larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next
by Larry

April, 2009

How Sweet It is - A Rum Story

The title is a bit ironic. Of course, I can recall sweet rum and coke drinks or adding rum to hot cider for an oh so soothing warmly sweet remedy for the chill of a winter's night. The alcoholic drink comes light or dark (amber). And indeed, the story of rum too, a rather odd one, has not just its superficially pleasant or lighter side but a sinister, shadowy one as well.

Rum is distilled and fermented from sugar cane products. It likely had its origin thousands of years ago in what are now Malaysia, India, or China. Then it was not distilled but simply fermented from sugarcane juice. Caribbean slaves rediscovered in the early 17th Century that an alcoholic drink could be fermented from sugarcane molasses. A short time later, crude distillation was added to the process, removing some of the drink's impurities.

Soon thereafter it became an important commodity in the New World. By the mid-1600s, distilleries were established, especially in MA and RI. Before long, it was the largest New England export. For awhile in those early years, rum consumption was over 3 gallons annually for every man, woman, and child. Subsequent British taxes on molasses and sugar, by causing economic hardship among the colonists, may have actually done more to set the stage for the colonial rebellion than did the more celebrated but relatively small tax on tea. It is not too great a stretch to say that rum both catalyzed and financed the start of the American Revolution.

Rum was frequently used as payment for slaves by pirates who in turn hoped to turn their labor into successful Caribbean sugarcane plantations.

Shortly after the Great Molasses Flood, Boston, 1919 (Wikipedia)

Following the capture and colonization of Jamaica for the English, the British Navy began in 1655 a custom that continued till 1970 of giving daily rations of rum to its sailors. At first it was provided "neat," but about 1740, since it was by then recognized that there was much drunkenness among its ships' crews (not surprising since the alcohol content of navy rum was 42% by volume, about the same as for whisky, and a British sailor's typical daily ration of pure rum prior to 1740 was 8 ounces), the watered down version known as "grog" was subsequently given as a daily tot to the sailors whose ships would eventually "rule the waves." Even daily grog portions probably had a couple ounces of 84 proof rum, along with several ounces of juice.

Among interesting trivia from the history of rum we find, in 1919, shortly before Prohibition began (1/16/1920), the tale of a sweetly horrific accident in Boston, known as the Great Molasses Flood. At the bottom of Copps Hill, a huge storage tank, used in the city's rum making and containing over two million gallons of molasses, burst with a great machine-gun like snapping of rivets. Survivors later said it sounded like a loud rumbling as the tank collapsed. The ground shook. A 15-foot-high wall of released molasses sped down at 35 miles per hour, carrying such force it lifted a train off its tracks, broke the girders of an adjacent elevated railway, razed buildings, and flooded an area of several blocks with up to 3 feet of sticky sweetness. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 injured. Besides the human victims, large numbers of horses were knocked down and overwhelmed, their dying forms visible only as thrashing masses under the viscous waves.

If no longer fostering revolution, molasses floods, piracy, or the slave trade, these days demon rum still represents big business, contributing its share to a global problem of alcoholism as well as large profits to such companies as Bacardi Limited. And, heated with cider and a stick of cinnamon, it can still too be a nice way to spice up a cold winter's night.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next