The very word alcohol derives from the Arabic alkoél (where al– is the article), but it had a different meaning. In Arabic it indicated the extremely fine, impalpable powder of antimony that, mixed with water, had been used since ancient times in the Orient, especially by women, to paint their eyebrows, eyelashes and the edge of the eyelids black. The name and the thing itself entered the West thanks to the translation into Latin of Arabic books. In Spagna, dove la presenza e l’influenza araba è stata forte, sia il nome che la cosa sono state comunemente usate fino al XVI secolo, ed il verbo, alcoholar, ormai in disuso, significa ancora “colorarsi gli occhi di nero”.

“Alcohol was called by Arabic chemists such as Ibn Badis (11th century) خمر     مصعّد (distilled wine).  The current word for distilled wine in Arab Lands is `araq عرق which means sweat. The droplets of ascending wine vapours that condense on the sides of the cucurbit are similar to the drops of sweat.” (Ahmad Y. al-Hassan) And I suppose that from `araq come also raki, arrack etc.

So, where does our use of the word alcohol come from? As far as I know, it comes from the famous physician, alchemist and astrologer Teophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus used this word to indicate the spirit of wine, which he called alcohol vini, wine alcohol, since it was the quintessence, the noblest and most essential part of wine. This new name gradually passed on to chemists and physicians, who ended up omitting vini and thus the word alcohol remained.

But what exactly was the role of the Arabs in the origin of Spirits? Let’s see.

First of all, “If we speak of Arabs in this chapter, we include all those that belong to the civilization of Islam, which means Syrians, Persians, Copts, Berbers and others too. As early as one century after the death of Muhammed (632 A.D.) a large world empire has arisen from a local Arabian movement, and its center is transferred to Syria, and later Mesopotamia. The Islam knocks at the doors of Byzantium and menaces Italy and France.” (Forbes)

The Arabs read and translated the works of the Greek and Hellenistic culture, annotated them and preserved them, kept them alive within their culture. Those first centuries are the Golden Age of Arab civilization. From Spain to Central Asia peoples and states shared the same (high) culture, with many thriving academies and centers of studies supported by enlightened monarchs. One of the reasons of this success was the Arabs’ religious tolerance. Even before the arrival of the Arabs the old Academy of Athens founded by Plato had been closed (529 A.D.) and many Greek heathens had moved to the hospitable cities of Iran. Later the Byzantine Empire was deeply divided by theological disputes and many suffered bloody persecutions, so many a group of “heretics” settled in the Arabian Empire. For instance, the Nestorians settled mostly in Persia, now Iran, and in present-day Iraq.  Many Jewish scientific centers were situated in the Arabian Empire too.

In chemical technology too we owe much to the Arabs.  For instance, glass and pottery industries made it possible to make better vessels and containers for distillation technique and thus also made new experiments possible to chemists. Pharmacy and other branches of medicine could flourish. Often the Arabian chemists were also inclined to consider distillation an important process for agricultural industry. In their hands the distillation of rose-water, vinegar, rose-oil and other perfumes and essential oils grew to become a true industry and rose-water was sent all over the world. Clearly, the perfume and cosmetics industry was a flourishing one, reflecting a better quality of life. It is important to remember that the cultural renaissance of the West in the early centuries after the year one thousand AD owes much to the Latin translation of Arabic texts and of Greek texts previously translated into Arabic.

But let’s get to alcoholic distillation. Forbes is clear: “It will facilitate our discussion of these works if we state beforehand that no proof was ever found that the Arabs knew alcohol or any mineral acid in the period before they were discovered in Italy …” Later, writing about the great Arab alchemists till 1200, he states “All these authors describe the same apparatus, which was incapable of distilling low-boiling substances. As none of them ever mentions alcohol it is practically certain that this substance was unknown to the Arab world” till the XIV century when the introduction of the new Western type of distilling apparatus enabled chemists to recover low boiling distillates.

Contemporary Arab authors claim the opposite, though.

According to Ahmad Y. al-Hassan in his online article Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources From the Eighth Century Onwards “The distillation of wine and the properties of alcohol were known to Islamic chemists from the eighth century. The prohibition of wine in Islam did not mean that wine was not produced or consumed or that Arab alchemists did not subject it to their distillation processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan described a cooling technique which can be applied to the distillation of alcohol. Some historians of chemistry and technology assumed that Arab chemists did not know the distillation of wine because these historians were not aware of the existence of Arabic texts to this effect. …   the art of distillation of spirits is credited to the Arabs especially the Arabs of al-Andalus.”

Arabic manuscript showing the distillation process in a treatise of chemistry. © The British Library, London.

Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill in “ISLAMIC TECHNOLOGY An illustrated history” quote directly a passage by Al-Jabir [known in Latin Europe as Geber] “And fire burns on the mouth of the bottles [due to] … boiled wine and salt, and similar things with nice characteristics which are thought to be of little use, these are of great significance in these sciences “

And later in their book, they write “The Muslims are credited with the development of the distillation apparatus classically known in chemistry as the retort, but also called the ‘pelican’ or ‘cucurbit’ because of its bird-like or gourd-like shape. In this case the still-head ceased to be a separate entity and better cooling resulting in the collection of an increased amount of distillate came about of itself if the side-tube were made long enough.”

About cooling, the authors admit that early “Arabic manuscripts do not show any water-cooling sleeve round the side-tube. Nevertheless, it seems to have been appreciated that cooling the tube would improve condensation of the vapors, and sponges, cloth or rags periodically moistened with cold water were placed round the top of the still. On present evidence it is usually suggested that the use of cooling water was a later development that occurred in the West. At the same time, a word of caution is needed because though the distillation of alcohol requires external cooling of the retort or of the side-tube, our present knowledge of Arabic technical and chemical manuscripts is still in its preliminary stages, and it is too early to come to definite conclusions about water-cooling in Muslim alchemy”

Let us think carefully about this. First of all, su questo argomento devo avvalermi di fonti secondarie, come Forbes e gli altri sopracitati, dato che non conosco l’arabo. Premesso questo, we must never forget how difficult and laborious it was in the past to solve technical and scientific problems that appear quite straightforward to us, like the cooling of the still with water. Arabic chemistry and alchemy developed greatly over the centuries, while Western Europe was shrouded in its dark centuries. It is therefore reasonable to think that some Arab scientists managed to overcome the technical problems of the cooling process and to produce alcohol before it made its appearance in the West. But there is no evidence that it ever became a common technique, let alone a commercial production and consumption of Spirits.

The relation of Islam with alcohol has always been difficult. We know that the Quranic prohibition of consuming alcoholic beverages did not prevent many a group among the male elites of the Golden Age of Arab civilization from drinking wine.  But surely this prohibition did not promote the creation of a social environment suited to the passage of alcohol – if they discovered it – from a scientist’s laboratory to a commercial distillery and then to the tables of a tavern. The very fact that today researchers have to look for evidence and corroboration of Arab alcoholic distillation in ancient, cryptic manuscripts half-forgotten in some ancient library, suggests that commercial production never developed. Otherwise, why didn’t it continue until today and even the memory has been lost?

To sum up, further studies may bring changes, but for now I feel I can safely say that the Arabs developed alchemy, chemistry and distillation and probably distilled alcohol too. But the production of alcohol, if even achieved, remained a limited experience, which never became commercial production and consumption of Spirits.


Some authors maintain that the ancient Egyptians already distilled alcohol, others credit the Sumerians with being the first, others still the Celts; there are even those who attribute the invention of alcoholic distillation to this or that barbarian population of the steppes. Recent archaeological excavations in Cyprus would seem to prove the use of distillation, probably to make perfumes, around 2000 BC. The number of contrasting theories itself makes such an early date doubtful; what’s more, no one is able to produce reliable evidence, and, regrettably, it has to be said that some historians still mix up fermented beverages and distilled beverages.

It is important to remember that distilling alcohol is difficult, it requires firstly a complex mental process and then a suitable technology. Or, in the words of Forbes, “One forgets too often that at the back of a simple distilling apparatus there are a mass of experiences and experiments and that it represents the combination of several principles of natural science with the ability to make the proper apparatus to execute the operation”.

There is yet another consideration. If, in the long, ancient history of the Mediterranean, before the Classic Age, someone succeeded in distilling alcohol on a regular basis and in drinking it as a beverage, how come that this precious knowledge got lost?

Because one thing is certain, the Greeks and the Romans of the Classic Age did not drink Spirits. They drank wine, a lot of it, and sometimes they drank beer too. They knew and used, both as a beverage and as medicine, many other fermented beverages made from palm trees, fruit, honey etc. but not strong, distilled spirit drinks. In the famous Symposia of Classic Greece, they drank wine, usually diluted with water in wonderful Attic kraters to diminish its strength. The Romans drank even undiluted wine, they knew several types and were able to distinguish between strong and less strong wines. We also know that they warmed the wine to make it thicker, and that some wines were treated in various ways so as to use them as a medicinal drug; but Spirits made by alcoholic distillation through evaporation and subsequent cooling of the vapors are never mentioned anywhere.

Distillation as such, though, was not unknown. Aristotle and others wrote reflections on the evaporation and subsequent condensation of water. It was also known that the salt water of the sea changed into the freshwater of rain and rivers; the fact that evaporation by the heat of the sun drives the water cycle, and that the water which evaporates falls back as precipitation was also known. To the great Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, who lived around 70 A.D., is attributed the famous sentence “Distillation is like imitating the sun that vaporizes the water and returns it as rain.”

Moreover, craftsmen probably used crude forms of distillation to make perfumes, dyes and in metal work, while sublimation was used for the manufacture of mercury. But, it would seem, nothing more. And most importantly, I’ll say it again, Spirit Drinks did not exist. Modern archeology was born some centuries ago digging Greek and Roman sites. Well, in the great mass of archeological finds nothing has ever been found, as far as I know, which proves the existence of distilling apparatus to manufacture the alcohol to produce spirit drinks.  Moreover, the written sources of the time which have come down to us, including treatises on agriculture, never speak about strong, distilled, Spirit Drinks. Obviously, I haven’t been able to verify all the sources, a job that goes beyond my capabilities, but in all the secondary literature I have had the opportunity to read not once are Spirits mentioned.

With only one exception, perhaps. The great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in the famous eruption of the Vesuvius of 79 AD (the very eruption that destroyed Pompeii) describes a strange “coelesti aqua” that is, more or less, “heavenly water”. According to him, it was used for preserving grapes and it warmed the stomach pleasantly. It might have been alcohol, but we cannot be sure.

Things began to change later. According to Forbes “We must adopt the general opinion that distillation was first discovered by the Alexandrian Chemists in the first century A.D. until we have further proof.” Alexandria of Egypt had been for centuries the cultural center of the Hellenistic World and around its famous Library philosophers and scientists from all countries studied and experimented in all fields of learning. And, among other things, they invented chemistry. “The Hellenistic era was one of those lucky periods in which craftsmanship and science met and stimulated each other. The young chemistry had the typical rationalistic traits of the older Greek science.” (Forbes) Zosimos, Maria the Jewess, Hipatia, Synesios are only some of the protagonists of a fascinating adventure of human intelligence.

In the texts which have come down to us we find, for the first time, the drawing of a real distilling apparatus: “This is already far advanced in the writings of Maria the Jewess who is generally considered to have invented it. It already consists of the three necessary elements, the cucurbit and alembic, a tube for transporting the distillate and vapours and the receiving flask” (Forbes) Actually, the traditional name for Pot Still, Alembic, came from the Greek word ἄμβιξ, that is ambix, meaning “cup, pot”. Only much later did the Arabs appropriate the word, to which they added the definite article in the Arabic language “al”, that is, “the”. And through the Arabs the word entered the languages of Latin Western Europe.

Back to Alexandria, a source of 200 BC says that “sailors at sea boil sea water and suspend large sponges from the mouth of a bronze vessel to imbibe what is evaporated. In drawing this off the sponges, they find it to be sweet water” (Forbes); this might be the description of how they distilled sea water. But did they actually manufacture alcohol? Forbes maintains they did not. According to him, the problem was cooling: “The use of distillation apparatus with very insufficient cooling, so that only liquids with boiling points higher than that of water could be recovered somewhat efficiently.” Other authors claim the opposite. I am not in a position to express an informed opinion.  Off the top of my head, it seems strange to me that centuries of studies and experimentation did not succeed in distilling alcohol. But the lack of conclusive evidence and of a successive development makes me think that, even if some single experiences did take place, they remained isolated and alcohol remained at best a strange and rare liquid, used only for scientific and alchemic purposes.

To conclude, there is no doubt that the foundations of the history of alcoholic distillation in the West were laid in Alexandria, but it is not from there that the path towards commercial production of Spirits started.

In 639 the Arabs invaded Egypt. With astonishing speed, the Byzantine forces were routed and had withdrawn from Egypt by 642. In 645 an attempt by a Byzantine fleet and army to reconquer Alexandria was quickly defeated. Since then, Alexandria has remained unshakably in their hands and Egypt became one of the centers of Arabic and Islamic culture, up to the present. Arabic and Islamic culture soon deeply absorbed Alexandrine and Greek learning, which at the time had almost completely disappeared in Latin Western Europe. Among the legacy of the Alexandrines, the Arab scientists and alchemists learned also distillation techniques, they improved them and made large use of them.

As we will see in the next article.


“Distillation is an art and even an ancient one. It is strange to find that the history of this oldest and still most important method of producing chemically pure substances has never been written. … a proper history of the art from its origin up to the present time was lacking.”

With these words R. J. Forbes begins his “Short History of the Art of Distillation”, written in Amsterdam in 1944 and published in 1948. A valuable book, available today only thanks to the American Distilling Institute that has republished it.  The subject of Forbes’ book is distillation in general (perfumes, metals, dyes etc.), not only alcoholic distillation, which is what interests us. In any case, Forbes is necessarily our starting point. It is an interesting, learned book, brimming with information, but not easy to read. Besides, it is inevitably dated, since the sources available at the time were scanty. In particular, hardly any of the many Arabic works on the subject were accessible. Yet, this is the only organic text on the history of distillation the general public has at their disposal, which means that if you visit and digit “history of distillation”, only this book will come up wuth this or similar title.

This does not mean that no new texts have been written on the subject since 1944. The world is full of Universities and research bodies and probably there are many other studies and academic papers on alcoholic distillation. But, even it they exist, they have remained largely confined to comparatively limited circles (scientific journals, academic conferences and such like) without reaching the large public of aficionados. Then, naturally, there are plenty of texts written to enhance the marketing of this or that company, this or that product. They are easy to find, but usually rough-and-ready and unreliable. Anyway, as far as I know, no one else, after Forbes, has published an organic history of alcoholic distillation.

Well, so this is our starting point, the awareness that about this theme – the Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West – very little is known and we are, so to speak, sailing in the open sea. We have to search ourselves for little-known sources and documents and reflect on the historical context, in the hope of reaching valuable conclusions. With little help from secondary literature. It is laborious and errors cannot be ruled out, but it is also thrilling, true historical research.

But before continuing, it is a good idea to clarify the purpose and the scope of this Quest.

Since I began my studies into the origins of rum, I have learned that at the beginning, maybe in the XI century, alcohol was produced by distilling wine, which makes sense, as wine was by far the most popular alcoholic drink. Distillation was a complex procedure, difficult and costly, done by pharmacists and alchemists. After great effort, toil and expenditure, they managed to obtain small quantities of a strange, colorless, burning liquid that today we call alcohol, but to which they gave the Medieval Latin name “Aqua”, that is “water”. Later, fascinated by this prodigious liquid, someone called it “Aqua Vitae”, “Water of life”, and the name stuck.

For a long time, alcohol was used only as a medicinal drug, or in scientific and alchemic experiments. According to many scholars the shift of alcohol from a drug to a common beverage for pleasure consumption occurred only in the first half of the XVII century. When, in 2017, I wrote my first book “American Rum” I put the date backward to XVI century Holland.

But historic research is a work in progress and now I think that in the West, commercial production of alcohol on a large scale was, almost certainly, an Italian invention and it happened as early as the XIV century, as I wrote in my second book “French Rum” published in 2020.

For the sake of clarity, we are looking for the origins of commercial production of alcohol on a large scale in the West.  That is, we are not looking for attempts which were not followed through, or experiments, even intriguing ones, which remained isolated. Therefore, we are not interested here in the discoveries of some individual apothecary, doctor, alchemist, monk, craftsman etc. which died with them or with their close disciples, without yielding long-lasting fruit. We want to find out when, where and how selling and consuming Spirit Drinks became an ordinary thing.

We want to discover the moment, the place and perhaps even the people that gifted to us the decisive passage of alcohol from an apothecary’s laboratory to the tables of a tavern, paving the way which leads to us.


I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. We shall return to it at the end.


With this article I begin a long series devoted to what is possibly the most iconic of rums, Cuban Rum. I don’t know if in the USA it is the same, but all over Europe (with the partial exception of Great Britain and France) when people think of rum, they think first and foremost of Cuba, and the other way round.

And yet, I anticipate that Cuba emerged relatively late in the world scene of rum production: in the first centuries of Rum, the 1600s and 1700s, the British Empire was the homeland of Rum. Only much later, around the middle of the 1800s, did Cuban Rum start its rapid rise towards the world. And only in the 1900s, with the help of Prohibition, did it get into the Hall of Fame of Rum, with a worldwide, lasting success. Anyway, the history of Cuban Rum is long and complex, and it deserves to be told accurately. Let’s begin.

A word of warning. For this article, I rely mostly on a seminal essay by Manuel Hernández Gonzáles “La polémica sobre la fabricación de aguardiente de caña entre las elites caribeñas y el comercio canario en el siglo XVIII” (The controversy about the making of sugarcane burning water between Caribbean elites and the Canary trade in the XVIII century”). When not otherwise specified, the quotes are from this essay; the translation is mine (with a little help from my family).

From the very beginning of the Spanish colonization, in the 1500s, the Spanish Crown prohibited the production and consumption of the fermented alcoholic beverages used by American Indians, with a few exceptions, like Pulque in New Spain (roughly present-day Mexico). The official reason for the prohibition was protecting the health of the Indios: both their physical health, damaged by excessive consumption, and their moral, spiritual health, since drunkenness often brought about various kinds of crimes and sins. But there was more. By prohibiting traditional alcoholic beverages (for the sake of clarity, I repeat, fermented), the Crown and the Church wanted to eradicate the ritual use (religious, magical, etc) of those beverages in the indigenous cultures and religions, which were considered an obstacle to the complete colonization and Christianization of those populations.

There were purely economic reasons too. Spain was a major producer and exporter of wine and brandy, and the authorities wanted to defend those economic interests, by granting a monopoly position on the American market to Spanish wine and brandy, against the competition of the much cheaper local products.  Indeed, the Spanish Crown prohibited also the cultivation of grapes and the making of wine and brandy (again, with a few exceptions) and, increasingly, the making of the new Spirit made from  sugarcane, which in the official documents of the time is often called Aguardiente de Caña (sugarcane burning water), i.e., our Rum.

Various laws were passed prohibiting the making and consumption of the so-called Bebidas Prohibidas (Forbidden Beverages), but with little success. Every now and then new laws reiterated the prohibition, even with very harsh penalties, but always with limited success. Nobody opposed the will of the Crown openly, and often the Royal Officials newly arrived in America would try to enforce the law. But then, as time went on, their zeal was overwhelmed by the enormous spaces they had to inspect, by the complexity of the social structure, the network of local customs and interests and, last but not least, by sheer bribery.


“The several repetitions of the order against ‘la fabrica y uso de aguardiente de caña’ imply not only that the government found some difficulty in enforcing the ruling but also that they were adamant about its enforcement. While some might have engaged in bootlegging rum, the government succeeded in keeping its distillation from ever becoming more than that.” (J. McCusker “The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies” 1970). The prohibitions, that is, did not prevent the production and consumption of aguardiente de caña, but effectively blocked the full development of the sector. Again, according to McCusker: “They were effective enough in keeping down local distillation so that the French West Indies found a market in New Spain for their rum.”

Let’s see, for example, what Pére Labat writes: “The spirit we make on the Islands with mash & sugar syrups, it’s not one of the least used drinks, we call it Guildive or Taffia. The Savages, the Negros, the lowly settlers & craftsmen are not looking for another one & they lack self-control with this item, it is enough for them that this liquor is strong, violent & cheap; it doesn’t matter whether it’s harsh and unpleasant. I’m not going to talk about it in another place. We take a lot to the Spanish on the coast of Caracas, Cartagena, Honduras & the big islands”

It was an illegal traffic, contraband, because according to the mercantilist theories of the age, American settlers must trade only with the Mother Country. Smuggling flourished all over the Atlantic World, but it was especially widespread in the Spanish Empire. Spanish America, according to the law, had to trade only with Spain, indeed only with the port of Seville (later Cadiz) which had the monopoly on trade with Las Indias (The Indies). But the Spanish economy was relatively backward and was thus unable to manufacture the quantity and quality of the required goods. The Spanish merchants in Seville were often obliged to buy in Europe the manufactured goods which they then re-sold in the Indies, obviously with a sharp increase in costs. Therefore the goods which reached America legally were always scarce and expensive, and often low-quality too.  And the same happened the other way round: the Spanish vessels on which to carry legally to Seville the products of the Indies were few, and the cost of freight was high. Actually, smuggling with the Dutch, the English etc. was indispensable to everyday life and to the development of both economy and society. Everybody knew and many made a profit from it, including many Royal officials.


The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) brought a Bourbon King to the Spanish throne: Philip V, a grandson of the French King Luis XIV, The Sun King. Under Philip V, the influence of French centralism and dynamism became widespread in Spain. In particular, as far as we are concerned, a significant production of wine and brandy developed in Catalonia which meant to monopolise the American market. Therefore, new prohibitions to produce aguardiente de caña in America were issued, and fresh attempts were made to enforce the law, still to little avail. In those years a new player entered the game too, the merchants of the Canary Islands, who for some time had had the privilege to export their wines and brandies to the Indies legally, albeit for limited quantities. In exchange, the Canary Islands were required to send a certain number of settlers to populate America. Soon, the interest of the so called Isleños (Islanders) focused on Cuba.

“In the Caribbean World wine consumption was rather low. The Canary producers found themselves compelled to develop brandy production, the parra, in order to create a market for their grapes, since the demand for wine was so limited”. On the other hand, “consumption of aguardiente de caña must have been high in the Indies, since its production developed on a par with the production of sugar through the use of pot stills to distil molasses and other by-products. In its manifold uses – as fuel, cleaning fluid for personal hygiene, beverage, preventive and curative medicine, aguardiente de caña replaced in Cuba, thanks to the difference in price, the brandy imported from Spain and mostly from the Canaries.”

Selling brandy in Cuba was not easy. The local rum was plentiful, always available and much cheaper, moreover it seems it was more popular with consumers.  In 1714 a new Royal Decree prohibited the production and sale “of the beverage aguardiente de caña in the Kingdoms of the Indies” and since previous bans had not had the desired effect, this time not only was production prohibited, but it was ordered that all pot stills and other instruments and materials used to produce it should be destroyed; on top of that, a fine of 10 pesos was imposed on the owner. Contemporary documents in La Habana, Villaclara y Sancti Spìritus confirm that on the plantations it was common practice to produce aguardiente de caña and even this time the effects were limited, so much so that the prohibition was reiterated in 1720 and in 1724.

In a report written around 1737, “the discerning perpetual governor of the town council of La Laguna José Antonio de Anchieta y Alarcón pinpoints the exact reasons for the increase in production and consumption of aguardiente de caña in Cuba to the detriment of brandy. First of all, the significant increase in forest clearance and logging in order to plant sugarcane near La Habana, from which came continuous loads of  aguardiente  produced on the plantations. What he says about the price is devastating. The aguardiente is sold 28, 30 pesos the barrel at the most and a box in the taverns to 3 silver reales, ten times less than a box of brandy. The number of cauldrons and pot stills has increased spectacularly, they arrive on the British ships of the  asiento or from New Spain: the quantity produced is so great that they export it to Campeche and Florida. Before such abundance at such a low cost the continuity of a trade based on brandy was  impossible”


De Anchieta y Alarcón had realised with great clarity that over the years Cuba had changed. It was no more just an important port of call and a provider of meat and hides for the Indies Fleet. In the first half of the 1700s agriculture, especially tobacco and sugar, became central to the economy and society of the island. The development of sugarcane cultivation and of sugar making had its highs and lows, but on the whole it grew, starting to mark and shape forever the agricultural landscape and the social fabric. We know for sure that in 1749 there were 62 plantations round La Havana and in 1761 there were already 98, and of bigger size. The bulk of production was concentrated around the capital which, thanks to its facilities and its harbour, allowed the curbing of transport costs.

And where there is sugar, sooner or later there is rum too. “The distilling of  aguardientes de caña is nearly as old as the plantations themselves … It is produced on all well managed plantations in a specific department, sometimes separated from the main building where sugar is made, and which is named after the very apparatus it contains, the alembic”; so says Jacobo de la Pezuela the following century in his great   “Diccionarío … de la Isla de Cuba” (Dictionary … of the Island of Cuba) 1863.

The Canaries’ producers did not give up and appealed once more to the Crown. On 5th June 1739 a new law reiterated the prohibition, this time even decreeing that “within 15 days the Cuban planters should consume all the aguardiente de caña produced by their pot stills, which had to be halted and destroyed, under penalty of a fine of 200 ducados.”

This time, though, the reaction of the Havana planters was different. Having by now become rich thanks to tobacco and having launched themselves towards sugarcane plantation, the Havana planters did not respond to the new prohibition with silence and feigned obedience, while managing everything as before in actual fact. No, this time the planters took a clear, public stand, trying to defend their interests legally.

Indeed, in the same 1739, the planters replied with a“Memorial de los dueños de ingenios de La Habana” (Memoir of the planters of La Havana). In it they voiced their opposition to the entry into force of the new law and presented their arguments very clearly. They openly declared that they had been producing aguardiente de caña for some time, and that they wanted to go on producing it because it was crucial to the survival of their enterprises, given the high cost of setting up and run a plantation and the low price they get for sugar.

That’s all for now, we will examine this extraordinary, virtually unknown document in the next article.

Marco Pierini

I published this article in the July 2022 issue of GOT RUM ?



Pirates and Rum

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest-

   Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Drink and the devil had done for the rest-

   Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Maybe it is different today, but all the boys of my generation have read, and dreamt on, these uncouth lyrics which the mysterious “Captain” sings in Robert L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. I have to admit that I felt a bit of emotion picking it up again in order to write this article; emotion and nostalgia, casting my mind back over the hours of sheer bliss that this book gave many, alas, too many years ago.

Published in 1882-3 the novel had an immediate, great and lasting success and paved the way for the enduring association between Rum and Pirates. An association later fostered by novels, fairy tales, movies and many stories, from Disney’s Captain Hook up to Jack Sparrow, passing through very romanticized historical figures such as Captain Morgan and Blackbeard. So, today in popular culture rum is associated with pirates and there are a lot of rum brands, labels and ads which draw inspiration from them. In the Rum World too, our spirit is often called the true Pirates’ Drink. Therefore, a Rum Historian cannot avoid dealing with pirates. I have procrastinated a lot, but I think the moment has arrived.

Many readers may be surprised, but, as a matter of fact, in the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy, in the 1600s, rum was not usually consumed by the crews of pirates’ ships, trailing far behind brandy and wine. It is only during a later phase, in the first half of the 1700s, that rum emerged as these new pirates’ favorite beverage.

The most famous of the pirates and “privateers” – who unlike other pirates were acting under the cover and with the support of European governments through a so- called letter of marque – that infested the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy is probably Captain Henry Morgan.

Born in Wales in 1635, he arrived in Barbados probably as an indentured servant, the lowest rank of the white settlers. In 1655 he left his work, actually probably escaped,   – like many other indentured servants – to join  the English Fleet that called in Barbados in late January 1655. It was a big fleet: 37 men-of-war and 3.000 soldiers under the command of Vice-Admiral William Penn and with General Robert Venable in charge of the army. Its purpose was to attack and conquer the large Spanish island of Hispaniola, present-day Santo Domingo. It was not another privateer enterprise, but something new and bigger.  For the first time England attempted to conquer and hold the colony of one of its European rivals: Oliver Crowell’s ambitious “Western Design” was on the move. After a short stay in Barbados, at that time the most important British base in the Caribbean, to embark provisions and more troops, among them many indentured servants that wanted to flee the island, it moved to Hispaniola. There the fleet landed the army to attack the town of Santo Domingo. The attack was ill prepared and the reaction of the Spanish was strong and effective. After a crushing defeat, the English troops retired in disarray and had to re-embark quickly.

Worried about having to return home defeated and with empty hands, in May 1655 Penn decided to attack Jamaica, at that time a small, poor Spanish island, sparsely populated and virtually undefended. This time the amphibious attack was prepared with care and it was a success, Britain took possession of Jamaica, but this did not appease Cromwell that was devastated by the Hispaniola disaster to the point to fell ill and sent Penn and Venable to the Tower.

The English conquest of Jamaica, on the contrary, made the fortune of Morgan. The Governor of Jamaica granted him a letter of marque and for years Morgan scourged /the Spanish ships and possessions in America, becoming notorious for his cruelty, but also rich and powerful, with a large following among the pirates’ crews. The English Crown rewarded him with a knighthood and with important political positions.

According to W. Curtis in his seminal and pleasant book “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails” 2006, “What we know about Morgan’s exploits is chiefly due to a remarkable account published by a Dutchman who wrote under the name of Alexander Exquemelin. He spent eight years with the pirates in the Caribbean, a large part of that with Morgan. His 1678 book, De Americaenshe Zee-rovers, was translated into English and published in 1684 as  Bucaniers of America, and proved as enduring as it was popuar. Although riddled with inaccuracies and exaggerations, Exquemelin’s lavish account is considered the best source of information on Captain Morgan and the habits of pirates. The detail in Exquemelin’s book is so rich and so lavish that it grieves me slightly to make one observation. At no time is rum ever mentioned.”

The reason is quite simple: the pirates plundered mainly Spanish ships and colonies, where rum was not then widespread. Although around the middle of the century rum was already drunk in Barbados, it was not widespread in the Spanish empire. Despite the presence of many sugar cane plantations, the Spanish Crown prohibited it,  for there had been an effective lobbying strategy carried out in Spain by wine and brandy producers, who were terrified by the competition that cheap colonial rum could do to their products; so the Spanish government decided to enforce a substantial ban on the production of rum and almost any other alcoholic beverages in America. In the Spanish Caribbean, rum was produced clandestinely and in limited quantities for the local market, but people mainly drank wine or brandy imported from the motherland, drinks that also met the taste of the Spanish colonists more than rum. As a consequence, when a Spanish village or ship was attacked and looted by Morgan’s pirates, they would find – and drink – mainly wine and brandy, not rum.

The pirates of this age could drink rum when, after a period spent raiding and pillaging, they returned to Jamaica or to other islands controlled by the British to spend on alcohol and women what they had extorted from the unfortunate Spanish settlers. But it is probable that, until they ran out of money, they preferred more expensive and prestigious drinks like wine. When telling the story of Captain Morgan  and his crew, pirates’ chronicler Charles Leslie writes that “Wine and Women drained Their Wealth to such a Degree That in a little time some of them Became reduced to beggary. They were known to spend 2 or 3000 Pieces of Eight in One Night; and one of them gave a Strumpet 500 to see her naked … Morgan found many of His chief officers and soldiers reduced to Their former state of indigence Through Their immoderate vices and debauchery “. They would then ask him to go raiding again” Thereby to get something to expend anew in wine and strumpets”.

Actually, pirates were not particularly selective about the type of alcohol they consumed. In the eyes of a modern observer it seems that taste did not play any role in determining if the pirates preferred to consume a type of alcohol over another. They  drank in order to get drunk, not for the pleasure of drinking. Their life, as often the one of their victims, was hard and dangerous, and in alcohol they sought a fleeting oblivion. Therefore, they would drink – or, to be more realistic, would swallow – any type of alcohol with exactly the same insatiable thirst, to an extent which is incomprehensible to us living in the 21st century.

Here is an interesting and colorful anecdote: in 1671, during the march of Morgan and his men to Panama City – which was to be followed by one of the most tragic pages in the history of the city – “… fifteen or sixteen jars of Peruvian wine were uncovered in one village along the way. The men fell upon it ‘with rapacity’ and consumed it without pause. No sooner was the wine emptied than the drinkers Began vomiting copiously. That suspecting the wine Had Been poisoned, the soldiers sat back moaning and awaited their grim fate. Remarkably, no one died. Exquemelin  suspected that was the reaction from drinking too hastily on very empty stomachs”. (Curtis)

It is only later, during the early 1700s, that rum spread everywhere in the Americas,  and consequently it is only in that period that pirates started drinking rum on a daily basis. Among the English pirates no one represents this combination better than the infamous Blackbeard. He had taken his first steps as a “privateer” during the Spanish Succession War – 1701 to 1714 – and became a pirate when, after the peace treaty, the English crown no longer needed his services. Tall and robust, with a black beard so impressive that it became his nickname, Blackbeard was so fond of rum that his passion was legendary even among his contemporaries, who were accustomed to a high alcohol consumption standard. His biographer Robert Lee writes that: Rum was never His Master. He could handle it as no other man of His Day, and he was never known to pass out from an excess.” Among other things, Blackbeard was also known to consume a terrifying cocktail made with rum and gunpowder which, writes Curtis, “he would ignite and swill while it flamed and popped.” I don’t know whether that’s really true, maybe it was a Fire-eater trick, but certainly it must have been impressive and very useful for creating his own myth.

Blackbeard’s contemporaries report that he and his crew lived perpetually almost in a state of drunkenness, but this apparently did not weaken their skills as sailors and pirates: it is reported that in eighteen months they managed to capture up to twenty ships. Not only was the abundance of rum on board  not a discipline problem, on the contrary, its absence was! Blackbeard himself once wrote of a predicament in his ship’s log: “Such a day, rum all out: – Our company somewhat sober: – A damned confusion among us!” He was even worried about a possible mutiny of his crew, until they sacked a ship carrying “a great deal of liquor on board, I kept the company hot, damned hot; then all things went well again.”

His skill as a pirate and his cruelty made him quickly become the most feared pirate of his time. This not only increased the number of his followers – in 1718 he had come to command a fleet of eight ships, and this despite having commanded its first ship only in 1716! – but also of those who wanted to free the seas from a similar plague. The Governors of the English colonies started gathering all their resources to eliminate Blackbeard from the seas: after his refusal of an amnesty (which implied his immediate withdrawal from pirating) on July 20, 1718, the Virginia Governor ordered Royal Navy Lieutenant Maynard to capture Blackbeard, dead or alive. Sailing on a ship called “the Pearl”, Maynard reached Blackbeard on November 21, 1718, in the inlet of the Ocracoke island (North Carolina) that the pirate used as a base; when the two ships met, Blackbeard gave the order to board, not realizing that the bulk of Maynard’s men was still below deck: the fight was very hard, and it is reported that Blackbeard himself managed to disarm Maynard, but he then ended up being surrounded and massacred by British soldiers, after which his men stopped fighting and surrendered. It is said that Blackbeard did not die before he was wounded twenty-five times – including five gunshots – and that when his body was thrown overboard it circled around the ship for three times before sinking.

The story of Blackbeard’s death and the amount of anecdotes that circulate about it gives the measure of how the character of Blackbeard had become a legend: he is not only the most famous pirate since the times of Morgan, but also represents the swansong of an era in which piracy dominated over the Atlantic. The British Navy was becoming more and more powerful, and in order to secure trade’s main routes, the control it held over the seas and coasts was strengthened. With his death it was clear that, even though many more years were needed to finally eradicate it, piracy had already seen its best days.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on January 2022 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part Five


We have reached the last article of the series dedicated to the works of the Royal Commission. As well as the questions of the Commissioners and the answers of the witnesses, the Minutes of Evidence contain also some interesting Appendices. One of these is the APPENDIX L.   I. Extract from “West Indian Bullettin” Vol 8, No 1, 1907. It contains  a long article written by H.H. Cousins, the chemist and expert on Jamaica Rum we have already met in the December issue, regarding the different classes of Jamaica Rum. Here are some extracts.


To understand the wide differences in the quality of Jamaica rum, we must first recognize that there are three distinct classes of rum produced in the island, each adapted for a particular market, and each judged by a different standard of excellence.

To answer the question—’ What is a good Jamaica rum?’ involves a second inquiry: ‘To what class of Jamaica rum do you refer?’ The three classes are as follows :—
(1) Rums for home consumption, or ‘local trade quality.’
(2) Rums for consumption – in the United Kingdom, or ‘home trade quality.’
(3) Rums for consumption on the continent, or ‘export trade quality.’

Each of these grades of rum meets the requirements of a special market, and is judged by a different standard of quality. I would particularly urge that these three markets, being self-contained, do not compete one with the other, and that the idea that the producers of export quality are thereby prejudicing the sales and commercial success of the ‘home trade’ qualities is entirely without foundation.

So far as I have been able to arrive at the facts, the commercial spheres of the three classes of rums are entirely distinct, and there is no reason to believe that the production of high-flavoured rums for blending on the continent is in any way prejudicial to the interests of the home trade Jamaica rums consumed in the United Kingdom.


While rum remains the wine of the country, so far as the lower orders in Jamaica are concerned, nothing is so striking to an observer of the habits of the upper classes, as the very large extent to which imported Scotch whisky (some of it very recent, very fiery and of very patent-still quality) has displaced rum. The high-class trade in old rums of delicate softened flavour, which were formerly so highly thought of by the planters and moneyed classes, has largely disappeared, and it would probably be most difficult to obtain a choice mark of an old rum, which has not been blended, from any spirit merchant in Jamaica today. Blends are the order of the day, and the public house trade is the chief field in which the local quality of rum is employed.

For this purpose a light rum that will age or mature very rapidly is a great desideratum. These rums are mainly produced in Vere and St. Catherine, and are the result of light settings and a quick fermentation. The stills are heated with steam coils, and double retorts are used.

The ether content of these rums varies from a minimum of 90 parts per 100,000 volumes of alcohol to about 300 parts. The bulk of this spirit would average from 180 to 220 parts of ethers. It will be noticed from the samples submitted for inspection that these rums have a delicate pleasant aroma, and when broken down with water yield a light type of residual flavour which is markedly inferior to that of the rums in Glass II.

The basis of flavour of these rums is principally due to acetic ether, while the characteristic flavour and aroma of each estate’s mark, appear to be due in every case to traces of the ethers of the higher acids, and, in a less degree, to traces of caprylic alcohol and other higher alcohols of an aromatic nature.


These rums are generally produced by a slower type of fermentation than the local trade rums, and some of the best marks are produced in ground cisterns, and are slightly flavoured by the addition of some sour skimmings to the fermented materials. These rums are characterized by a high standard of heavy residual body. These are mainly ethers of acids of high molecular weight. These acids are not producible from sugars, and are almost absent in rums other than Jamaican, which are produced from diluted molasses without dunder or acid skimmings, and distilled in patent stills. Our investigations indicate that these higher acids result from the bacterial decomposition of the dead yeasts found in our distillery materials in Jamaica, and I am forced to the conclusion that the adherent yeasts in the old ground cisterns have a good deal to do with the fine flavour of many of these home trade rums.

When in London recently in the office of the leading broker who handles Jamaica rum, I was shown samples of the chief marks of home trade rums which were considered to set the standard of quality. ‘We do not want ethers, but a round rummy spirit,’ said this broker. I was pleased to find, however, that the marks selected as standards were all of high ether content (from 300 to 450 parts of ethers). They had, however, a very good standard of heavy residual body, and the blend of flavours was both mellow and full.


Jamaica has long been famed for its rum, and a certain proportion of the crop has for very many years found its way to the markets of Europe. Thirty or forty years ago, a trade in high-class drinking rums was carried on with the continent; and I recently interviewed in Hamburg a merchant who had in former days done a good trade in choice marks of Jamaica drinking rums. He bemoaned, however, that this trade had practically ceased since 1889, when the German Government raised the duty on Jamaica rums from a very low rate to the relatively high one that now obtains, which is equivalent to about 8¢. per liquid gallon. From that time the entry into Germany of Jamaica rums, suitable for direct consumption, has been made almost impossible. The low rates of excise on the domestic potato and grain spirits render the competition of home trade qualities of Jamaica rums with the German spirits out of the question under present conditions.

To the firm of Finke & Co., of Kingston and Bremen, and the enterprising planters of the north side of the island, belong the credit for having met this obstructive tariff by the development of a considerable trade in high-flavoured rums, of such remarkable blending power that they could stand the high import duty, and yet be utilized by the German blenders for producing a blended rum capable of competing with local distilled spirits subject to a merely nominal excise.

It is no exaggeration to say that to this enterprise alone is due the survival of the small estates on the north side, despite their great disadvantages as sugar-producing estates under the stringent conditions of the sugar market during the past ten years. There is much unreasonable prejudice against this industry among planters who are interested in home trade rums; and it has often been suggested that these high-flavoured rums are merely adulterants, and gain a profit at the expense of the genuine common clean drinking rums.

If these rums were used for blending with silent spirit in the United Kingdom, to produce blends that were sold as Jamaica rum, there would be some ground for this view; but so far as evidence can be obtained, it would appear that these rums are all used on the continent, and are not in competition with home trade rums at all. …

These export rums are commonly known as German flavoured rums in Jamaica, and are produced by a process that could only be adopted on a small estate with a relatively enormous distillery capacity. Instead of thirty hours’ fermentation, as in the case of a Demerara or Trinidad rum, these German-flavoured rums demand a fermenting period of fifteen to twenty-one days. …

These flavoured rums contain, as might be expected, a relatively high proportion of ethers. Some makes are as low as 600 or 700 parts of ethers, but are, as a rule, relatively rich in heavy-bodied ethers, and are possessed of great stretching power.

The finer qualities contain some 1,000 to 1,200 parts of ethers, and occasional samples may even attain a standard of 1,500 or 1,600 ethers. We have found that about 97 per cent of these ethers are acetic ether, about 2 per cent consist of butyric ether, traces of formic ether may be present, and from ½ to ¾ per cent of the total consists of heavy ethers derived from acids of high molecular weight.

It is upon this small trace of heavy ethers that the chief character, and, indeed, the commercial value of a high-flavoured rum depend.

As a rule the presence of high ethers is also associated with that of higher alcohols of a peculiar spicy and attractive fragrance. …

It would appear that the bulk of the so-called rum consumed on the continent of Europe is prepared from artificial essences, and that the trade in ‘Kunot rum ‘ has been detrimental to the interest of the Jamaica high-flavoured rum. The experiment station has been experimenting—with some success —in the direction of increasing the blending value of these rums so that they can compete on more equal terms with the sophisticated article on the continent.

An experiment has been carried out at Hampden estate in St. James to test this matter, and although the commercial results are not yet complete, we have every reason to believe that in the direction of increasing the blending power of our flavoured rums must lie the future of this industry.

[One other interesting Appendix is the APPENDIX  M.  The Production, Distribution and consumption of rum in British Guyana. Here are some extract]

… The advantages claimed for rum of the slow fermentation type distilled in stills of the kind commonly used in Jamaica are frequently stated to be its flavours and its great restorative powers due to its high content of esters. As the esters contained in rum of every type consist mainly of ethyl acetate it is difficult to perceive how this not very pleasant substance can confer on rum the characteristic aroma of that spirit. …

The consumers of rum in the West Indian Colonies generally prefer a clean light spirit of medium fruity flavor, usually of low esters content, to a richer, heavier, and probably a somewhat oily spirit of high contents of esters and rich in flavouring matters. …

It is only of comparatively late years that the production of so-called “German rum” has been developed in Jamaica. This is a spirit containing an abnormal amount of esters – as much in some cases as 2,000 to 2,800 parts for 100,000 of absolute alcohol by volume – and the object of its production was to enable German silent spirits to be flavoured with it so as to pass as “Jamaica rum”. Doubtless this policy on the part of certain Jamaican distillers of assisting their competitors to produce fictitious rum is what has given rise to their recent campaign against all genuine rums which do not happen to have been produced in Jamaica. …

[Finally, here is an extract of the Final Report, written by the Commissioners at the end of the works, in 1909.]


It has been suggested that the principal cause for the difference in flavor between rums produced in various places lies in the methods of fermentation used, rather than the process of distillation. According to the evidence there are two distinct types of rum, Jamaica rum being representative of the first and Demerara rum of the second. The first type is the result of slow fermentation, lasting from 10 to 12 days, of wash set at a relatively high density; the second is the result of a rapid fermentation, lasting from 36 to 48 hours, of wash set a low density.

We see no reason, however, to deny the name of rum to either of these types. We consider that the definition of rum as “a spirit distilled direct from sugar-cane products in sugar-cane growing countries,” which was submitted to us by Mr. Aspinall on behalf of the West India Committee, fairly represents the nature of the spirit which a purchaser would expect to obtain when he asks for “rum”. The Customs already recognize the distinction between “rum,”  “rum from Jamaica,” and “imitation rum,” and we consider that this differentiation should be continued.


Well, it’s done. I have published only a very little part of the works of the Royal Commission, and I am convinced that it would be interesting to dig deeper. But for me it is enough, see you next month with a new strand of the history of rum.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on May 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part Four


The fourth article devoted to the work of the Royal Commission starts with the testimony of Mr. Algernon Aspinall, a representative of the famous West India Committee.  Concerning the definition of rum, Mr. Aspinall too presents a very different position  from the one previously expressed by Mr. Nolan, Jamaica’s Special Commissioner and he makes a defence of the quality of rum produced with Column Still. Also the second witness, Mr Ernest Tinne, who defends the quality of Demerara Rum, agrees with Mr. Aspinall.

Perhaps, though, it is the last testimonies that are of greatest interest to us today. Three different witnesses make us understand the real quality level of the huge market of cheap rum, and of other cheap spirits, at the beginning of the XX Century.

TWENTY-FIFTH DAY, Wednesday, 8th July, 1808   Mr. Algernon E. Aspinall, called

  1. You are, I believe, Secretary of the West India Committee? – That is so.
  2. That, I believe, is an association of planters, merchants, and others interested generally in the British West Indies, British Guyana and British Honduras? – Yes.

13399.The West India Committee, I believe, has been established for a great many years? – Yes, it was established early in the eighteenth century, and was incorporated by Royal Charter on August 4th, 1904.

  1. What are the objects of the Association? – The objects of the Association as set out in the Royal Charter are by united action to promote the interests of the agricultural and manufacturing industries and trade, and thus increase the general welfare of the British West Indies, British Guyana and British Honduras.
  2. The question of rum has come before you? – Yes, constantly.
  3. Will you give us your idea of what constitutes rum? – The views of the West India Committee are enunciated in the following statement: “That only spirit distilled direct from sugar-cane product in sugar-cane growing countries is entitled to be called rum, and that such spirit has been called and recognized as rum for over half a century, whether made in a pot or a patent still.”
  4. You are aware that it has been stated in evidence that the term “rum” should be confined to the pot still product? – We are, and we do not agree with that view.
  5. Can you tell me which of the West Indies produces rum in any considerable amount? – Jamaica produces about 1,250,000 gallons per annum, and the rest of the islands among them produce about 200.000 gallons. British Guyana, which we consider part of the West Indies, produces about 2,500,000 gallons.
  6. The largest output is British Guyana? – Yes, by far.

TWENTY-SIXTH DAY. Monday, July 20th, 1908.

Mr. Ernest Tinne, called

  1. The business of your firm in Demerara and the West Indies is an old one? — Yes.
  2. Established in the year 1782? — Yes.
  3. I want your definition of rum? – I consider Mr. Aspinall’s definition is exactly corrected. It is spirit distilled directly from sugar-cane products in sugar-cane growing countries, and, I might add, whether it is produced in a pot still fired direct or a pot still heated by steam, or continuous still, or a Coffey patent still. There must have been a good deal of confusion, if I might say so, in the minds of Mr. Nolan and Mr. Heron as to what you call pot stills. More than 30 years ago I think the whole of the rum in Demerara was made in pot stills heated by direct fires. That, if I may say so without hurting the feelings of a Jamaica man, is, I consider, a dirty, wasteful and unscientific process. You are liable to get a residue in the bottom of the copper retort from distilling which exposes you to the burning of the copper. You have no proper means with direct heat of regulating the heath of your wash as you have in a steam still, and I think the return from that is not as good as we get at the present from the vat or pot steam stills and Coffey stills. I do not altogether agree with what Sir Daniel Morris and, I think Mr. Nolan said about the return from molasses in Demerara being worse, because we take more sugar out of the juice than they do in Jamaica. I do not think the rum need any worse. You naturally get less rum from molasses containing less sugar, but that is no reason why the rum should be any worse.

[At this point the Commission gets back briefly to the so-called Imitation Rum]

Mr. Frank Litherland Teed, recalled

  1. Have you any reason to think that this imitation rum is being sold in this country? – I have no means of knowing. Of course, you might get the import numbers from the Customs, but I do not see how you are to get the quantities that are actually manufactured in this country. If you take the patent still grain spirit which I believe is now called patent still Scotch Whiskey, and put some of these ethers to it, it becomes rum. We have heard this morning that it becomes gin under certain circumstances, but, of course, if you put in other essences it may become brandy.

[And here we get to two weighty statements given by big British producers and exporters of Spirits. It is clear that the only checks the product was subjected to were those of Excise and Custom officials  in order to establish the correct taxation. There was no quality control, no checks to verify the authenticity of the product  and all the various types of cheap Spirits were made with the same “British Plain Spirit”.]

TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY. Tuesday, July 21st, 1908

Mr. James Monro Nicol, called

  1. You are exporters of Scotch whiskey, West Indian rum, British rum and compounded spirits, and you are proprietors of Customs bonded warehouses? – Yes.
  2. You wish to make some remarks to the Commission about a certain practice of mixing rum and plain spirit for exportation? – Yes.
  3. It has been suggested by one witness that this practice should be prohibited? – That is so.
  4. I understand that you take a different view: Will you kindly explain to the Commission exactly what that view is? – As stated in my précis, my present company and its predecessors have carried on that business for almost 40 years in accordance with the regulations of the Excise and Customs.
  5. That is the business of mixing Demerara rum with plain spirit in bond? – Yes. We therefore feel that it would be very unfair to us now to have that permission taken away not only on account of our own loss but we feel that it would be to the loss of the trade of the country, and there is no doubt about it that other countries would step in and do the trade if we did not do it.
  6. Under what designation is this mixed rum exported by you; how is it described? – It is ordered first of all from us as a rum and we invoice it as a rum. We use the term “rum” in our correspondence ourselves, but in the Customs, of course, the name “rum” is not recognised. The casks do not bear on them the name “rum”. They have to be marked “mixed”: That is certain.
  7. Not “rum” but “mixed” by itself? – Yes, the word “mixed”, which I suppose is a sufficient indication, or at least it meets the requirements of the Excise and Customs, that is a mixed spirit.
  8. That is, mixed for foreign use? – Yes.
  9. But is there any further mark on the cask that is exported? – That depends entirely on the market that the article goes to.
  10. Take Australia, for instance? – For Australia it is now necessary to add the country of origin on the casks and therefore they are marked: “The product of Great Britain and the West Indies”: There is no objection to putting on the word “British rum”, and as a matter of fact in exporting to Australia these two words do appear over and above the statement as the country of origin.
  11. You have on that cask when sent to Australia, have you not “British Rum”, the produce of Great Britain and the West Indies, in addition to the word “mixed”? – Yes, that is so.
  12. How do you invoice those mixtures? – It is invoiced as “rum”.
  13. To Australia? – Yes.

14372.And the term “British Rum” does not appear on the invoice?  – No, it does not appear. Of course, the rum may have a brand as many rums have. As I understand, many rums in Australia are known by brands, such as our own. Our own brand is known as the “Red Star Brand”.

  1. Where does the bulk of that spirit go to? – It goes to Australia, New Zealand and the Australasian islands as well as to different parts of Eastern Europe.
  2. Does New Zealand accept it without any special designation? – They do; no certificate of age is required in New Zealand.
  3. And no special description? – No, no special description.
  4. It simply goes there marked “mixed”? – That is so.
  5. And invoiced as “rum”? – Yes, invoiced as “rum”. In our case the invoice has on it “Red Star Rum”.
  6. Do you know if any spirit of that kind is sold in this country as rum, that is, mixed Demerara or Jamaica rum with plain spirit? Of course, I am aware that that could not be done in bond for home trade, but do you know whether spirit of that nature is sold as rum in this country? – I am not aware of it. We are not in the Home Trade, and of course I do not know the ins and outs of it.
  7. Would you regard that as a legitimate trade in this country? – I would.
  8. To sell that as “rum”? – Yes. I consider that there is no monopoly in the word “rum”.
  9. … What is the smallest amount of rum you can get in the cheapest article you send out? You must have a cheap trade as well as anybody else. What is the smallest amount of rum you would put in? – That we use, or that might be used?
  10. That you can put in? – I should say if you use one gallon of Demerara rum with your British spirit it would have to go out as mixed spirit.
  11. One gallon of Demerara rum to how many gallons of plain spirit? – One gallon of Demerara rum to 100 of plain spirit.

Mr. F.W. Percy Preston, called

  1. What is the nature of the business of your firm? – We are distillers and also exporters.
  2. Distillers of what? –What do you distill? – British plain spirit.
  3. Is that grain spirit? – Molasses spirit mostly. There is a little grain, but the bulk of our trade is molasses spirit.
  4. You are proprietors of Excise bonded warehouses? – Yes, and also of a vatting establishment over the top.
  5. You wish to give evidence before the Commission as the desirability or otherwise that the mixing of rum and plain spirit for exportation should be prohibited? – Yes.
  6. What do you wish to say in reference to that? – I simply say that if that is taken away from this country, the Germans take the trade and we lose it. They would send it direct from Hamburg to the West Coast of Africa, where I should otherwise send it, and they would simply take the trade off us, and our trade is ruined.
  7. What you export is a mixture of West Indian rum and British plain spirit? – Yes, made from molasses, which I call plain spirit.
  8. How do you invoice it? – It is really a trade term. A merchant writes to me and he says, “What is your price for African rum”, and I tell him what the price is. Another man from Manchester, from where most of the Mediterranean trade is done, writes and says, “What is the price for your Mediterranean rum”, and an Australian writes and says, “ What is your price for Australian rum”, and I tell them. The Excise know the proper thing to put on the cask. We do not work under the Customs, but we work under the Excise.

I would like to conclude this article with a personal reflection. Many today in the rum world seem to feel nostalgia for the good old times when, in their opinion, the quality of rum ( indeed, the quality of quite everything)  was better than is now: more natural, authentic, artisan, and  healthier, too.  These accounts show us that, at least as regards rum, in truth there is nothing to be nostalgic for, and that the good old times were not so good after all.

Ok, I think it is enough for this month, see you in May.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on April 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part Three


We are now into the third article of this series. It focuses on the various kinds of rum produced in the British Colonies, not just in Jamaica, and on the way consumers’ taste had been veering towards more neutral, rectified spirits. We’ll discover that the major producer was not Jamaica, but Demerara, and that even the iconic Navy Rum was made from Demerara Rum. About the definition of rum, the opinion of the first witness, Mr. Man, is radically different from that of Mr. Nolan, which we read in the last article. Then, we’ll get back to highly flavoured rums. Using these, in Germany they produced the so-called Rum Verschnitt (more or less, blended rum). It was a cheap, very popular spirit, made mostly from potato spirit and with a little highly-flavoured rum. As far as I know, in Germany a little production of  Rum Verschnitt continues to this day  (see:

TWENTY- FOURTH DAY, Tuesday,  July 7th, 1908. Mr. Frederik Henry Dumas Man, called

  1. What is your firm? – E.D. and F. Man, Colonial Broker.
  2. That is a firm of old standing, is it not? – It dates back to 1793.
  3. How long have you yourself been in business? Twenty-nine years.
  4. What is the nature of your business? We deal in Colonial produce – sugar, rum, cocas, etc. We have got from three-quarter to seven-eighths of the rum trade, and a small fraction of the sugar trade.
  5. Is your trade exclusively in Jamaica rum? Not at all – any rum.
  6. But a large quantity of it is Jamaica rum? A large quantity of it is Jamaica rum.
  7. How is that rum that you sell produced? – In various ways. The Jamaica rum is, I think, entirely made in a pot still. The rum from the other countries is chiefly patent still, but there is more than one patent still. There is the Coffey still and some other still.
  8. Are you speaking of rum produced from the other West Indian islands? Yes.
  9. In which islands, so far as your knowledge goes, is the patent still employed? – It is employed both in Demerara and Trinidad. Those are the two chief producing countries, besides Jamaica.
  10. Have you any knowledge of a patent still being employed in some of the West Indian Islands? — Oh, yes. Trinidad uses nothing but a patent still.
  11. But other than Trinidad? — I think St. Kitts uses one, but I am not quite sure. We do not hear much about how it is made; we only have to test the quality.
  12. Is there much variation in the quality of Jamaica rum? – Tremendous.
  13. Could you give us some indications? – From 2s. 6d. a gallon; just now it is very high and ranges from 3s. up to 8s.
  14. That is for Jamaica rum itself? – Yes.
  15. From the island of Jamaica? – Yes.
  16. How do you form an opinion of the value of the rum? – Simply by smell. We mix two parts of water to one of rum and compare it very carefully with other rums. The water brings out the flavours.
  17. You do not use any chemical analysis? – No.
  18. You are employed by the Admiralty, are you not? – Yes, we buy their rum.
  19. Do you buy all the rum for the Navy? – Yes, all.
  20. Has the consumption of rum varied very much of late years? – It has been steadily increasing lately.
  21. Can you give the Commission some information with the reference do that? – I think it is nearly half a million gallons more last year than the year before.
  22. Can you give us any information as to the cause of that increase? – We put it down to various causes, one is the suspicion that has lately been cast on whiskey, and people are beginning to find out that rum is a very wholesome spirit.
  23. I suppose that increase is mainly an increase in Jamaica rum? – No, I should not say so. I should think it was more in the other sorts. I do not think Jamaica rum has increased materially. It has slightly.

13015.Do you mean by “the other sorts” the varieties produced by the patent still?  – Yes, what we call proof rums. There are two sorts – Jamaica rum is one sort and then everything else is proof rum. Proof rum necessarily is sold by the proof gallon which varies according to strength.

  1. Where is it manufactured? – Chiefly in other parts of the West Indies – Demerara and Trinidad, but also Cuba, Mauritius, St. Kitts, Barbados. Most of the sugar-cane growing countries produce rum.

[So, the growth in rum consumption in those years regarded mainly rum made by Patent still. Consumers preferred it to Pot Still rum maybe because it was a more neutral spirit, low in congeners. And something similar, a Commissioner had said earlier, was happening to whiskey. It would appear that in that period the public’s taste was evolving towards rectified, lighter Spirits, easier to drink. It is indeed also the period of the great, lasting, worldwide success of  the Ron Lìgero  made in Cuba]

  1. Can you give us any information as to the rate of increase in the varieties of rum as compared with the increase in Jamaica rum? – No, it is very difficult. The Board of Trade returns do not distinguish.
  2. I gather from your précis that you regard rum as a very wholesome drink? – I have always believed so. I am told it is food as well as drink, and that if you take too much in the West Indies it does not have a bad effect, whereas if you take too much whiskey or brandy you are a dead man. That I hear from people who have lived out there all their lives.
  3. Then you make some remarks in your précis with regard to “low wines,” and you say they should not be allowed to be exported from Jamaica. Are they exported as a matter of fact? – Yes, they are.
  4. Would you tell the Commission what these low wines are? – I am not a practical distillery in any way, but I believe it is the first running and the last running of a wash, and the result is most unsatisfactory.
  5. For what purpose are these low wines exported? – For sale in this country as Jamaica rum. To compete with the proper article they are sold to a lower price, and the tied house people, and this sort of people, who want to put in the lowest priced articles, buy them.
  6. I understand that they come from Jamaica? – Yes.
  7. So your point is that a considerable quantity of inferior rum is exported? – It is a small quantity only – a few hundred puncheons a year are exported from Jamaica.
  8. You desire to see that stopped? – For the benefit of Jamaica I think it should be, because people who taste them and are told it is Jamaica rum would probably never touch Jamaica rum again.
  9. Than you state that a good deal of rum is fraudolently sold as Jamaica rum which is not Jamaica rum at all? – That is the supposition. The idea is to call everything Jamaica rum.
  10. What rum have you in your mind as regards that statement? – What they call vatted rum, that is, mixtures of rum; for instance Demerara and Mauritius are mixed together, one being an uncoulored rum and the other a heavily-coloured rum. They are brought down to a medium colour, and are sold as Jamaica rum in public-houses.
  11. The Demerara rum is distinctly inferior? – I would not like to say it is inferior, but it is a different style; it is more neutral and not so highly flavoured. It is generally considered inferior, and the price is inferior to Jamaica rum.
  12. How do you account for that difference? – I expect it is the soil and the different manufacture of the sugar. In Trinidad and Demerara they make a very superior sugar, and that means to say they take so much more stuff out that there is very little left for rum,whereas in Jamaica they think more of the rum than the sugar.
  13. Do you sell rum that comes from other islands than Jamaica? – Yes.
  14. Did you hear Mr. Nolan’s evidence yesterday? – No, I unfortunately was not here. I have read a little of it.
  15. Mr. Nolan recommended and pressed on the Commission that no rum coming from the West Indies should be allowed to be sold as rum unless it was made in the pot still? – That is Mr. Nolan’s idea, I know.
  16. You are interested in the question generally. What would your view be about that? – I think that is ridiculous. Some rum made in patent stills is quite equal to some made in pot stills. To brand only one sort as rum and the other as something else is, to my mind, ridiculous.
  17. Do you think that would generally be the view of the people who are engaged in the trade of rum generally and not confined to Jamaica rum? – I am sure that would be their view. We once supplied the Admiralty with Jamaica rum (they usually take Demerara and Trinidad) and the sailors did not like it so well.
  18. But you sell more Jamaica rum than anything else, do you not? – No, I do not think so. It varies according the crop. Sometimes there is a big crop of Jamaica rum, and sometimes a big crop of Demerara …
  19. You do not know which predominates? – What we call the proof rum, that is rum other than Jamaica.
  20. The bulk of the Navy rum, what is that? — That would be proof rum – not Jamaica.
  21. Proof rum, I take it, is an expression of your own over there? — A trade expression. It means to say that the rum is sold per proof gallon.
  22. But that rum is largely patent still rum? — Chiefly patent still rum.
  23. Could you tell me what pineapple rum is? – Pineapple rum is a rum having a pineapple flavor produced not artificially in any way, but by the soil. There are certain soils in Jamaica which produce a rum that is known as pineapple rum. It has the flavour of pineapple.

[We have now a testimony which does not concern rum directly, but the use of molasses to make gin. I find it extremely interesting though, as it sheds lights on how the spirits industry worked in the past.]

Mr. Richard F. Nicholson, recalled

  1. I should like to know whether you insist on gin being made from corn? – I do.
  2. You do not think it is possible to make it from molasses? – I think it is possible – in fact, from 1808 to 1810, when there was a scarcity of corn in the country corn was prohibited for distillation, and the London distillers, and even the Scotch distillers, had to go to molasses. I must tell you that I can see by our books that the molasses they used in those days were a very high grade of sugar. I see that from the very large produce they produced per cwt. , so it was a very high grade class of sugar and not what we understand as molasses to-day. During that period whiskey and gin and all home spirits had to be produced from materials other than corn, so no doubt it would be possible to make gin from molasses, but in the interest of the consumer I take it is advisable that gin should be produced from corn. It is generally recognized as a corn spirit, and I look upon it as unfair competition for certain traders to use inferior articles in their manufacture without declaration.

Well, I hope you have found this stuff interesting; more to come in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on March 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part Two


This is the second article that we have dedicated to the work of the Commission. As you will see, it focuses entirely on the testimony of a single person, Mr. James Coneys Nolan, the voice of Jamaican Rum. I apologize for its length, but I think it’s worth it. Enjoy the reading!

TWENTY-THIRD DAY, Monday, 6th July, 1908. At the Westmister Palace Hotel.

Mr. James Coneys Nolan, called

12496 You are, I believe, the representative of the Jamaica Government as Special Commissioner in the United Kingdom?  – I am, my lord.

  1. Will you tell the Commission what were the duties allotted to you? — I was appointed under a special law passed by the Legislative Council of Jamaica in 1904. It is called “The Jamaica Rum Protecting Law 26 of 1904.” That law authorized the Government of Jamaica to appoint a properly qualified person to come to the United Kingdom to try and put down the frauds which had been committed on Jamaica rum in this country and abroad.
  2. … — There were large quantities of rum which came from Martinique and other Colonies, and those rums are bottled and vatted often in bond here, and taken out of bond and sold as Jamaica rum.
  3. You would not allow other West Indian Colonies to sell rum and call it “Jamaica Rum”? No, my lord.
  4. Had those frauds had any practical effect which was felt in Jamaica on your sugar industry? — Yes, very much so.
  5. Just explain that? — For five years ending 1902 42 estates went out of existence. The price of Jamaica rum fell in 25 years from 5s. down to about 1s. 10d. I had myself 165 puncheon of rum here a few years ago, and I had to sell them for less than they had cost me to produce.
  6. …Where was it these frauds were committed, and in the first place what is the nature of them? It is adulteration? — These frauds have been committed largely under the authority of the Custom House – not the Custom House so much as the Inland Revenue Department. They allowed traders to mix in bond if they wished and would not prevent them using the term “Jamaica rum” if they so desired.
  7. That is not my question. Where is it, and, in the first place, what is it that is done that has made the matter that you complain of as being inferior or false? Where is that done? Is it in the manufacture in other Colonies in the West Indies? — They blend patent still spirit with Jamaica rum in the United Kingdom. Patent still spirit can be bought for about 1s. a gallon. It is much cheaper than Jamaica rum, and it is blended and sold and put on the market in this country as Jamaica rum.
  8. In Jamaica you use the pot still? – Yes, the pot still alone.
  9. Is it your opinion that all patent still rum ought to be objected to and refused as Jamaica rum? — Yes, my lord. It could not be sold as Jamaica rum.
  10. Your view is that patent still rum should not be allowed to be rum at all? — Certainly, I think so.
  11. Even in the blending? — No.
  12. You are a staunch supporter of pot still manufacture only? — I am.
  13. You cannot have Jamaica rum made in any other way? No, my lord.
  14. Have you ever tried the patent still in Jamaica? – No, my lord, we do not want to. It would ruin our industry.
  15. I have heard of condemnation without a hearing? — I would not try it myself for a good deal, and if I found a man selling Jamaica rum in this country made in a patent still in Jamaica I would prosecute him for it. It would not be Jamaica rum.
  16. You would prosecute him, but I cannot tell you at present whether you would convict him? — I have convicted a lot.
  17. That is your view? — Yes, I believe in Jamaica rum being made in the pot still.
  18. What do you say is the product of the patent still? – Silent spirit, I believe. It destroys all the esters and the valuable properties in the rum.
  19. Is the difference perfectly recognizable by the ordinary consumer? — I think so.
  20. The difference between the patent still and the pot still? — Easily.
  21. And of course consumers can order what they like? – Certainly, whatever the consumer whishes to have, What I fight for in the matter is a plain statement of what the liquor is in the bottle; merely a statement as to it being patent still or rum. Let them drink it if they whish, but let it be a fair and straightforward statement on the bottle.
  22. Then it follows from your statement that you would object to the selling as rum of the rum made in Barbados, Trinidad, and the British Guyana? – You could not call some of the spirits made in Barbados rum at all. It is used to mix with whiskey and brandy and rum.
  23. Would you rule out Trinidad, too? – They only make rum there when they can get a very high price for it. They often throw the molasses away.
  24. Grenada? – Yes, that is a little better. There are pot stills in some of the islands.
  25. Anything that is produced otherwise than from the pot still in those islands you would rule out? — Personally, I would. I only give you my opinion personally.
  26. … — I certainly think myself that any rums not made in a pot still are not entitled to the designation of “rum”. If the rum is made in a patent still it is a rectified spirit, not rum.
  27. [The Commission states that the import of (declared) imitation rum into the UK is declining] — Yes, but under your existing regulations imitation rum will come in as rum easily enough.
  28. How could that be done? – Rum, your regulations say, should be the product of the sugar-cane and shipped from a port in a cane-growing country. If spirit was shipped from New Orleans to this country you would have to admit it as a rum whether it was made in the Northern States from potato spirit or from sawdust, or anything else.
  29. That does not follow under our regulations? — I am going to the question of the Customs regulations. Rum cannot come from Germany, except under certain conditions, but you allow rum to come from France without a Consul’s certificate as to the country of origin, and the French are the biggest offenders to-day.
  30. With regard to mixed spirits bottled in bond, you make this recommendation: “In the case of mixed spirits bottled in bond it should be stated on the label the proportion of rum and of patent still spirits present.” What spirits have you actually in your mind when you say “Mixed spirits bottled in bond” ? — Any spirits made in the patent still which would be mixed with rum.
  31. For what purpose? — For drinking.
  32. And selling in this country? — Yes.
  33. What are the patent still spirits? — You call rum any spirit that is made in a country produced from sugar-cane. I do not; I call it patent still spirit in many cases.
  34. In bond, for home consumption, you may not mix a foreign spirit with a home-made spirit? — No, you cannot mix imitation rum and rum.
  35. Nor can you mix rum brought from abroad with patent still spirit made at home? — No, because the duty is different.
  36. That has been the case a long time; but what are the mixed spirits to which you refer? — Take the spirit made in Barbados. That spirit, rectified, is allowed here in the Customs to be called rum.
  37. That is rum from Barbados? – You call it rum, but I call it patent still spirit. That is the difference.
  38. There is one statement at page 8 of your précis that puzzled all the experts that I have consulted still more. I am sure you must have something behind in your mind about it, but it has bothered all of us very much. You say, “There is little doubt that the Inland Revenue will always favour the patent still as it is a well known fact in the Service that it requires much less supervision than the pot still distillery: That has puzzled a good deal all my advisers that I have consulted. Would you tell me what you have behind that? — I have spoken to hundreds of Inland Revenue officers, and they all say the same thing, but they will not come before you and say so, or before the Board. What is more, everyone knows that patent stills can be easily worked; there is no re-charging and no re-filling. It is a continuous still, and the officers have much less trouble to look after it, and the Board has much less trouble in collect their revenue.”

[Now the Commission began to ask about  “highly-flavoured” rum.]

  1. Is any of that consumed in this country? – No, you could not drink it as a self rum.
  2. Does it all go to Germany? – I think nearly all of it. Some of it is used for hock to give a foundation.
  3. What is it sent to Germany for? – It is used there to blend with German spirits or inferior rums to give the other rums a higher flavor.
  4. It is used for spurious rums? – They do not call them spurious rums. It is a kind of top dressing.
  5. What do they call it? – Jamaica rum, I believe.
  6. They sell it as Jamaica rum? – Yes, I believe so.
  7. You send it to Germany for the express purpose of blending with the patent still spirit to be sold as Jamaica rum? – No, we do not that. We sell it for the best price we can get, and take no cognizance of what happens to it afterwards. They cannot help what happens to it afterwards, and unfortunately I can take no steps in Germany to prevent it.
  8. I suppose the Customs duties in Germany are almost prohibitive. Can you send to Germany that class of rum that you can send to this country? — That I do not know.
  9. What was the object of sending that very highly-flavoured spirit there? Was it not to enable you to get a market for your rums which you could not get into the country on account of the high duties? – I do not think so. Many of the blenders produced that rum for the simple reason that they got 7s. or 8s. a gallon for it, which is a very high price.
  10. That is not the class of rum you produce now? – It is a flavouring essence. It is not a self rum.
  11. You sell it for the express purpose of being used as a flavouring essence? – No; we do not know what it is used for.
  12. This paper clearly shows what it is sold for, and that it is recognized as a rum made for blending with neutral spirit? – We have a vague idea about it. A large proportion of the total output is bought by merchants on the Island, who ship to Germany.
  13. You enable the Germans to do something and, in fact, help them to do something, which you would condemn in this country? – I do not do it myself, but some do it in order to reap a better price for their rum. There is only a limited market for it.
  14. With regard to these imitation rums that come here, how are they manufactured? Do you know anything about them? – I believe those imitation rums are made from essences mixed with silent spirit. Such bottles of rum essence were sent out a few years back to the Jamaica planters from some German town. It was not enough to rob us of our trade, but added insult to injury by stating that we could make three or four gallons of Jamaica rum by adding a little essence to silent spirits.
  15. You think they are not made your highly-flavoured rum? – I do not think so.
  16. Are you quite sure of that? — I am not quite certain, but it would not pay them to. They could get the essence much cheaper. The highly-flavoured rum costs 8s. 6d. a gallon.
  17. I believe your endeavor as manufacturers in Jamaica is to produce this highly-flavoured rum in the largest quantities possible? — No. I know it was tried, and Mr. Cousins did his very best to induce the planters to do it, but they refused.

[ Herbert Henry Cousins was a famed chemist of the time; he carried out extensive research on Jamaican rum and was commissioned to write a Memorandum against Pairault. See “Defending Jamaica Rum” in the December issue of GOT RUM?]

  1. They are not doing it? – No.
  2. Mr. Cousins states they are? – I state they are not. He brought forward a certain theory to do certain things which we objected to entirely.
  3. With regard to the molasses, you told us that you must not remove more than one purging of sugar before you make the rum? – To make the first molasses we boil the sugar once, and then we purge it through centrifugals, and as the result of that purging we get the first molasses. In Demerara they boil it over again and make second and third sugars, they remove all the sweet from the molasses, and make rum from that.

[ Demerara was a Dutch and then a British colony in South America; roughly, present-day Guyana ]

  1. What control is there in Jamaica which prevents a maker of Jamaica rum from doing exactly what they do in Demerara with regard to the sugar? – None, except that if that was done the price of rum would fall down to a very low figure. It is judged here by its worth. A man’s common sense would not let him do it. … it is against his interest.
  2. But it is in the interest of the Demerara man? He has a very larger plant than we have, in most cases, and he find that he gets a better market for his sugar, because Demerara sugars are famous. In that way they make the first and third sugars. We should get an accumulation of molasses, and could not store them. Therefore, we have no similar plant to make a similar quantity.
  3. In Jamaica you make the rum and in Demerara it is a bye-product? – In Jamaica rum is our first product, and sugar is a bye-product.
  4. Do you think that really can be said of all the distillers in Jamaica? Yes; some make much higher class rum, and others cater for the home trade here.
  5. Your third point is the manner in which the wash is set up for fermentation. You say there are three ingredients which with water are used for the setting of the wash for fermentation, all of which are the produce of sugar-cane: – scum or skimmings, molasses, and dunder. They are used in proportion according to the judgement and practical experience of the distiller, who is guided by all the circumstances connected with the estate and distillery. I suppose that varies at each of the distilleries, does is not? We find that some distillers, like myself, for instance, use what is called a sour cistern. I let a lot of my cane juice sour. I would not get a large quantity of alcohol, but I would get a higher amount of ethers and secondary products. Acidity is created.
  6. That is a peculiarity of your own process, and one or two of others? No, in Jamaica it is the general rule.
  7. It is not specially necessary to all Jamaica rum? No, they may not use it to such a large extent, but a certain amount of sour cane juice is used on all estates.
  8. Do you recognize that the rum from all parts of the West Indies has the same good quality as your Jamaica rum? No.
  9. Even when they use a pot still, and use only one purging of sugar, or when theu use rich molasses? No; you can only get one Cognac brandy in the world; it is the same with us, you can only get one Jamaica rum.
  10. With regard to age, can you tell me whether the price of rum varies greatly in respect of age? – So far as the planters were concerned, the prices which they obtained here were much the same for old and new. The new stretch better than the old for blending with patent still spirit, but of course old rum sold retail was much more expensive.
  11. Is rum matured before it leaves the colonies? – No; it is shipped as we make it. It is bought now by a company, who take a lot of it and it will improve by age very mush. In the colonies they do mature some rum, and charge as high as 6s. 6d. a bottle for it, and they get it too.
  12. Is the bulk of rum that reaches this country over or under two years old? – It is under two years old.
  13. Including Jamaica rum? Yes. There is not more than a year’s supply in stock now, I suppose.
  14. Any maturing which is done is done like the whiskey is matured , namely, in oak casks? In oak casks. It is shipped in puncheons from 112 to 118 gallons at 36 overproof.
  15. Can you give us some information on one or two points on distillation? Yes.
  16. First of all, how do you induce fermentation? Do you add yeast to the wash , or how does it ferment? – It is spontaneous. We add nothing. We add no chemicals of any description. Ours in the only Colony that adds no chemicals of any kind.
  17. How long do you allow it to ferment? – We allow it to ferment from eight to twelve days for ordinary clean drinking rum: German rums take about thirty days, or longer. It is a very slow fermentation.

Here we are finished with Mr. Nolan, but not at all with the work of the Royal Commission.  This long testimony is replete with information and opinions. Nolan is undoubtedly an impassioned witness and his explicit task was to defend and promote Jamaican Rum; nevertheless, he is unquestionably an authority and is point of view is no less important for us than it was for the Commission. I believe it helps us to understand the true reality of rum at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on February 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908) Part One

In my article about the 1st Nordic Rum Fest, in the July issue of GOT RUM ?, I wrote that for years now the Rum Family had been discussing production techniques, quality, authenticity, sugar, additives, etc. Until a recent past this discussions seemed  “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”: things for Staff Only, Rum Geeks, or worse, incurable Rum Nerds, without any influence in the hard, real world of Rum Business. Then, things changed and now a considerable number of consumers and Rum Fests visitors (not experts or professionals, but ordinary visitors) ask questions about several technical points. They want to know what they drink and what exactly they pay the price of the bottle for.

But there is more. There is a real debate going on, among producers and experts, on the future of rum, on what it is or what it should be, on the Regulations about it etc. Great part of this debate is concentrating on the new Regulations concerning the Geographical Indication in Jamaica and Barbados. This cannot come as a surprise, since  Jamaica and Barbados have such a prominent role in the history of rum and are now at the cutting edge of premium rum production. This broad debate might be summed up under just one title, which might be: Tradition and Innovation in the rum industry.

As Rum Historian, this is an issue I am very interested in, but one on which I do not have clearly defined ideas yet. I am not a distiller, nor a producer or a lawyer, therefore I do not understand well some technicalities of the discussion and their concrete commercial implications.

And yet, when we speak about “Tradition”, History comes into play and here I think I can make a contribution. For a start, I believe it is useful to take a look at what the rum business was really like at the beginning of the XX century. It was a crucial moment, it might be said that the modern industry of spirits was born just in those years: the years when the sale of bottled rum started to grow, when brands, labels and marketing got off the ground. The legal frame within which both industry and consumers operated was still nebulous. If I understand correctly, the few attempts to define the product  had come mainly from the Excise and Customs, that is, from the need to tax the different products in an accurate way. But by then that was not enough.

Then, in  … along comes the Islington Prosecutions. It was a large and complicated judiciary case about the selling of Irish and Scotch whiskey that, according to the prosecution, were not “of the nature, substance, and quality” of Irish and Scotch whiskey. Due to the importance of the matter for both the British economy and the health of the public, the British Parliament appointed a Commission to study the question and recommend a solution. The Commission dealt bravely with the thorny issues of the legal definition of the products, the production methods, the raw materials and geographical origin.

I do not believe that such a mass of evidence from industry professionals had ever been collected before, and perhaps even afterwards: “Our first setting took place on the 2nd March, 1908, since which date we have held 37 sittings “for the purpose of taking evidence”. At such sittings we examined 116 witnesses and considered various document submitted to us. Since the commencement of the inquiry several of us have visited certain distilleries employed in the manufacture of whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, and also a number of distilleries and warehouses at which brandy is manufactured and dealt with in France.”

Eventually, the Commission published a voluminous text consisting of the minutes of evidence, reports and many appendices.  I think it is a very important document, full of thought-provoking information. The Commission deals mainly with whiskey, but a lot of information can be found on rum and other spirits too.

In the next articles I am going to present you with a small part of the text, focusing obviously on rum. In brackets you will find my comments, few and brief, written to make the text more comprehensible to today’s readers. The minutes of evidence always follow the same pattern: a question asked by a Commissioner is  followed by the Witness’s answer. It is clear from the context that sometimes the witnesses had sent a précis written before the hearing. The number before every question simply indicates the chronological order of the questions.

Let’s get started.


FIRST DAY, Monday, 2nd March, 1908 At the Westminster Palace Hotel

Mr. Arthur John Tedder, called

  1. What is your position in the Excise Service? – Chief Inspector of Excise
  2. Could you give a definition of plain spirits? – Plain spirits means any British spirits which have not any flavours communicated thereto or ingredient or material mixed therewith.
  3. How would you define spirit at proof strength? – The strength of proof is that ascertained by Sykes hydrometer. It is defined in the Spirits (Strength Ascertainment) Act of 1818 as “spirit which at a temperature of 51° F. weighs exactly twelve-thirteenth parts of an equal bulk of distilled water. ”Practically it is a mixture of almost equal parts of absolute alcohol and water.
  4. And the object of blending, as a rule, is, is it not, to obtain a particular strength for a particular customer, or to obtain particular flavours to a certain customer’s desire? – That is what the blenders would tell you.
  5. What other explanation could you offer of it? – It makes all the difference as to the cost of the blend what a spirit you put into it. Of course, there is a very great deal in blending spirits to get a particular flavor.

[A  legal definition of whiskey did not exist yet. Many witnesses in the whiskey business asked for a strict, narrow definition for both bottled or bulk whiskey. They mostly stated that only the produce of the pot still could be rightly called Scotch or Irish Whisky, and not  the “neutral spirit” produced by the patent still. They also asked  that only local raw material should be used and that  ageing should be compulsory. The Commissioners were not convinced because the patent still and also foreign raw materials had been de facto largely used to produce both Scotch and Irish whiskey for many years. Moreover, according to some Commissioners, maybe Patent Still whiskey was successful not only because it was cheaper than pot still whiskey, but also because its flavor was more suited to the changes in taste of the public. This could be true of rum as well, since those were the years of the phenomenal success of Cuban “Ron lìgero”]

SIXT DAY, Wednesday, 18th March, 1908 Mr. Frank Litherland Teed, called

  1. You also, I believe, made a series of analyses of Jamaica rum and also analysed two samples of rum sold as Jamaica rum? – Yes, the allegation against the vendors was that it was not Jamaica rum.
  2. The defendants pleaded guilty? – Yes. In the first case they pleaded guilty, and in the second case they pleaded guilty, too.
  3. Those two cases were taken under a different Act? – Yes, the Merchandise Marks Act.
  4. You are prepared to give, if called upon, similar evidence as to brandy and rum? – Yes.
  5. You are confining yourself now to whiskey? – Practically entirely.
  6. You have a certain opinion about the importation of so-called “Imitation Rum”? – Yes
  7. What are those views? – I have never heard of imitation rum being on sale to the public anywhere. I believe that all imitation rum that is imported is fraudulently sold as rum.

TWENTY-THIRD DAY, Monday, 6th July, 1908. Mr. John Heron called

  1. Can you tell us anything with the regard to the secondary products of Jamaica rums as compared with those of Demerara rum? – The secondary products of Jamaica rum are very much larger in quantity than in Demerara rum. I have made very little analysis of Demerara rum, but the analyses I have made practically conform to a silent spirit.
  2. Is there something also connected with the acidity of Jamaica rum which rather differentiates it from other rum? – Yes, it has a very high acidity.
  3. You have given in your précis certain maximum and minimum values for the acids, aldehydes, furfurals, and esters of rum. Would you kindly tell us what they are? – I have made analyses of what I knew to be absolutely pure Jamaica rums. I have got those analyses here. They varied from something like 900 to a little over 200 of esters.
  4. That is from 900 to 200 of the esters and ethers? – Of esters and ethyl acetates. I find nothing less than 200. The limits are from 900 to 212.
  5. How do the acids run? – From 288, roughly 290, to 65.
  6. And the aldehydes? — From 109 to 19, and the furfurals from 14 to 15. What I laid particular stress upon was the amount of the esters. In fact, I went so far as to lay down a test for pure Jamaica rum, that a sample of pure Jamaica rum should contains 200 or more parts to the 100,000 of esters.
  7. I think it would be useful to the Commission if you would give them some indication of the number of samples of rum that you have had on which these maxima and minima you have given us are based? — I really could not give you that straight off, but I should say I have analysed some hundreds of samples, and I may say that among the samples I have analysed, which were bought generally from licensed premises, some 5 to 10 per cent. Were genuine samples, and the others were all adultered.

[The Commission was not convinced and asked many questions about the analyses]

  1. What was the result of this want of genuineness? Did it produce injury to health to the person consuming the rum? — It is not as good medicinally.
  2. Is it injurious to health? — I cannot say that it is injurious to health.
  3. When it is not quite so good in there any effect you can mention of the worse samples of rum compared with the better? — It has not the stimulating properties for one thing, or the reviving properties or the vivifying properties.  Would the bad quality of rum produce drunkenness sooner that the good or not?  — I really could not say.
  4. You say it has not the stimulating properties. What is the injury produced by not having the stimulating quality? Would the bad quality of rum produce drunkenness sooner than the good or not? — I really could not say.
  5. Is there an evil you want to have remedied? – The evil is that a lot of rum is on the market described as pure Jamaica rum which is not Jamaica rum at all.
  6. That is a very fair answer. Are these bad qualities of rum, do you think, manufactured in the United Kingdom or in Jamaica? — Good qualities have simply been diluted by the addition of silent spirit.
  7. Are these bad qualities manufactured in the United Kingdom or in Jamaica? – I should say they are manufactured in the United Kingdom.
  8. And represented as Jamaica rum? – Yes.


Well, I think it is enough for a first sample.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on January 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit