American Rum: the Barbados Connection

After 1650, Barbados was a big producer of sugar and therefore the richest colony of the rising English Empire: “the most flourishing Island in all those American parts as a contemporary wrote. Barbados and the other little islands of the West Indies were far richer than the mainland colonies! Just to give you an idea, the wealth deriving from sugar can be compared to the wealth given today – or maybe better some years ago – by oil.


The profits made from sugar were so high that nearly all available land was devoted to sugarcane cultivation. As a consequence, Barbados had to import everything. Not only luxury goods for the élite of the planters, but also the daily food for the mass of the poor white farmhands and the slaves. Moreover, they needed plenty of timber for the buildings, the barrels and the fires necessary to process the sugar. And all the products had to be purchased in big quantities and at a low cost; it was unthinkable to get them from Europe. Luckily there were the Mainland Colonies. They were much closer, covered with enormous forests, with large fertile fields and some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, the Grand Banks. From the very beginning, there was a flourishing trade between Barbados and the Mainland Colonies.


 “… pleased the Lord to open to us a trade with Barbados and other Islands in the West Indies, which as it proved gainful, so the commodities we had in exchange there for our cattle and provisions, as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and indigo, were a good help to discharge our engagements in England” writes John Winthrop in 1647.


And as early as 1660 a mariner declared before the English Privy Council that Massachusetts Bay had become:

“… the key to the Indies, without which Jamaica, Barbadoes, and the Caribbee Islands are not be able to subsist, there being many thousands tons of provisions, as beef pork, peas, biscuit, fish, carried to Spain, Portugal, and Indies every year, besides sufficient for the country’s use”.


Historians speak about a British America which stretched from Barbados in the South as far as Canada in the North. The ties between Barbados and the future US were not only commercial. The young Englishmen who left for Barbados as indentured servants did so because they hoped to be able to buy a small piece of land at the end of their service. But the high profits from sugar caused the price of land to increase rapidly, and as early as 1650 it had become impossible to buy good land without having large amounts of money. Many decided to emigrate again and thousands went to the Mainland Colonies. Therefore, vessel traffic was intense, families and individuals were always on the go and many strong relationships, based on family, friendship and business connected the Mainland Colonies with the West Indies and first of all with Barbados.

It is perhaps no coincidence that all along his life, George Washington left North America just one time, for a voyage to Barbados in 1751. The central importance of plantations, the massive resort to slavery, the development of a local gentry of planters, possibly even the title of “President” for its ruler, are some of the distinctive features that the US owe to those far-away, today almost forgotten ties with Barbados.


But back to trade – what did Barbados give in exchange for the many goods it bought from the colonies? Barbados offered letters of credit, which were used to buy from England the commodities the colonies needed. It offered also slaves, sugar, molasses, which was used at the beginning as a cheap sweetener, and rum. As early as the middle of XVII century, when it was still unknown in England, the American colonists commonly drank rum. A lot of it. As well as drinking it, the colonists used rum as a trade commodity with the Indians, who loved it. They used it also as a currency. Money was chronically scarce in the colonies and the colonists largely relied on barter, but they needed something fit to be a reliable unity of measure of the value of the goods. And rum was perfect: it was always in large demand, easy to add and divide and relatively easy to transport; moreover it did not deteriorate with the time In short, rum was a sort of lubricant which oiled the wheels of American economic and social life. And of the political life too, as we will see in the next article.


Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

American Rum: a British spirit

In the second half of the XVII century, when rum started its triumphal march, leaving Portuguese Brazil in its relative isolation, three great colonial Empires divided up most of the Americas.

The Spanish Empire dominated most of mainland South and Central America – the so called Spanish Main – with the main Caribbean islands, Cuba, Portorico, part of Santo Domingo. To the North Spanish power was firmly established in Mexico and its influence reached up to modern day Georgia. In Mainland America, the French Empire kept New France, which roughly corresponds to modern day East Canada, and in the Caribbean Martinique, some smaller islands and part of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) under its tight control. The English Empire occupied Virginia, New England and other Mainland colonies and in the Caribbean Barbados, Jamaica and other smaller islands. Sugarcane was grown everywhere in tropical areas, therefore rum could be produced by all the three empires. But the choices of the three European countries were completely different.


Let us start from the oldest, the Spanish Empire. Spain was a major producer of wine and brandy. A significant part of this production was exported to the Spanish colonies in America and to Northern European countries, among which England. The Spanish producers of wine and brandy saw rum as a threat to their interests and got the government to discourage the production of alcoholic beverages in the colonies with all the means at its disposal. Bans on growing grapes, bans on the sale of alcoholic beverages to the natives, prohibition to sell local alcoholic beverages in the towns, and so on.


Over time, a long succession of laws were introduced, which forbade distillation, with the most brutal punishments. These laws were not always fully enforced (through and through), but surely they negatively affected the development of rum production. To this we must add the decline of sugar production, which has not yet been fully explained by historians, and a diminished fondness of Spanish people for strong distilled beverages. As a result, rum production in the Spanish colonies was, for a long time, limited and of low quality.


France too was a great producer and exporter of wine and brandy and French producers too feared the competition of rum. But things went slightly differently. In the second half of the XVII century there seems to have been extensive rum production right in France, by using the syrups which were the by-product of the refining of Antillan sugar, which took place largely in France. Then, brandy producers struck back and succeeded in obtaining various bans and restrictions on the production of rum and other distilled beverages. In 1713 they even obtained a Royal Decree which forbade the use of any raw material other than wine for the distillation of spirits. I have not pursued this matter and there is no general consensus among the sources, but anyway, after 1713 rum production and sale were really forbidden in France, but de facto tolerated in the colonies. In particular, great quantities of rum and molasses were later exported, indeed often smuggled, into the English colonies of North America.

Moreover, in the French colonies sugar production was thriving and the French were fonder of strong liquors than were the Spanish. Therefore, rum production in the French colonies of the Caribbean was always significant and of relatively good quality.


England did not produce wine or brandy. On the other hand, English people drank heavily, they had always done. They imported wine and brandy mainly from France and Spain. And they paid good money for them, it was a constant flow of wealth which left the English shores to boost the coffers of foreign countries. For centuries it had not been considered a problem and anyway there were no solutions. But then things changed. After the Act of Union of 1707, Great Britain was one of the great European and world powers. Its foreign policy had two fundamental objectives: to strengthen its global role, by defending and expanding its colonial, commercial empire, and to maintain the balance of powers in Europe, in order to prevent a single country from becoming so strong as to dominate the whole continent. (It may be thought that this general approach underlies British foreign policy even today). Both objectives brought Britain to fight numerous wars and especially to clash with France, its only real competitor in the fight for supremacy – many different wars that, according to some historians, were different phases of a new Hundred Years’ War, fought between 1689 and 1815.


It became therefore increasingly intolerable for the British Government to finance the enemy through massive imports of wine and brandy, bought especially from France and Spain. An alternative to wine was soon found. Trade agreements were signed with Portugal, and Portuguese wine largely replaced French wine, thanks to the fondness of English people for sweet wines. But brandy was a different kettle of fish, the English ruling classes loved it and did not want to do without it, while the lower classes consumed enormous quantities of a new drink, gin. And that was a big problem too, both because consumption was excessive and destructive (we will get back to this point) and because gin is made from grain, much needed to make bread, the staple diet of the lower classes.


Motivated by the need to curb the massive spread of gin and drunkenness of the lower classes, and the danger of famine due to shortage of grain, Parliament intervened with various laws and measures that greatly limited the production and consumption of gin. Then someone discovered rum. Rum was produced in the English colonies, consequently the wealth which went into buying it stayed at home. To make rum you do not need precious grain, but the by-products of sugar production, useless, cheap and available in huge quantities. It is therefore the perfect spirit to replace both brandy and gin.


But at the beginning of 1700 rum consumption was very low, and British people still did not know it. Moreover, the upper classes did not consider it suitable for themselves: it was rough, not refined enough, too cheap. In order for it to be able to replace brandy it necessary to make people acquainted with it, to get them used to drinking it, but at the same time also to enhance its image and its price. It was not an easy task, but West Indian planters, Parliament, Governments and civil servants in general joined forces to launch what today we would call a massive, aggressive campaign to promote rum. The readers who should be interested in this can read my articles in the magazine GOT RUM?.


Anyway, they made it. Here are some figures: in 1697 England and Wales imported (legally) only 22 gallons of rum. In 1710 22.000 gallons. In 1733 500.000 gallons! And, from 1741 on rum imports regularly exceeded those of brandy. It was not just a temporary increase, it was much more: rum penetrated deeply the daily life and the culture of British people, who learnt to perceive ita s though it was their own, a sign of identity. Until yesterday, maybe even until today. An unqualified success. A lesson in marketing compared with which modern promotional campaigns pale.


The British Empire became the most important producer and consumer of rum and in the eve of the American Revolution, rum was usually considered something typically British.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

American Rum: Martinique

The first real account of rum production in Martinique can be found in the book “Histoire Generale des Antilles Habitèes por les François” written by Jean Baptiste Du Tertre and published in Paris in 1667. Du Tertre was a Dominican friar and a man of science. In 1640 he was sent as a missionary to the French Antilles and he stayed there until 1658. He also had the makings of an anthropologist, curious and attentive to the customs of the natives, a very French thing actually. Ligon had drawn a scale technical map. Du Tertre, on the contrary, draws a real picture, with attention to the aesthetic aspect and an evident interest in the natural environment and the people.

On the top left-hand side, under a rectangular wooden structure, you can clearly see the mill for the squeezing of the cane. The mill has three vertical rollers and it is powered by the push of a pair of oxen yoked to a long beam and led by a driver.

From the mill, through a pipe, the juice goes down towards a hut without walls where it is put to boil in the coppers heated by a fire. Some slaves are at work here.

But the most interesting thing for us is the structure indicated by the number 4, to the left of the coppers. Du Tertre calls it vinaigrerie. The drawing shows only one pot still, in the open air, with a simple pipe which channels the vapors of alcohol through a wooden barrel filled with water to cool them, into a cistern for the distillate. I haven’t been able to find the fermentation wash. The pot still is similar to those drawn in the books of distillation of the time. The presence of just one pot still suggests that the technique was less advanced and possibly the product worse, or anyway that the French colonists of Martinique devoted less attention to rum than the English colonists of Barbados did.

In our modern world, Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony is a fact. Another irrefutable historical fact is that for centuries the English, or better the British, were by far the biggest producers and consumers of rum all over the world. All this explains why the attention of academics, popularizers and enthusiasts has focused on Barbados and much less on Martinique. But the facts are clear: the cultivation of cane, the production of sugar and the distillation of rum, on the two islands, happened at the same time.

Or maybe it was Martinique that arrived first. According to Prof Bertie Mandelbatt in her “Atlantic Consumption of French Rum and Brandy and Economic Growth in the Seventeenth – and Eighteenth –Century Caribbean”(2011), “ In 1639, as the first sugar mills were being constructed on Martinique and Guadeloupe and a mere four years after the French had arrived on the two islands, the exclusive privilege to produce and trade ‘sugar cane brandy’ from Martinique and St Christophe was granted to a M. Fague by the Compagnie des Isles d’Amerique, the chartered commercial company responsible for French colonization in the Caribbean during this period.” So it seems that we have evidence that in Martinique they produced rum in 1639, 8 years before the arrival of Richard Ligon in Barbados, and 18 years before the publication of his book.

It is outside the scope of this series of articles, but the contemporary origin of rum production in English Barbados and French Martinique, and even more the possibility that it began in Martinique a little before that in Barbados, could also shed new light on the thorny issueof the origin of the very word Rum.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

On the Quest again: Vinum Adustum

“Historia Naturalis Brasiliae” devotes a whole chapter, written by Willem Piso, to sugar. Hardly surprising, since the Dutch had gone to Brazil mainly to take hold of its precious sugar. But, like many of his contemporaries, Piso is also struck by the complexity and sheer spectacle of sugar making. At the time in Europe there were hardly any big factories. Manufacturing took place in many small workshops where often a singlemasterworked leisurely, assisted by few apprentices. In sugar factories, on the other hand, during the harvest, “night and day tongues of fire rise up, terrible in their blaze”, around which scores of black, half-naked, sweating  men bustle in a frenzied way. The sugarcane is unloaded from the carts, cleaned, cut and squeezed. And the juice gathered is boiled in the cauldrons. All in quick, rigorous  succession and hurriedly, breathlessly … a hellish scene, a veritable Tropical Babylon, as a contemporary wrote.

Piso had to understand what he saw, then he had to explain it to his European readers. And explain it in Latin. But the ancient Romans, whose language he wrote in, did not use sugarcane, sugar factories, sugar, stills, distillation or spirits. It was therefore necessary tointroduce new words into Latin, such as caldo for the juice of the cane. Or bend old words, born in an entirely different context, to make them express a new meaning; so, vinum, wine, becomes a general term for every fermented beverage.

After describing how sugarcane was squeezed  and the caldo collected, Piso writes: “Thence, mixing some water with it, they make also a wine, popularly called Garapo: local people ask for it greedily and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk.” So far, nothing new: we already knew that a fermented beverage obtained from sugarcane, here called Garapo, had been widely drunk in Brazil, for more than a century, by  slaves,  natives and poor white people. What additional information Piso gives us is that, sometimes, it was deliberately aged. But why? Did its quality improve through ageing? I don’t understand, I would entreat all of you to enlighten me.

He then goes on:

“So, from this first liquid [that is, the caldo], sugary wine, vinum adustum, acetum,  cooked  honey and sugar itself can be prepared.”

Let us give a good look at this list. Sugary wine isGarapo. Acetum is raw juice mixed with water, after a few days it went sour and was used in medicine. Cooked sugar is molasses. And sugar is sugar.

So, what is vinum adustum? The literal translation is “burnt wine”. Evidently, another beverage, besides Garapo, was obtained from sugarcane. A beverage which was made by burning the Garapo itself. And maybe this is what Piso refers to when he writes “and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk.”

But in the Piso’s Netherlands a burnt wine was already widespread. It was made by burning, that is, distilling the wine made from grape juice and it was extremely strong. It was called gebrande wijn, which means, more or less, burnt wine. Better known as Brandy.

Piso must bend his Latin to describe something which in Latin did not exist and which is similar to Brandy. He is telling us that the fermented cane juice was then burnt, that is, distilled in a still, as they did for Brandy, resulting in a strong new beverage.

He does not have a specific name for it yet and, basing himself on the production process, calls it vinum adustum, burnt wine. But now we can call it by its real name: Rum.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on August 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

American Rum: a rum distillery in the XVII century

On this picture you can see the plan of a sugar factory in Barbados in 1647 drawn to scale by Ligon. As far as I know, it is the first known plan of a rum distillery. It is not easy to understand. And it would take a knowledge of the production techniques of the time which I don’t have. But the essential things are quite easy to grasp.

The three black dots at the center of the circle at the bottom are the three vertical rollerswhich crushed the cane. They were powered by the strength of the animals tied to the spokesconverging towards the center. Ligon calls this part of the structure with the Spanish word ingenio. The juice squeezed went directly into the Cisterns I and K higher up on the right.

Then the juice was put to boil in big coppers. These are the 5 big black circles on the top. First, the juice boiled in the biggest copper, then in the smaller ones until it became sugar. During the boiling the skimmings, that is, the scum and the substances floating on the boiling copper, were taken away and they were first fermented and then distilled.

The distillery is the rectangle in the top left  corner of the drawing. You can see the rectangular washfor the collection and fermentation of the liquid, X. The two white circles at the sides of the wash are the pot stills. A bigger one for the first distillation of the fermented liquid and the production of what Ligon called “Low Wines”. The smaller one probably still distilled the Low wines again and produced the final drink.

The presence of two pot stills and the double distillation show a rather advanced technique and a certain attention to the quality of the product.

Ligon was also skilled at technical design and his is a scale map. So we know that the washcould contain several hundreds of gallons. And the stills?

Prof. Frederick Smith in is magisterial book “Caribbean Rum”(2005) writes:

Although Ligon did not mention the exact capacity of the stills illustrated in the still house, his plan showed that one still was slightly more than four feet in diameter and the second … was slightly less than four feet in diameter. Both stills fit into a still-house room no larger than 16 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The capacity of the two stills probably reflected contemporary trends in Europe and held less than100 gallon each.”

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

On the Quest again: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

In 1638, Georg Marcgraf and Willem Piso arrived in Pernambuco to join the brilliant entourage  of the new Governor, Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. In spite of their youth, both were alredy renowned  naturalists. The older of the two, Marcgraf, was born in 1610 in Liebstadt, present day Germany. In his university years, he had studied mathematics, medicine, botany and first of all astronomy. The Count built for him a real observatory and for his astronomical observations,  he was later called the First Astronomer of the Americas. The younger Willem Piso was born in Leiden, Holland, in 1611. He had studied medicine in France, then had returned to Holland and entered  the circle of the great geographer and humanist Johannes de Laet. Today he is considered one of the founders of tropical medicine.

During their stay in Brazil, they participated in many long  excursions to collect samples from near and far. Sometimes they were escorted by Dutch military officers , sometimes they joined the Brazilian and Tapuyas military raids against enemy Indian groups. They discovered animals and plants,  drew maps, made extensive observations of nature and also of the men inhabiting it. They also made  use of   the scientific institutions that the Count had built in Recife: a zoo, a botanical garden and a museum. The huge amount of information they gathered enabled them to write the first systematic  study on American nature.

But Marcgraf  wrote his notes in a personal, secret language that others could understand only with great difficulty. Probably, he meant to translate his notes when he got back to Holland, but died in 1643, in Angola while he was drawing a map of the Dutch settlements there. Piso, on the other hand, returned safely to Holland and continued to practice and study medicine.  Marcgraf’s notes were translated , ordered, united to  Piso’s ones,  and published in Latin by Johannes de Laet in Amsterdam in 1648 under the title of  “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”,   “Natural History of Brazil”.

Latin was the common language of cultivated people of the age, the Republic of Letters, and the book had a big and lasting  success, possibly because, from the very beginning, the authors emphasized their own direct experience in Brazil and their great efforts on the field, unlike  the many armchair natural historians who never visited the New World and wrote their books at home in Europe, on the accounts of some travelers.

Very interesting, you’ll say. And, as ever, a bit of culture won’t do any harm, but what does  this have to do with us rum aficionados of the XXI° century? It does, and a lot.  Because in this book I found the smoking gun that I was looking for: the first historical evidence that in Dutch Brazil, before Ligon’s Barbados, they commonly distilled a strong spirit from sugar cane, our rum.

In my article “Wills, provisions and stills” published in the July 2014 issue,  I wrote that, as far as I knew, the first undisputable source about the presence of stills in Brazil is  in a Sao Paulo Will of the 1611. Well, the latin worlds destillatus ( destilled) and alembicum (still) clearly appear in the book, in a chapter dedicated to medicine and, specifically, to the treatment of worms. From the context,  it is quite clear that the use of stills was something normal,  and we already know that  Brazil was the largest sugar producer of the age.

This is very encouraging for our Quest, but it is not nearly enough. The use of stills for medical purposes is not the clinching evidence yet. It does not prove without the shadow of a doubt that stills were used also for distilling on a large scale the fermented juice of sugarcane, to be consumed for pleasure.

For this reason, I entreat you to be patient until the next, and last, instalment.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on July 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

American Rum: Barbados

Even though Brazil is its birthplace, in order to conquer the world rum had to leave Brazil and go and grow upin the Caribbean, particularly in Barbados. And the voyage from Brazil to Barbados made a new detour to Holland.

In Brazil, with the so called “War of Divine Liberation” that began in Pernambuco in 1645, the Portuguese made up the lost ground and finally forced the Dutch out of Brazil in 1654. Some of them relocated to Barbados and Martinique.

Barbados is a small island. It is 34 kilometers long and 23 kilometers wide at its widest, for a total of a little more than 430 square kilometers It’s the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles. It’s low and flat and not easy to sight, but due to the prevailing winds it was often the first island which ships sailing from Europe came upon. It’s an independent country, a member of the British Commonwealth. But let us look into the history of its colonization from the very beginning.

Some Dutch vessels, which were specially licensed by the court of Spain to trade to Brazil, landed in Barbados on their return to Europe, for the purpose of procuring refreshment. On their arrival in Zeeland they gave a flattery account of the island, which was communicated by a correspondent to Sir William Courteen, a merchant of London, who was at that time deeply engaged in the trade with the New World”. Thus R.H.Schomburk writes in his “History of Barbados” published in London in 1847, and then he adds:

It is asserted that previous to the revolution the Dutch possessed more interest in the island than the English, which they gained by their liberal spirit in commercial transactions.”

(The “revolution is the English Civil War). Not all modern historians entirely agree with Shomburk and some maintain that the role of the Dutch was more limited. Anyway, the English settled there in 1627 and the first voyage was funded by that very Sir William Courteen.

They were looking for a tropical land where to grow some lucrative crops. They tried cotton, tobacco and other crops, but with little success. Then they tried sugarcane cultivation. The English colonists did not possess the technical knowledge necessary to grow sugarcane and then produce sugar in an efficient, profitable way, so for “two or three years their attempts had extremely poor results.

In 1647 Richard Ligon, a Cavalier, a Royalist, ruined by the Civil War, left England and sailed to Barbados to seek his fortune. He will spend 3 years there. Back in England, he will write a book on his journey, “A true and Exact History of the island of Barbados”. This book, published in 1657, is (possibly) the first true mention of the existence of rum in the English language, even though it was not called rum yet. Here it is:

We are seldom dry or thirsty, unless we overheat our bodies with extraordinary labor, or drinking strong drinks; as of our English spirits, which we carry over, or the French Brandy, or the drink of the Island, which is made of the skimmings of the coppers, that boil the Sugar, which they call Kill-Devil”.

Kill-Devil is therefore the first name under which rum enters English language.

Later in his book, Ligon writes:

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.”

And more:

This drink has the virtues to cure and refresh the poor Negroes, whom we ought to have a special care of, by the labor of whose hands our profit is brought in […] It is helpful to our Christian Servants too; for, when their spirits are exhausted by their hard labor, and sweating in the Sun, ten hours every day, they find their stomach debilitated and much weakened in their vigor every day, a dram or two of this Spirit is a great comfort and refreshing.”

But before going on with the “drink of the island”, let’s see what Ligon writes about sugarcane:

At the time we landed on this island, which was in the beginnings of September 1647, we were informed, partly by those Planters we found there, and partly by our own observation, that the great works of Sugar-making was but newly practiced by the inhabitants there. Some of the most industrious men, having gotten plants from Pernambuco, a place in Brazil, and made trial of them at the Barbados; and finding them to grow, they planted more and more, as they grew and multiplied on the place, till they had such a considerable number, as they were worth the while to set up a very small Ingenio, and so make trial what Sugar could be made upon that soil. But, the secrets of the work being not well understood, the Sugars they made were very inconsiderable, and little worth, for two or three years. But they finding their errors by their daily practice began a little to mend; and, by new directions from Brazil, sometimes by strangers […] were content sometimes to make a voyage thither, to improve their knowledge in a thing they so much desired. […] And so returning with most Plants, and better Knowledge, they went on upon fresh hopes, but still short, of what they should be more skillful in: for, at our arrival there, we found them ignorant in three main points, that much conduced to the work […] But about the time I left the Island, which was in 1650 they were much bettered …”

To make room for sugarcane, forests were cut down and other crops were abandoned. But this took labor force, and plenty of it. The cultivation of cane is extremely hard work. First the cutting, appalling toil, under the sun, with tight labor times to take advantage of the short period in which the sugar content is at its highest. Then the cane has to be crushed quickly. Again hard work, and dangerous too. Finally, the juice has to be boiled several times in great coppers, in a scorching tropical climate.

In the first decades, most of the labor force was made up of indentured servants, that is, contract-bound servants. They were poor English citizens who, in the hope of a better life, tried their luck in the colonies. But they had to get there, and travel costs were high. So these poor wretches agreed to give up their freedom and to serve a master for a certain period of time, usually 5 years, in exchange for transport, accommodation and a small final sum, which would allow them to set up their own business. Once the contract had been signed – because it was a proper legal contract – the master could use them as he pleased, treat them as he pleased and even sell them to others. Sometimes they were even recruited by force.

There was also a minority of black slaves bought in Africa. Over the next decades, though, things changed. The white servants left the island as soon as they could and fewer and fewer came to replace them, so planters had more recourse to slaves. Today, the great majority of the inhabitants of Barbados are of African origin.

Then, according to Ligon, British settlers in Barbados learned the know-how of sugar in Dutch Brazil. And we know that in Brazil they commonly produced rum. Therefore, it makes sense to think that in Brazil they also learnt the art of the distillation of the by-products of sugar to produce rum.Ligon lived in Barbados from 1647 to 1650 and he noted that all the important sugar plantations already had their own distillery and some skilled workers and that rum represented a relevant integration of the planters’ income. They used it for the consumption of their black slaves and white servants and also sold it on the island and abroad. So, as early as 1650 in Barbados rum was currently produced, consumed and sold. It was a very strong, not pleasant-tasting spirit. It was cheap and was drunk in great quantities by the lower classes. It could be harmful, but at the same time it was thought to have healthy qualities too. And it was already economically relevant.

The origin of the word “rum” is uncertain, but as far as we know, it was used for the first time right in Barbados. In 1652 (or 1651) a much quoted visitor wrote:

the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbillion, alias Kill.Divil, and this is made from sugar cane distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”

And some years later it finally appeared in a deed for the sale of Three Houses Plantation recorded in Barbados in 1658, where we can read: “four large mastrick cisterns for liquor for Rum”.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

On the Quest again: neglected Brazil

Got Rum? readers may remember that I began my collaboration with the magazine with a series of articles entitled “The Origin of Rum – A Quest”. Starting from Richard Ligon’s book and reasoning on  the history of the Atlantic World, I concluded “My hypothesis is that the commercial distillation on a large scale of that by-product of sugarcane which today we call rum was started by Dutch settlers in Brazil during the first decades of XVII century. The origin of rum, therefore, is to be found in Brazil. Rum was born in Brazil, but it grew up in Barbados, and thence it has conquered the world.” (January 2014)

Then I wrote about my research in Barbados  where “I found many clues that support my hypothesis, but not the final proof, not the real smoking gun. In order to unearth it, it would be necessary to work on inventories, share purchase agreements, accounting records etc of the sugar plantations in Brazil under Dutch occupation.” (April 2014)

In May 2014, thanks to the late Brazilian scholar Joao Acevedo Fernandez, I did find the first real evidence: “ … sources do not mention stills or any distilled beverages throughout the sixteenth century. The first concrete reference to the existence of stills comes from a 1611 Sao Paulo Inventory and Will … . In 1636 …. the production of aguardente was already commonplace, because many stills existed …” (June 2014)

Next, I devoted myself to the history of rum from its origins to the end of XVIII century, and I am going  to continue until we get to the present.

But I have certainly not given up my Quest.

I looked into the birthplace of rum, Dutch Brazil, and I discovered its great historical importance. I learned that many scholars consider it a defining moment for the making of the Brazilian nation and that for a long time the Dutch regretted  its loss as a great, lost opportunity. A full century later, a Dutch poet still remembers it thus:

Neglected Brazil, O fertile grounds,

whose nature is diamonds and gold;

I hear them proclaim your surrender

Scholars have written  a lot  about these events..Its economy, policy, wars, arts and sciences have been studied in depth. But nobody has concerned themselves with rum.

And yet, digging deeper and deeper, finally I did find something. Something VERY interesting.

I’ll tell you about it in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on June 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

American Rum: Cachaça and Rum

Now I have to say some words about the relation between cachaça and rum. I am aware of the efforts of Brazil to defend and promote cachaça as a national product, with its own characteristics, different from rum. And I think that it makes sense to defend the originality of cachaça in today’s world market. But as regards to History, cachaça and rum are the same product: a distilled beverage whose raw material comes from sugar cane.

However, for the sake of completeness, it is fair to say that there is quite a different story circulating in the Rum Community (the net of websites, books, festivals, experts and aficionados) about the origins of cachaça. It usually begins in 1532, when the Portuguese started to cultivate sugar cane in Brazil. Some say that the distillation of sugar cane products began almost immediately, others few decades later. Someone adds that the Portuguese learned distillation from the Arabs, others stress that in contemporary documents the word “cagaza” or something like that, can be found. Therefore, the origins of rum would appear to be almost a hundred years before what I indicated.

As often happens, this story is bouncing off from books to websites, from websites to festivals, and the other way round. And for the sheer fact of its diffusion, it is growing in prestige and authority. But its sources are not clear. Some do not quote any sources at all, others quote not clearly identified written documents.

But in order to predate the origins of rum back to round 1550, we need reliable sources provingthe early distillation of sugar cane products. And these sources can only be of two types: archeological finds (stills) or written texts of the time. For instance, “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae” is one such source. No one, as far as I know, quotes archeological sources and the references to contemporary written texts are vague. Moreover, documents written in the Portuguese language of the XVI Century are not easy to understand, because, like English, Portuguese has changed greatly over these 500 years and the meaning of the words is not always clear to us. Actually, we find the word cachazo or similar in many documents of the XVI century, but during most of the colonial period, the word cachaça was commonly used for the foam of the cauldrons where sugar cane juice boiled, and not for the spirit.

Moreover, we know that commercial distillation was not common in Europe before the second half of 1500, andit is unlikely that in Brazil it should have happened earlier.

Therefore we have to conclude that the story which places the origins of cachaça in Brazil before or round 1550 is as yet unfounded. If in the future someone discovers new, trustworthy, sources about early distillation in Brazil, I will be happy to change my opinion but at the moment I must confirm that the earliest commercial production of rum took place in Brazil only at the beginnings of the XVIIcentury.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: the Business of Distilling

This article concludes my research on the origin of alcoholic distillation in the West.

Before closing, I would like to briefly sum up the outcomes of the research.

As far as we know, the origin of  alcoholic distillation in the West  can be found in Salerno (Italy)  around 1150. There we can trace the earliest instructions for the distilling of alcohol from wine, that they called water of life or also burning water.

In the next century, water of life spread among a relatively wide public, who used it as a drug. Towards 1280, the decisive technical innovations had been achieved, in particular the introduction  of ‘canale serpentinum’ , the coil, and of water cooling. The quantities produced and consummated were already significant.

Later, commercial production of water of life on a large scale happened first in Northern Italy maybe at the beginning of the 1300s.

During the 1300s, the production and consumption of water of life reached Germany, France and other places, and it is in that century that the change from drinking water of life as a remedy, to drinking it for pleasure, took place.       

What is now left to shed light on is the last step on the road of water of life: when its production as a drink enjoyed for pleasure  became a veritable business of distilling.

We will find out with the decisive help of a virtually forgotten book: the Libreto de Aqua Ardente”, which means “Booklet of Burning Water”, written by the famed physician Michele Savonarola (grandfather of the more famous and ill-fated Friar Girolamo) in Ferrara, Italy between 1444 and 1450.     

                                                                                                                                                                                                       As far as I know, it is the first treatise entirely dedicated to water of life, even though he called it burning water. Few decades later, however, partly thanks to the invention of the printing press, works dedicated to water of life and to alcoholic distillation sprang up everywhere, especially in Italy and in Germany, and its production and consumption spread throughout Europe.

Savonarola describes a pot still, sealed with lute and a coil to cool the vapors with plenty of water: “For this reason, those who produce burning water in large quantity seek places with running water”. He even warns against the use of lead because it is harmful to health.

He goes on to deal with different types of wine suitable for making water of life, among which a local wine called  marçemino. In order to produce good water of life, he writes, we need new wines, good and strong, therefore expensive. On the contrary, he laments that, unfortunately, all too often, in order to make more profit, many wine producers distil poor wines, wines gone bad or watered down, and consequently produce low quality burning water, heedless of the damage it will cause to the health of the consumers. Savonarola then goes on to describe the technical complexity necessary to make good water of life and concludes sadly “This should be the complex  operation to produce burning water. And yet, think and reflect on how the water which is sold in the square to poor, miserable people is made instead.”

Savonarola writes that, among the many virtues of water of life, the following too can be found: “It restores wine gone bad and makes it get back to its original taste and color”; in this way, he adds, many deceitful wine sellers have enriched themselves.

Sometimes, some people drink too much of it. Savonarola recommends moderation, but it is not clear what the right quantityis, possibly one “onza” a day, whereas the poor – he writes – often get drunk, and are sick. Moreover, many mix it with wine and drink it regularly. In any case, excessive consumption does great damage not only to the body, but to the mind too, to the point that it may drive men to madness.

It is my intention to get back to this crucial book in the future. Even from these few quotes, though, it seems clear that Savonarola’s Libreto clearly describes a large scale production and widespread consumption not for reasons of health, but for pleasure, as early as the first half of the 1400s. There were already different levels of quality and also unfair commercial practices and adulteration. A production which was not any more in the hands of physicians and apothecaries, but of real entrepreneurs  – a veritable BUSINESS OF DISTILLING.

Let us leave Italy now. While in Germany and elsewhere the distillation of grain increased, in France, perhaps as early as the 1400s, but for sure a little later, the distillation of wine and the commercial production of brandy became widespread.

According to Professor Smith in his seminal “Caribbean Rum”,in France, in 1514 Louis XII permitted the vinegar manufacturers’ guild do distill spirits and, in 1537, Francis I encouraged the same among French wholesale grocers. By the mid-sixteenth century, French distillers organized themselves into a separate guild, and distilled wine (brandy) soon became a beverage of more general use.” While “The commercial expansion of distilling began in England a century later when Charles I granted the Worshipful Company of Distillers a distilling monopoly for a 21-mile radius around London and Westminster.”

Moreover, in 1533, liquori made by Florentine pastry cooks were served at the wedding of  Caterina de’ Medici to the future king  Henry II, after which the habit of drinking “liqueurs” grew rapidly in Paris and then in the whole of France.

Discovering that a real business of distilling already existed in Europe, in particular in France, before America was discovered made me reconsider my favorite subject, the origins of rum.

A new, intriguing question came to my mind. Let us think carefully, given that:

1. The abundance of wine, the fact that it deteriorated easily and the existence of poor quality wine put at the disposal of French distillers a plentiful, low-cost raw material far earlier than the colonization of America and the mass production of sugar and its by-productstook place.. Therefore, the development of commercial distilling didn’t need to wait for sugar, as many scholars claim. Quite the opposite, I would say that it was precisely the technical progress made and the consumer habits developed in Europe (plus the need of escapismof the settlers) that led to the invention, production and mass consumption of the new spirit, rum.

2. We know that the first clear evidence of rum production in the West can be found in Brazil at the beginning of  the 1600s. However, it is common knowledge in the rum world that the cradle of rum was the English colony of Barbados towards 1650. There, it is claimed, rum grew upand started its successful march to conquer the world.

3. During the first half of the 1600s, the French colonized the Antilles at the same time as the English.

4. The French had been fermenting wine for millennia, and distilling it for a couple of centuries, before the distillation of grain became common in England. Moreover, like all Mediterranean countries, they knew sugarcane well and, although it is an almost forgotten story, they tried to colonize Brazil since the beginning of  the 1500s.

Having said that, the question that came to my mind is very simple:

Did the French settlers in the Antilles really have to wait for the English settlers in Barbados before they tried their hand at fermenting and distilling the by-products of sugarcane?

I have tried to give an answer to this question through a new search. See you again in the next issue.

Marco Pierini

PS: At the very beginning of this research, in the first article published in February, I wrote: 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 1300s. I wrote “almost certainly” for a reason. At the time I based my conviction mainly on the seminal book by R.JForbes  “Short History of the Art of Distillation”. Forbes often quotes as fundamental sources texts  that I am not able to read directly either because they are written in languages I cannot read, like German, or because often they are extremely difficult to find. So, I had to trust Forbes and  few other authors, without being able to verify the texts directly. Then, throughout my studies I discovered the works of the Franciscan alchemists, of Alderotti, Savonarola and many others, written mostly in Italian, Latin and French, and relatively easy to get hold of. Works, therefore, which I have read and verified with my own eyes. Therefore, now I can remove that  “almost certainly”.

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