The turbulent history of Rum can be dated back prior to the first fermentations of sugar by-products by the slaves working the Caribbean sugar plantations in the 17th Century. The Malay people are reputed to have been making a fermented sugarcane spirit, called Brum, for thousands of years. To understand the full history of Rum and its relative link to this Asian drink, an understanding of the history of sugarcane is required.
Believed to have originated in New Guinea in approximately 6000 BC, sugarcane cultivation gradually spread around Southeast Asia and India. In 510 BC the Persian Emperor Darius invaded India and found sugarcane and took it back to the Persian Empire, where for the next 1000 years it was cultivated for sugar crystals and exported to other countries for large profit. It wasn't until the 7th Century when Persia was invaded by the Arab people that the closely guarded secret of sugarcane and its cultivation was learned, leading to its large-scale production.
As the Arabic Empire expanded to incorporate North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, so spread the planting and cultivation of sugarcane. It wasn't until the time of the Crusades that sugar was brought back to England, where previously honey had been the only known sweetener. By the 13th century, the Moors had largely been pushed out of Spain and Portugal during the Reconquista. However, the knowledge of sugarcane cultivation remained and overtime sugarcane plantations were set up in the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores and the Spanish Canary Islands.
In 1492, on route to discover the New World, Christopher Columbus sailed via La Gomera in the Canaries and was given cuttings of sugarcane to take with him. Subsequent colonization in the Caribean, by the Spanish, saw the spread of sugarcane to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. However, it was the Portuguese colonization of Brazil that intensified cultivation of sugarcane and production of sugar, which eventually led to the creation of Cachaša, from sugarcane juice. By the middle of the 16th century there were several thousand sugar mills in the New World, with the majority in Brazil. During the 1600's the Dutch and then the British and French took sugarcane to the other islands of the Caribbean, thereby increasing the production of sugar and it was at this point that the Caribbean became the largest source of sugar in the world.
With an ever increasing European demand for sugar, came the need for a larger work force and that need was met by bringing slaves to the New World from Africa. Although there is evidence that the slaves themselves discovered that the molasses by-product from the sugar refining process could be fermented and turned into an alcoholic beverage, it wasn't until the mid 1600's that Rum as we understand it today was first produced. With the introduction of distillation techniques the first true Rums were created in Barbados and its popularity spread through the Caribbean and North America.
Rum distilleries sprung up in the Caribbean and North America, with large shipments of molasses heading to the distilleries of Staten Island, Boston, Rhode Island and New England. The resultant Rum was then shipped throughout the American colonies, Caribbean and to Africa where it was used as a commodity in the purchase of new African slaves, bound for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. This trade of slaves, molasses and Rum became known as the "Triangular Trade".
Production of sugar and Rum continued to grow over the next two centuries with several million African slaves arriving in the New World to satisfy the need for both sugar and Rum. Shortly after the American Revolution, the Northern States of America ended their use of slave trade. However, despite this effectively ending the trans-Atlantic triangular trade, it didn't halt the trade in slaves, as they were shipped to the Southern States which hadn't as yet abolished the slave trade.
Eventually Rum's links to slavery did change, with the complete abolition of the slave trade in the United States and as the "Wild West" was explored and American farmers started growing barley, corn, rye and wheat easily and in abundance. This allowed whiskey to replace Rum as the major spirit in America and why North America is no longer synonymous with the production or consumption of Rum.
During this period European dependence on imported sugar also lessened due to the invention of sugar extraction techniques from sugar beet. This resulted in a reduction in the amount of molasses being produced which in turn led to many smaller plantations closing down. In turn this led to a number of Rum distilleries going out of business.
Rum continued to be produced and for the large part consumed locally. Still considered crude and low in quality, it was only appropriate for the working poor. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century when the Spanish born Don Facundo Bacardi Massˇ began to experiment with the methods of Rum distillation, with the help of the French Cuban JosÚ Leˇn Boutellier. They began shipping a more refined and palatable form of Rum and in 1862 they set up their own distillery called "Bacardi, Boutellier, y Compa˝ia". By 1874 Facundo and his sons bought out Boutellier's stake and renamed their distillery "Bacardi y Compa˝ia".
During the 20th century, the fortunes of Rum were more closely linked with the emergence and popularity of cocktails, such as the Cuba Libra, Daiquiri, Mai Tai, Mojito and the Pi˝a Colada. It wasn't until the 1960s and 70s that the general popularity of cocktails subdued. Then in the 1980s cocktails made a resurgence, with Rum being most synonymous with fruity cocktails and images of tropical paradises.
In the UK this new found popularity was fairly short lived though, largely due to the overuse of paper umbrellas and other extravagant garnishing. This led to the 1990s stereotyping of cocktails being drinks for women or when on holiday in tropical locations. During this time the only recognisable brands of Rum that could be found in bars in the UK were Bacardi Superior, Captain Morgan's dark Rum, Lamb's navy Rum and Malibu. Despite the continued popularity of Bacardi and Malibu, a large proportion of the drinkers of these brands were unaware that they were in fact drinking Rum.
More recently Rum has had a big resurgence, thanks largely to the popularity of the Mojito and other popular cocktails. This has led to Rum being more recognised as a versatile drink due to its wide range of flavours, strengths and character and as such the number of good recognisable Rum brands and their availability is continuing to rise, including a growing trend in premium Rums.
Already heavily associated with piracy and English privateers, it wasn't until 1655 when the British Royal Navy captured the island of Jamaica, that the daily liquor ration of French brandy was changed to Rum and thus began the association of Rum with the Royal Navy. By the 1730's this daily ration had become a half-pint of 160 proof Rum and was enshrined in Naval regulations. By the 1740's this had been watered down and became known as grog. The term grog is believed to have come about in honour of the grogram cloak often warn by Admiral Vernon in rough weather.
In 1850 the daily ration, called a tot, had been reduced to a quarter pint a day and by 1881 the serving of grog to the Officers had ended, with Warrant Officers losing their tot of Rum in 1918. By now the strength of the Rum had been reduced to 95.5 proof.
After 230 years of serving the traditional daily issue of Rum, it was decided in 1970 that the Royal Navy would abolish the daily ration and as such the last official issue was served on Black Tot Day, at precisely 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) on Friday 31st July 1970.