Particular countries go to great lengths to establish proprietary rights to certain spirits.
Americans quite properly lay claim to Bourbon; the Scotch and Irish to Whisky, the French to Champagne and Cognac, the Japanese to Sake, the Russians to Vodka, and “Genever” is quite definitely Dutch.
Who, on the other hand, can claim rum?
It is the most universally produced and consumed of all the spirits since it is derived from “saccahrum,” i.e. sugar produced from cane, the tall “grass” cultivated in all tropical and semi-tropical areas of the world. Whether you distill it straight from the cane juice, as the French always have, from sugar cane syrup for light flavoring, or from molasses, as everyone else does; whether you bottle it straight from the “continuous” still (raw white rum) or age it in white oak casks until it turns amber, or put caramel in it to make dark “Demerrara” rum, it is all rum.
Despite this universalism, however, there is one country which just might have a unique claim to giving the world “decent” rum: England. Rum, you should know, is part of the sweeping history of empire, an integral part of the magnificent tales of navigation – for warfare and for trade – but alas, also of the sordid history of African slavery, land-grabbing from the Indians of North America and all forms of piracy and brigandage.
That is the mixed legacy of this spirit, a legacy which survives in the widely-held perception that it is the preferred spirit of the working classes of the Tropics but also of the refined and romantically-inclined Don Juan’s of the entire world. Having settled the island of Barbados in the early 16th century and planted its flat, sun-washed land with cane, the English began to refine the residue from the production of sugar (molasses) until they achieved a palatable spirit they properly called “Barbados waters.” As its fame spread in navigation and plantation circles, the liquid became known as “comfortable water. ” This took on special meaning when it was discovered that replacing the poisonous lead pipes and pot stills with copper ones, and adding more water and lime to the mix, had all sorts of medicinal values. Getting rid of scurvy and combating the grippe were certainly two worthy and recommendable reasons for bending the elbow. But nothing so pleasant and appealing could be totally benign. In order to cultivate the sugar cane, the British, and other Europeans (and Muslims for other purposes) resorted to Africa. Rum became the currency of the slave trade and this trade in turn became the backbone of the capitalist development of all great ports, from Hull in Britain to Nantes in France to the ports of New England.
But it was naval warfare and global trade which really gave the English and the Caribbean a head-start in the manufacturing of decent rum. New myths about naval warfare were born when the British Navy decided to do what the pirates were already doing: giving a “grog” or “tot” of rum twice a day to its sailors even as the officers continued to drink port, sherry or brandy. The Navy, not wanting to show preferences, bought its rum in British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica, put the blend into oak casks known as “rumbarricoes” and sent it to sea as Naval Rum. Not surprisingly, given the tradition-bound nature of the Brits, it became a firm custom and a successful one indeed. “Splice the Main Brace!” was the call for a double tot of rum. The rum grog took on a heroic reputation when Admiral Nelson defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the crucial battle of Trafalgar.
That victory of the rum-drinking swabbies made it patently clear that rum, not claret or brandy, was the fighting man’s drink . Of course, it was important that the grog be strong enough to “make a rabbit bite a bulldog” as the saying went. By the 18th century, rum had joined the other established spirits as an essential, though not the most select, item in a gentleman’s “wine cellar.” For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar’s inventory in 1769 contained the following bottles: 15 of Madeira, 4 of “common” Lisbon wine, 54 of cider, and 83 of rum. Unfortunately there was no indication as to the origin of the rum but one can surmise that it came from one of the many distilleries operating in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. So, in the final analysis it did not matter that Winston Churchill once felt compelled to describe the Royal Navy as a sad trilogy of “rum, sodomy and the lash!”, rum was here to stay. For one, it continued to be a steady comfort to British blue-jackets until 1970 when new shipboard electronics required more brains than brawn. The U.S. Navy which had also adopted the tot, succumbed to the intolerant religious opposition to all alcoholic comforts. American sailors were deprived of their tots in 1914 because, as the Secretary of the Navy put it, “both temperance and democracy demand it.” Interestingly enough, the Indian Army did not abolish it until political Independence and the admission of abstemious Muslims to its ranks.
No matter, by that time each sugar producing island or territory was already bottling its own brand of rum and developing a loyal clientele, mostly at home but also among the small number of “ex-pats” who would take a few fifths back with them on their “home leave.” But the English would soon lose their monopoly over quality rum. The French began to market their “rhum agricole”, putting the year of the bottling on the label and developing a distinct niche among those who, unlike most rum drinkers, like the “peculiar” flavor of rum distilled directly from the cane juice. And then the Cubans and Puerto Ricans got into the act. The former were particularly fortunate since the Americans – engineers, soldiers, businessmen, gangsters...and famous writers – all began to consume and promote the "daiquiri", the “mojito” and the “Cuba Libre.” As it has been since time immemorial, rum either followed or welcomed the imperial hordes even as its status as a prestige drink had not yet been achieved. In fact, the years of Prohibition (1920-1933) hardly helped. It was now truly the “Devil” spirit, the promoter of what nativists called “Rum, Rebellion and Romanism.” This is why the runners of spirits became known as “Rum runners” who maintained a “rum row” three miles off the American coasts. If it was illegal and sinful, it had to be rum. In fact, there was precious little rum being smuggled. It was good old Scotch liquor. Prohibition not only brought that British industry out of the depression it was in in 1920, it made it boom. Imports of Scotch into the Bahamas (one of the major bases of the “rum runners”) went from 25,000 gallons in 1920 to nearly 6 million in 1930. In fact, “Cutty Sark” was specifically developed for this illegal but wildly popular trade. One can only surmise that there was little romantic mileage or glamour to be gained from calling the smugglers “Scotch runners.”
Once Prohibition was lifted, it was the Puerto Rican rum manufacturers who were best positioned to enter the U.S. market. This explains why the Seralles family, up to today producers of Ron Don Q, objected to the entry of the Cuban Bacardi’s into Puerto Rico. A legal battle royal ensued and was litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in 1936, the Bacardi’s won the right to open a distillery. The Cubans were now in Puerto Rico and better, in the U.S. market. All this just before World War II made it impossible for Americans to import European liquors and sent U.S. G.I.’s to the fourteen military bases in the Caribbean, virtually all rum producers. These were the bases President Roosevelt had secured from Churchill in exchange for 44 American destroyers. It was a profitable exchange all around. Anyone old enough to remember the Andrews Sisters singing a Trinidad calypso called “Rum and Coca Cola” will know that neither law nor religion could stop rum from becoming the Yankee’s war time “comfort water.” This habit was brought back to the mainland, just in time to take advantage of the post-war tourist boom in Miami and Havana.
History works in strange ways and rum invariably seems to fall on the good side of things. Consider the Bacardi’s. It was of course impossible for that Cuban rum-making family to know just how wise and prescient its decision to diversify out of Cuba in the 1930s had been. In 1960, when Fidel Castro expropriated their distillery in Santiago de Cuba, they already had the world’s single largest distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico and the 450 active members of this rum-making dynasty was ready to become the most successful Latin American multinational corporation ever. Of course, the Cuban Revolution also insured that other Caribbean manufacturers would get a shot at the American market. As tourism spread to other Caribbean destinations so did the reputation of erstwhile little-known local rums: "Ron del Barrilito" from Puerto Rico, "Appleton" and "Myers" in Jamaica, "Mount Gay" and "Cockspur" in Barbados, "Vat 19" from Trinidad, "Barbancourt" from Haiti, Brugal from the Dominican Republic. Still little known outside France were the many superb rums from the island of rum par excellence: "Martinique". There, several dozen local families continued to grow their cane, distill, ferment and age its juices the way they had done for generations. Prohibited by protectionist French laws from marketing their product as a “brandy,” these producers began the custom of bottling select aged rum for an upscale, though still quite small, market of rum connoisseurs.
Keeping in mind that rum does not age in the bottle, you will understand why blending and aging in the white oak cask is virtually everything, especially if it happens to be one of those charred casks imported from the bourbon producing regions of the U.S. Since sugar cane does not vary according to type and soils and climate, as grapes do, and since everyone has access to the continuous or column stills, and fermentation “secrets” are hardly such anymore, the stock of aged rum used for blending is a major part of a manufacturer’s capital. A rare glimpse into an island distillery’s stock revealed 7,895 casks of under three years old retailed at US$3,000 per cask, but the 8 casks of 25-year olds were on the books at US$125,000 each. It is in the blending of these rums that the art still lies. Every island, even those which do not grow a stalk of cane, is in the business. They import their distillates or bulk molasses, from Brazil or the Dominican Republic, put it into casks and slap a fancy label making outrageous claims on the bottle. An exception is Cruzan rums from the US Virgin Islands. It does import its molasses but blends and ages its product to award-winning quality. What most “tourist” rums have going for them is that the vast majority of rum consumers have none of the subtle and demanding palates we identify with serious wine or single malt drinkers. In addition, they tend to mix their rum with flavor-dulling sodas.
Fortunately, things are looking up for aged rums to be consumed as any fine Cognac. Indeed, trend-setter Bacardi has recently placed its “Millenium” brand on the market for $750 a fifth and Trinidad’s historic producer of Angostura Bitters has just launched, with great marketing success, a “1824" label which costs four times what its equally smooth “Royal Oak” sells for. Indeed, Australia, which has long supplied the hard-drinking Aussies with the venerable, and overproof, “ Bundaberg” and “Old Kedge” rums, has marketed the extraordinarily silky “Beenleigh” which just won the Gold medal for Dark Rums at the London International Wine and Spirits show. The latter is but one of whole new generation of upscale rums coming from long-established distilleries in Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala and other points South. With the World Trade Organization demanding from the U.S. duty free admission of all products and the European Union promising to drop all protective duties by 2003, the Caribbean will be facing stiff competition from the likes of the Philippines and Brasil. Make no mistake, the Brazilian sugar cane-derived “Cachaça” which the Puerto Rican rum lobby has successfully kept out of the U.S. rum market as a non-rum, is now taking full advantage of the situation: the Brazilian government has declared "Cachaça" a generic name and the success of its cocktail, "Caipirinha", promises a bright future for that cane distillate. In addition, the world’s largest producer and marketer of rum, Bacardi, is already in Brasil and poised to export moderately-priced products to the U.S. and European markets.
For the Caribbean, globalization and the new popularity of rum are double-edged swords. Only giants such as Bacardi could survive a world of open competition. The answer has to be a marketing strategy which highlights the distinction which comes from tradition and good taste. Given its origins and history, there is no reason why the term “Caribbean Rum” cannot become as much a generic referent as are Cognac, Champagne, Scotch or, indeed, Cachaça. The question is, given the fragmentation or “balkanization” of the Caribbean, can the different producers ever adopt such a winning strategy?
Book on Caribbean Rum: Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History
This article was first published on Caribseek Kaleidoscope on December 23rd, 2002.