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

PATENT STILL versus POT STILL: Mr. MAN’S TESTIMONY

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: https://mixology.eu/en/the-roots-of-german-rum/).

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 www.gotrum.com

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.

From the “ MINUTES OF EVIDENCES taken by the ROYAL COMMISSION on WHISKEY AND OTHER POTABLE SPIRITS”

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 www.gotrum.com

The Golden Age of Rum

As I have already written, many today in the rum world seem to feel nostalgia for the good old times,  when, in their opinion, the quality of rum  (indeed, often the quality of quite everything)  used to be better than it is now: more natural, authentic, artisan, and  healthier too, a veritable Golden Age of Rum.

Unfortunately I have to disappoint them. Historical sources 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. Obviously we can’t know exactly what rum tasted like in the past, but I think it can reasonably be said that it was generally bad, often disgusting and probably undrinkable for today’s taste. And in many cases it would be prohibited today by all the health authorities on the planet.

I haven’t done any dedicated research on the subject, simply I came across some interesting texts when researching for my books about the history of rum. Therefore I do not claim to make an organic speech about this issue (maybe in the future), I’ll just present some thought-provoking sources.

Let’s begin with the very first English and French ones, dating back to the 1600s

In 1647 Richard Ligon, a Cavalier, a Royalist, ruined by the Civil War, left England and sailed to Barbados to seek his fortune. He would spend 3 years there. He didn’t achieve what he had set out to do, so he had to go back to England, where things continued to go wrong for him, to such an extent that eventually he was imprisoned for debt. While in prison, he wrote a book on his journey, “A true and Exact History of the island of Barbados”, published in 1657.

Here is one famous excerpt from it.

“The seventh sort of drink is that we make of the skimming of sugar, which is infinitely strong, but not very pleasant in taste; it is common and therefore the less esteemed; the value of it is half a Crown a gallon, the people drink much of it, indeed too much; for it often lays them asleep on the ground, and that is accounted a very unwholesome lodging.”

 

Few years later, another much quoted English visitor to ( or settler in)  Barbados described rum in  the following, not exactly enthusiastic way: “the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill.Divil, and this is made from sugar cane distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”

At the end of the 1600s, the French Dominican priest Jean-Baptiste Labat, usually known in the rum world as Père Labat, volunteered to leave the convent for the colonies in order to replace deceased missionaries on Martinique. He wrote a big book about his experience “Noveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amèrique … (“New Voyage to the American islands ..”)  published in 1722. Here are some excerpts

“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.”

“The spirits we pull from the canes are called Guildive. The Savages & the Negros call it Taffia, it is very strong, with an unpleasant smell & acridness, a little like grain-based spirits, which we have trouble taking away from them.”

In the second half of the 1700s rum became a widespread commodity. Consumers were well aware of the different geographic origins of rum, Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, New England  etc. and some rums were considered of far higher quality than others, with significantly different prices. In short, a proper international rum market already existed. Well, according to Guillame’s “Le Rhum sa Fabrication et sa Chimie”(1939) , in 1777 the “Encyclopédie” says:

“Rum is refined by distillers and traders who often blend a large quantity of low-priced liquor with coarse rum containing large quantities of essential oils which wipe out those of other fermented liquors. There is a lot of refinement in England. Some people are not ashamed to do this refinement with grain spirits or molasses. It’s very difficult to uncover this deception.”

At the end of the 1700s, John Bell served as a military surgeon in Jamaica. Back to England, in 1791 he published “An Inquiry into the causes which produce, and the means of preventing diseases …”. Bell was shocked by the mortality rate in the ranks “in some of those regiments, two thirds, and in others upward of a half, died, or were rendered unfit for service before they had been a year, or at most a year and a half, in the island of Jamaica.” In his opinion, the excessive daily consumption of rum was the primary cause of illness and death among the soldiers. The daily allowance was half a pint and was usually diluted with water, we do not know in what ratio. But soldiers bought much more undiluted rum, “large quantities of which of the most execrable quality” from private sellers at a cheap price. Actually, planters and distillers produced for the soldiers a kind of rum that only needed to be strong and cheap. It was fermented and distilled very quickly, saving on costs, without any regard for quality. As far as we know, the heads and the tails were not removed and in all likelihood in rum there was methanol, fused oils and bad congeners. And lead powder too, because lead and pewter were largely used in sugar and rum-making machinery. We know of soldiers who died immediately after they had drunk, or who fell to the ground in a state of torpor. Of hardy young men who declined rapidly. Of excruciating pains, ulcerated organs, illnesses …. The reports of the military surgeons of the time, and the first scientific post-mortems, tell us a terrifying story.

In the middle of the 1800s, France had become a major producer and consumer of rum. In 1864, the “Dictionnaire Francais” by B. Dupiney de Voupierre, writes:

“Under the names of Rum or Taffia, we designate two alcoholic liquors which are obtained from sugar cane; but the first is the product of the fermentation of molasses, a residue from the cane juice, while taffia is removed from the debris of sugar cane delivered to fermentation.  Rum is naturally colourless and endowed with a flavour similar to that of the spirit, but it is given the golden colour and the particular flavour which pleases the consumer by infusing cloves, tobacco tar, and especially scraping of tanned leather; usually a little caramel is also added.”

Time goes by, but the quality of rum does not improve much. In his preface  to Pairault’s  “LE RHUM et sa fabrication”(1903) , Dr. A. Calmette, writes:

“It is enough that we protect it by an intelligent regulation which obliges the importers to definitively state the inconceivable fraud which consists of making a litre of authentic rum into three or four litres of a product sold under the same name. This product is a mixture of beet alcohols and wonderfully combined sauces to give the consumer the illusion of true rum perfumes. This fraud is not only detrimental to the interests of rum makers, it can also be harmful to consumers’ health.”

And now let’s read again some parts of the report of the “Royal Commission on Whiskey and other Potable Spirits”

Twenty-sixth day. Monday, July 20th, 1908.

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.

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. 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.
  14. Would you regard that as a legitimate trade in this country? – I would.
  15. To sell that as “rum”? – Yes. I consider that there is no monopoly in the word “rum”.
  16. … 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?
  17. 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.
  18. 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.

Finally, in 1946, D. Kervégant  in his great book “Rhum et eaux-de-vie de canne”    writes:

“Most countries, however, tolerate the sale, under the name fancy rum or imitation rum, of mixtures of natural rum and neutral alcohols, and even rum imitations obtained by merely adding the alcohols of dyestuff and aromatic compounds (improvers).”

I think this is enough. To sum up, the good old times of rum never existed and the Golden Age of rum is right now.

Marco Pierini

PS: It might be interesting to read carefully the rum labels of the past. I guess that few, if any, would  comply with  our contemporary requirements of transparency and education.

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

A Journey to Barbados: Drax Hall

Between the end of January and the beginning of February 2014 I spent two weeks in Barbados.

I was full of expectations. After reading and writing so much about Barbados, at last I would be able to see the cradle of rum directly. I can now say with pleasure that Barbados has lived up to (almost) all my expectations. The two weeks were full of meetings and experiences. It’s impossible to tell everything.

But there are some things which I’d really like to tell, things that I still remember with excitement even after 7 years. I’ll start from the most exciting: one morning I asked a taxi driver to take me to Drax Hall.

It wasn’t easy. The beautiful Jacobean house that James Drax built in the early 1650’s to celebrate his wealth and power is now a private residence and it is outside the tourist itineraries. The taxi driver had never been there. The map helped us, but we had to ask for directions several times to the few human beings we came across.

At the beginning of the colonisation of the island, most colonists obviously settled on the coast, but  James Drax pushed into the interior and even now the area is almost uninhabited. Eventually we got there. There wasn’t anybody. The house seemed empty, with a few low outbuildings around. All in all, it looked like a farm. A few trees around, and  gently sloping hills covered  with sugarcane swaying in the wind, as far as the eye can see.

It is right here, perhaps, that everything started in Barbados.

Here, on a distant day of the early 1640’s far from prying eyes, James Drax started to grow a new, strange plant imported from Brazil: sugarcane.

It wasn’t easy. At the beginning he made mistakes. The first crops were bad, the first sugar he produced was of very low quality. But, as well as capable and clever, James Drax was strong and determined and at last success crowned his endeavors. The crop went well, the refining process too and his sugar was sold at very good prices in Europe.

It was the beginning of that Sugar Revolution that would change forever the face of Barbados  and of all the West Indies. And the destiny of millions of human beings.

I was moved. I got out of the car and I enjoyed the solitude, the silence and the wind. Then I took some photos. I don’t know how much time passed, not much, anyway. Then a car arrived, some dogs barked and I saw someone moving.

The magic moment had passed. I got back into the taxi and we went away.

Marco Pierini

RUM FOR THE ARMY

In the previous articles, we tried to tell how Rum conquered the British mind and market in the 1700s, one of the greatest and most successful marketing campaigns of known History. We saw how it was the result of a real lobbying effort made by the West Indies’ interests with the help of Science, Fashion and the Royal Navy. According to S.W. Mintz in “Sweetness and Power” it was an example of “much-needed creeping socialism for an infant industry”.

To complete the frame of this public effort to promote Rum consumption, we now want to tell about the diffusion of Rum in the British Army in the 1700s and early 1800s, which R.N. Buckley in “The British Army in the West Indies” called  “state-sponsored alcoholism”.

Traditionally, English soldiers had beer, and sometimes wine, as customary ration. The Army did not have the problem of the Navy to maintain water and beer drinkable during the long oceanic voyages, so it did not need to introduce spirits  so soon.

Large distribution of Rum to soldiers began round the mid of the 1700s  in the West Indies and North America, and increased rapidly during the century. Yet during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763) Rum was distributed only on special occasions, for instance when men had to deal with bad weather and/or fatigue, but it was not a daily allowance. Only during the American  Revolution (1775 – 1783) do we know about a regular allowance of Rum: a gill daily, which amounts to a gallon per month.

But in America, Rum was cheap and easy to buy in large quantities. Licensed sutlers, unlicensed ones, soldiers’ wives, planters, and often the  officers themselves sold cheap Rum to the soldiers. And soldiers bought and drank it in huge quantities with uncontrollable frenzy. They drank such quantities that probably they spent most of the time in a state of near inebriation.

Why? The 1700s in Britain was an age of hard drinking, see the so-called  “Gin Craze”. Moreover, a soldier’s life was both brutal and boring. Fatal diseases scourged them. Short periods of battle with its exertion and bloodshed , were succeeded by long periods of emptiness and idleness. Getting drunk was often the only escape available. Wine and brandy were expensive, too much for  ordinary soldiers, while Rum was affordable, and in great quantity. Rum, therefore, was their usual drink, their cheap Stairway to Heaven.

Drunkenness worsened the already poor health of the soldiers, with negative consequences on the efficiency of the Army. It also undermined discipline and strained the relations with civilians, with discontent, floggings and court- martials. Many officers and military surgeons were well aware of the dangers of this situation, but they were not able to stop it.

The fact was, soldiers wanted to drink. Better, they wanted to get drunk in the quickest and cheapest way  possible. Therefore, to distribute Rum was the easiest and cheapest way to have their allegiance and diligence. The officers knew that to try cutting or also just  limiting  Rum allowances could bring troubles and also open mutiny. Then, alcohol had deep roots in military culture.

Medicine was also ambivalent: many doctors condemned the abuse of alcohol, but others considered it useful to preserve men’s health in both cold or hot weather and  “as a precaution against the noxious air”. Last, when out of duty, troops usually did not live in military barracks, but were billeted in taverns and civilians’ houses where control was impossible and Rum easily available.

So, drunkenness was common in the British Army well into the 1800s. What kind of Rum did they drink, though? Let’s see.

John Bell served as a military surgeon in Jamaica. Back to England, in 1791 he published An Inquiry into the causes which produce, and the means of preventing diseases among British Officers, Soldiers, and others in the West Indies. Containing observations on the action of spirituous liquors on the Human body. As many, Bell was shocked by the mortality rate “in some of those regiments, two thirds, and in others upward of a half, died, or were rendered unfit for service before they had been a year, or at most a year and a half, in the island of Jamaica.”  Actually, in the West Indies  the diseases – the “fevers” – killed many more soldiers than the enemy’s weapons.

Like many doctors of the time, Bell underestimated the role of infectious diseases and thought that climate, diet and life-style were the main factors  warranting good health. In his opinion, the excessive daily consumption of Rum was the primary cause of illness and death among the soldiers. The daily allowance was half a pint and was usually diluted with water, we do not know in what ratio. But soldiers bought much more undiluted Rum, “large quantities of which of the most execrable quality” from private sellers at a cheap price.

Bell didn’t approve of the addition of water to Rum. “In this mode of using it, Rum is perhaps more injurious to the body than any other, because it makes only a simple uncompounded impression, which becomes weaker by a frequent repetition of its cause: and therefore, after some time, an increase of the quantity of spirit becomes necessary.” In other words, the daily allowance of Army diluted Rum paved the way for alcoholism.

This is not all. Distillation is an art, but a dangerous one, even today. Two centuries ago, in the West Indies, planters and distillers produced for the soldiers a kind of Rum that only needed to be strong and cheap. It was fermented and distilled very quickly, saving on costs, without any aging or regard for quality. As far as we know, the heads and the tails were not removed and in all likelihood in Rum there was methanol, fused oils and bad congeners. And lead powder too. Yes, because at the time lead and pewter were largely used in sugar and Rum-making machinery.

We know of soldiers who died immediately after they had drunk. Or who fell to the ground in a state of torpor. Of hardy young men who declined rapidly. Of excruciating pains, ulcerated organs, illnesses … . The reports of the military surgeons of the time, and the first scientific post-mortems, tell us a terrifying story.

To sum up, it seems that soldiers’ Rum was not only the “hot, hellish and terrible  liquor”  described by Richard  Ligon in the 1650s,  it was often  actually a toxic beverage.

Marco Pierini

PUNCH !

“Boy, bring a bowl of China here,

Fill it with water cool and clear:

Decanter with Jamaica right

And spoon of silver, clean and bright.

Sugar twice-fin’d in piece cut,

Knife, sieve and glass in order put,

Bring forth the fragrant fruit and then,

We’re happy till the clock strikes ten”

This ode to Punch was written by Benjamin Franklin in 1737, when he was a loyal subject of the British Empire yet, and it is a beautiful example of the culture and the joy of Punch in XVIII century.

It seems that the word Punch first appeared in a letter written in 1632 by a soldier of the East India Company to a factor of the same Company. Soon afterwards, in other letters written by employees of the Company, it is explained that Punch is made from 5 main ingredients: water, spirit, citrus fruits, sugar and spices. And to this day this has remained its basic composition.

There are no consensus, though, as to who actually invented it. Some authors maintain that it was a traditional Indian drink, which the English then made their own. Others, on the contrary, believe that it was invented by a factor, that is, commission agents of the East India Company in order to better bear the boredom, the loneliness, the overbearing presence of a vast, alien world.One of the greatest experts on the subject, on the other hand, has put forward the hypothesis that it was first concocted by British sailors in the East.

Anyway, it arrived in Great Britain an conquered it. In the British social life of the XVIII Century Punch is a constant presence. The literature of the time is full of references to it. For instance, Henry Fielding has a prison chaplain say “ If we must drink, let us have a Bowl of Punch – a Liquor I rather prefer, as it is nowhere spoken against in Scripture.” And Ned Ward opined that Punch “ if composed of good ingredients, and prepared with true judgment, exceeds all the simple, potable products in the universe”

To make Punch, in India they used mostly Arrak, a spirit largely drunk all over Asia, distilled from different raw materials, including sugarcane. In Britain they first used Brandy, but soon Rum became the spirit most often used in the concoction of Punch, maybe because from that time they realized that rum is excellent for any kind of mixology.

Anyway, its massive use to make Punch improved greatly the image of rum in Britain among consumers. The point is, Punch was expensive.

In XVIII Century Britain, citrus fruits were not easy to find, they were often rotten and anyway they were always expensive. Just as expensive were spices, among which nutmeg was the most highly valued. And then, Punch had to be prepared every time in great quantity, so as to allow a large group of people attending a social gathering to enjoy it. Eventually the very vessel, the bowl, became more and more elaborately decorated, embellished with precious metals and decorative motifs. And precisely because it was expensive, Punch was largely consumed by the upper classes.

Often a group of friends, sometimes organized in a Club, gathered for a long night of revels around the Flowing Bowl, as it was called by its devotees. A real culture of Punch developed, which brought together a great number of gentlemen, adult and well-off. And women? Well, respectable ladies were debarred from it. Only non-respectable women were sometimes admitted.

This kind of party was immortalized by the great satirist (and much more) William Hogarth in his wonderful “A Modern Midnight Conversation” that illustrates this article.

But Punch was consumed in great quantities also in every kind of respectable social. It was drunk at balls and wedding, at parties etc. and in these contexts also the women drunk punch. It could be both cold or hot, made with any kind of citrus, spices and whatever else caught the fancy of those making it.

Rum, which was used to prepare Punch, lost therefore part of its bad reputation as a spirit of low quality, suitable only for soldiers, sailors and people of low class, and started to be appreciated by “the better sort”, that is, good society too.

Marco Pierini

RUM AND HEALTH

One of the most common mistakes among contemporaries is the deep, often unconscious belief that the world has started today, or yesterday at the latest. What I mean is, the belief that many of the phenomena we see in our world are completely new, never seen before. That is the case, for example, in the modern obsession with wellness, body care, health etc. We think this is something new, a mania of our rich and affluent society, unknown in the past, which was poorer, rougher and only mindful of the basic things of life. Well, this is not true.

XVIII century Britain was rich and powerful. No important political or economic perils threatened it. And, like today, good society was very worried about wellness and health, both of body and mind. Modern scientific medicine was only beginning and the air, the climate, food, drinks, habits were being studied with great commitment to protect and improve people’s health and well-being. For example, it is in this century that spa treatments and the use of sea bathing for therapeutic purposes became widespread.

The first Italian distillers of the XIII century called the spirit they produced aqua vitae, water of life, beca

use they believed it was a panacea for many ills and since then the links between spirits and wealth in European culture have always been

strong. I don’t know much about the history of medicine, but I think that their belief had a real basis. As we know, alcohol is an antisepti

c and it is reasonable to think that the sick people to whom aqua vitae was administered had health benefits, even though at the time the existence of microbes was unknown. For centuries, in Europe and then in the American colonies there was a widespread persuasion that distilled beverages were nourishing and healthy.

In  the XVIII century  the surge of  new, scientific medicine started to undermine the confidence in the health-giving properties of alcohol and some doctors began to advise against the perils of spirits abuse. The temperance movement moved its first steps.

Therefore, in order to spur the consumption of rum, it was necessary to present it as something healthy and useful for the well-being of the people. Even better if  it was possible to ease the burden of the new-found diffidence towards spirits o

n its competitors which, in the Great Britain of the time, were mainly two: brandy among the upper classes, and gin among the lower ones. And both of them were targeted.

As early as 1690 a Dalby Thomas, an advocate for British Caribbean sugar interests, writes: “ [Rum is] wholesomer for the Body, which is observed by the long living of those in the Collonies that are great Drinkers of Rum, which is the Spirits we made of Molasses, and the short living of those that are great Drinkers of Brandy in those parts.”

And even in 1770 when rum imports had been surpassing brandy ones for decades, a Robert Dossie, physician, wrote: “

The drinking of Rum in moderation is more salutary, and in excess much less hurtful, than the drinking of Brandy” Pages and pages of medical evidence, chemical dissertations, pseudo-scientific experiments followed.

Gin was an easier target. It was a dangerous competitor for bread in the use of the precious grain and its huge diffusion among the poor was a major social problem of the time, to the point that towards the end of the century Parliament intervened with prohibitions and limitations that greatly reduced both production and consumption. But to rum advocates it was not enough. It was necessary to reaffirm that gin was hurtful to the health and at the same time persuade English people with “scientific” arguments that rum was not harmful, quite the contrary, it could be beneficial to hu

man health. So, in 1760 an anonymous wrote:

“Since the Suppression of Gin the Consumption of Rum has been greatly increased, and yet Dram Drunkenness, with all its dreadful Effects, has entirely ceased.” And later he goes on: “Gin is vastly more destructive to the Human Frame than the Sugar Spirit.”

Then, our author  prescribes rum as a cure for lack of appetite and other illnesses, maintaining that rum is highly recommended for “weak and depraved appetites and Digestions, an

d in many other Distempers of the declining sort” and, after citing long recommendations of authoritative doctors, he concludes: “Gin is a Spirit too fiery, acrid, and inflameing for inward Use – But … Rum is a Spirit so mild, balsamic, and benign, that it its properly used and attempered it may be made highly useful, both for the Relief and Regalement of Human Nature.”

So, with a little help from its friends, rum began to conquer the minds and the throats of British people.

RUM versus BRANDY

Between 1689 (beginning of the so-called King William’s War) and 1815 (final defeat of Napoleonic France), England / Great Britain and France fought each other in a long series of wars which, according to some historians, were merely phases of one long conflict for supremacy in Europe and all over the world. In this context, the foreign policy of Great Britain had two fundamental objectives: to defend and expand its colonial and commercial empire and to maintain the balance of power among the many States of Europe, so that none of them could be strong enough to dominate the whole continent.

It became therefore increasingly intolerable for the British to finance France, and its ally, Spain, through the massive imports of wine and brandy. Regarding wine, an alternative was quickly found. Trade agreements were signed with Portugal, and Portuguese wine replaced French wine to a large extent, thanks also to the British fondness for sweet wines. But brandy was a hard nut to crack. The English upper classes loved it and didn’t want to do without it.

And then rum arrived. It was entirely produced in the British colonies by British labor and capital, and transported to the Mother Country by British ships, so the wealth spent to buy it stayed at home. It was therefore the perfect beverage to replace brandy. But the English upper classes, the better sort, were not acquainted with it, and its consumption, at the beginning of the century, was still almost non-existent, to the point that Daniel Defoe, in his Moll Flanders published in London as late as 1722, when relating an episode in the life of his heroine, feels obliged to explain to his English readers what rum is: “However, I called a servant, and got him a little glass of rum (which is the usual dram of that country), for he was just fainting away”

Moreover, the upper classes did not consider it suitable for themselves: it was rough, not refined enough and anyway it was too cheap. It was necessary to get the people used to drinking rum, and, at the same time, to improve its image in order to make it worthy of the upper classes. It did not seem an easy undertaking, but the lobby of the West Indies planters, the Parliament, the Government and British officials in general joined forces to devise what today we would call a massive promotional campaign to boost rum consumption. And they were extremely successful.

Here are some figures:

in 1697 England and Wales imported (legally) only 22 gallons of rum. In 1710 the gallons were already 22.000 and in 1733 500.000! As of 1741, rum imports regularly overtook those of brandy.

How did they do that?

 

GROG

In April 1731 the British brig Rebecca was sailing, probably not far from La Havana, when a Spanish guardacostas stopped and boarded it looking for smuggled goods. It is not clear what really happened on board and at the moment it seemed a trifling event. But seven years later, in 1738, the Rebecca’s Captain Robert Jenkins exhibited to a committee of the House of Commons his own left ear, cut off by the Spanish that – he said – also pillaged the ship and insulted the British King. British public opinion was already angry with Spain for other “outrages” on British ships and war began in October 1739, later called “War of Jenkins’ ear”.

The Taking of Porto Bello, Samuel Scott 1741

A large British fleet set sail for the West Indies under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who became a national hero thanks to the conquest of the important Spanish town of Portobello, on the Atlantic coast of what is now Panama. Later on things didn’t go so well for him, but this is a matter of no interest to us now. For every rum enthusiast, his lasting fame is due to the invention of Grog.

At that time, in the West Indies a daily distribution of rum as an alternative to beer was already quite normal. Sailors usually drank it pure, all the allowance down in one gulp. It was a very dangerous practice, the cause of many accidents in the rigging at sea and also of many problems of discipline. We must not forget that at that time the alcoholic strength of rum was probably much higher than what we are used to today. In any case on board British warships accidents, disease and harsh punishments, also caused by rum, ravaged the crews, often more harshly than enemy weapons.

Worried about the health of the sailors and the efficiency of the fleet, Vernon tackled the problem head on. First of all he consulted the captains and the surgeons of his fleet, then on August 21st, 1740, he signed a General Order that deserves to be widely quoted:

Whereas it manifestly appears … to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons, that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well to their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupefying their rational qualities, which makes them heedlessly slaves to every passion;

[ I order the Captains]

to take particular care that rum be no more served in specie to any of the ship’s company under your command, but the respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your officers and ship’s company, be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half pint of rum, to be mixed in scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum, and when so mixed it is to be served to them in two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.”

Praise be given to those who invented the metric system. The history of systems of measurements before it was adopted, and in Britain and the US even afterwards, is a real quagmire. With the added complexity that in the past units of measures often changed  name and dimensions depending on the content (for example, liquids or grain), the Country and the years. In addition to that,  pre-industrial production techniques were not able to manufacture standard barrels, always of the same dimensions.

Luckily, it is enough for us to know that  “a quart” was the fourth part of a gallon, roughly 1 liter, and half a pint was about a quarter of a liter. Therefore, the new beverage had roughly 1 part of rum for 4 parts of water. Sailors did not like such a novelty, they wanted to get drunk with real rum, not to drink it watered. But discipline was cast-iron and they had to accept it. Drunkenness on board did not disappear, but it decreased significantly and so did accidents and punishments. In summary, the innovation was a success.

At the beginning the order applied only to the fleet commanded by Vernon, but after a while the Admiralty extended the same rules to the whole Navy. Then, over time the allowance decreased and was distributed only once a day, creating  one of the most impressive, enduring, typical, and frankly astounding, rituals of the Royal Navy. Usually called Up Spirits and also simply Tot, it lasted for 200 years, as we will see in future articles.

The new beverage had no name, but with their traditional flair for names, sailors soon gave it one. Vernon’s nickname was “Old Grogram” from a waterproof cloak he usually wore, made of a fabric called Grogram.

So his drink was called “Grog”.

RUM FOR THE SAILORS

 

 

 

 

On a cold 26 December 1654 a big fleet left England: 37 men-of-war under the command of Vice-Admiral William Penn and with General Robert Venable in charge of an army of 3.000 soldiers.

The orders were clear:  to attack and conquer the large  Spanish island of Hispaniola, present-day Santo Domingo and Haiti. It was an entirely new enterprise for England: it was not another privateer enterprise, like Francis Drake’s ones and similar, but something different and much more ambitious. 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 one month’s voyage, in late January 1655 the fleet arrived at Barbados, at that time the most important British colony in the Caribbean. After a short stay 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 ashore to attack the town of Santo Domingo. The attack was ill prepared and worse carried out,  and the reaction of the Spanish cavalry was strong and effective. After a crushing ground defeat, the English troops retired in disarray and had to re-embark quickly. Maybe only the absence of a Spanish fleet avoid a complete disaster.

After this crushing defeat, Vice-Admiral Penn was very worried. To return home defeated and with empty hands could be very dangerous. So, 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 war prepared with care and it was success, Britain took possession of Jamaica. But this did not appease Cromwell that was devastated by the Hispaniola disaster to the point he fells ill and sent Penn and Venable to the Tower.

C.Sheldon 1907

And it was in Jamaica in 1655 that rum was for the first time distributed on board the ships of the English Navy. The thing happened quite unofficially and we don’t have many details about it. But we know that rum was distributed to the crews instead of the customary daily allowance of beer.

When abroad the captains were allowed to buy wine, and sometimes also brandy. But they were expensive and often produced by enemies. And in the Caribbean they were difficult to find on a regular basis and in the quantity needed by thousands of men.

On the contrary, in Barbados and the West Indies a new, strong beverage was cheap and easily available in huge quantity: Rum. With its alcoholic strength it occupied relatively less space in the hold than beer and moreover it was produced by English subjects. But, maybe more importantly, rum did not deteriorate when stored on board, on the contrary, it improved. Finally, if mixed with rum the same water stored on board was drinkable for long periods.

So rum began to be part of the ordinary daily rations of British sailors and soldiers in the West Indies. But for decades its diffusion relied on the personal decisions of captains and officers on the ground, without any standard rules for the whole Navy.

Only in 1731 did the “Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea” state: “Of the Provisions. In case it should be thought for the Service … in ships employed on foreign voyages, it is to be observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer

Navy Rum was born.