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 ?

See www.gotrum.com



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *