration, or “tot” of rum to sailors in the 1740s and this continued until it was abolished on 31st July 1970 (a date that became known as Black Tot Day). The harsh taste of Navy-quality rums that appeared in pubs and bars had no place alongside other spirits of better quality and as a result, for decades the demand did not justify the supply. If you ever had a rum in the 80’s or 90’s then you most likely drowned it in Coca Cola to make it drinkable, or you had lost a bet!
While this was happening, in the Caribbean and Latin America in particular, high quality rum was being produced, bottled and consumed at source due to the high transportation costs, import duties and low demand. Fortunately, I spent many summer holidays from school in Guyana and one year I returned to the UK with a bottle of rum (borrowed from my Dad!) in my suitcase. I remember that bottle of rum well because it was a bottle of El Dorado 15yr old (which is still my favourite today). I and a friend of mine took the bottle to Pencester Park in Dover, cracked it open and we both took a sip expecting it to be too harsh for us – but to our surprise, it wasn’t! Neither of us expected to finish that whole bottle as we sat there on the swings chatting – but to our surprise, we did!
I should add at this point that I in no way condone the drinking of rum (or any alcoholic beverage) by anyone under the legal age of drinking of the territory that they are governed by!!
26 years later it has dawned on me that if at 14 years old I could appreciate the qualities of a good rum and be able to taste the vanilla, toffee, oaky notes and experience the smooth and gentle way it caresses the throat, then I am sure the adult readers of this blog can pluck up the courage to try one or two of my suggestions.
Given its background, I am not surprised that more people are not drinking rum but in the last few years there has been real growth in the industry and it will continue7 – both in the number of high quality rums on the market and the accessibility of them to the consumer. Today’s rum is a far cry from the stuff that was first produced by slaves as a commercial spirit from industrial waste, and given the diverse range of rums available, I have no doubt that there is a rum out there for everyone!
Notes and references
- There is no bias implied by not using the alternative spelling “whiskey” – because I would choose rum regardless of how you spell it. No offence… !!