American Rum: The Cradle of American Rum

It is common knowledge that molasses can be transported easily, even over long distances, and this is the reason why it has always been possible to produce rum in countries where sugarcane did not grow, like the Continental Colonies.

This is basically true, but not entirely. Actually, when molasses is left in its natural state – low sugar – it ferments, producing alcohol but also gas and heat, and its volume increases. The first attempts to take barrels full of liquid molasses from the West Indies to the Colonies must have been a miserable failure. It was soon understood, though, that if it was made to concentrate, molasses – now high sugar – would not ferment. Thus the way was opened.

We don’t know with certainty who started to produce rum commercially in the Continental Colonies on a regular basis. I like to think that it was Thomas Ruck, from London, who arrived in New England in 1638. He was an enterprising merchant and then distiller too, about whom we know that in 1648 he was sailing to and from Barbados and had direct commercial relations with James Drax, that very James Drax who had played a crucial role in the so-called Barbados Sugar Revolution a few years before.

But let us stick to the facts. A thriving activity of grain distillation flourished in New England as early as the 1640es, alongside other manufacturing enterprises. The growth of distillation found a limit soon in the scarcity of the raw material, grain. In the meantime, however, New Englanders had developed close, direct trading relations with the West Indies – the relations between Boston and Barbados in particular were extremely strong – and they operated also as intermediaries in the thriving trade with the other colonies on the continent. And, as we know, they knew rum well.

Limited quantities of imported molasses reached the colonies perhaps as early as the 1640es, but it was not until around 1660 that New Englanders started importing it on a regular basis. For instance in the Inventory of the estate of a merchant of Boston in 1660, we read: “30 hhds. mallasses at 3li., 90li [and]3 hhds. Rum, 30li. A small part was sold as a cheap sweetener, for those who could not afford sugar, and as food; it was in fact used as an ingredient in many dishes of the time. It was used to make beer too, even though it seems it was not very good. But most of it was distilled to make rum.

Therefore, in conclusion, we can safely say that, while the birthplace of American Rum remains as of today unknown, its cradle was surely Massachusetts Bay towards 1660. From this cradle the baby grew up to become a veritable giant. Figures, from such remote times, have to be taken with a grain of salt, but it is widely believed that in 1770 the Mainland Colonies, with maybe about 1.700.000 white inhabitants had more than 100 rum distilleries and a production of more than 4 million gallons of rum a year! Other more or less 4 millions of gallons were imported from the West Indies.

The consumption of rum and other alcoholic beverages became immediately high and many drank too much, until they were in a state of intoxication. So, local authorities soon started to worry and intervene heavily.

As early as March 4th, 1633 in Boston we can read:

“The court orders that Robert Coles, for drunkenness by him committed at Roxbury, shall be disenfranchised, weare about his necke and soe to hange upon his outward garment a D made of redd clothe and set upon white; to contynue this for a yeare, and not to leave it off at any tyme when he comes amongst company, under penalty of X £s for the first offense, and V £ for the second, and after to be punished by the court as they think meete; also he is to weare the D outwards, and is enjoyned to appear at the next general court, and to contynue thise until it be ended.”

Maybe it is because I have just read “The Scarlett Letter” again, (what a great book!), but certainly it makes you shudder. But let us read our Peeke again:

“The prison found little occupation compared with the pillory and the whipping post. The latter was the common corrector of drunkenness. We have an amusing description of what constitutes drunkenness, from Colonel Dodberry: ‘Now for to know a drunken man the better, the Scriptures describes them to stagger and reel to and fro; and so when the same legs which carry a man into the house cannot bring him out again, it is a sufficient sign of drunkenness’.”

And, in addition to punishing the consumers, the inn-keepers were threatened with a number of laws and restrictive rules, among which one in particular struck me: as early as December 1661, an Act of the General Court of Massachusetts:

“Upon complaint of the great abuses that are dayly committed by retaylers of strong waters, rums, and &, both by the stillers thereof & such ad have in forraigne parts, this Court does therefore order, that henceforth no person or persons shall practise the art of stilling strong waters, nor shall sell or retayle any by lesse quantity than a quarter caske, and the same to be delivered, not at severall times or in severall parcells, but at one time …”

Here, from the very beginning of the history of present-day USA, we can notice the watchful imposition of one-sided moral values which manage to become the Law for everybody: “Promulgating laws had already become an American remedy for the ills of society and the weaknesses of the Flesh, as the wise Charles W. Taussig wrote in the middle of Prohibition.

I may be wrong, but I think that the marks of this imposition can still be seen in the oddities, rules and regulations of American legislation on alcoholic drinks which quite astonish us Europeans. For example, the fact that many craft rum producers cannot sell their bottles freely to those who visit their distilleries frankly does seem incomprehensible.

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: John Josselin’s Vojages

John Josselyn was born in Essex, England, in 1608. We know little about him, but surely he was from a well-off family because he had received a good education and he could pay for the expensive voyages to America. He traveled to New England for the first time in 1638, for more than a year. Then he returned there in 1663, for eight years. We ignore the exact purpose of his voyages, but we know that a brother of his was an important planter in the colony.

Back in England Josselyn wrote a book, “An Account of Two Voyages to New England”, published in 1674. He was a keen naturalist and observer, particularly interested in medicine and botany and the Account is one of our fundamental sources about New England in this early phase of settlement.

Josselyn’s is also a handbook, a guide for settlers. In the description of his first voyage, he advises the colonists to take a number of things with them: food, medicines, weapons and various tools and he even quotes their prices. And “One gallon of Aqua vitae”. This is very interesting and would deserve to be examined further, starting from the word he uses, Aqua vitae, that is, Water of Life, the first name for distilled spirits in Europe. We don’t know what spirit it was, at the time, maybe brandy. But it tells us that in 1638 England the consumption of distilled beverages was already common, and this is an important contribution to the social history of alcohol.

But we are here for American Rum, and here it is:

“The fourth and twentieth day [September 1639] being Munday, I went aboard the Fellowship of 100 and 70 Tuns a Flemish bottom the master George Luxon of Bittiford in Devonshire, several of my friends came to bid me farewell, among the rest Captain Thomas Wannerton who drank to me a pint of kill-devil alias Rhum at a draught … .”

As far as I know, this is the first mention of Rum in what is now the USA. Sadly, it is a doubtful one, 1639 is such an early date! We know that sugarcane cultivation in Barbados began probably around 1630, perhaps some years before. But that in 1639 they already produced Rum and sold it to merchant ships seems quite a leap. Josselyn wrote his book more than 30 years after the facts, when Rum was well known in the British colonies, and maybe his memory was playing tricks on him. Maybe, or maybe we have to pre-date the Origins of Rum yet again. We’ll see.

For now, let’s read this sentence again: “kill-devil alias Rhum”. First, it is one of the few pieces of evidence he have that kill-devil and Rum are two different words for the same thing. Secondly, why Rhum with an H? I have never delved into the debate on the origin of the word Rum, the hypotheses that are circulating have not convinced me and I have not verified their sources. Still, there is a consensus in the Rum Community that the first to appear was the English word Rum and that Rhum is a later French version. Moreover, it is widely believed that the letter H was added for the first time in the “Encyclopédie”, possibly to ennoble the word, and only later did it come into common use in the French language. However, the “Encyclopédie” starts to be published in 1751, 70 years AFTER Josselyn’s book. And in an already quoted description of Surinam written in 1651 we read: “Rhum made from sugar-canes”.

But there is more. I haven’t had access yet to a printed edition of the Encyclopedie, I have only been able to look up an online edition. And I have discovered, at least I think I have, that there is no entry “RHUM”. There is, however, the entry “TAFFIA”, well known to those who are into the history of rum. And it starts like this:

TAFFIA … le taffia, que les Anglois appellent rhum, & les François guildive”, that is: “the taffia, that the English call rhum and the French guildive”.

We know almost for sure the French word guildive came from the English word Kill-Devil and the Encyclopedie confirms that “rhum” is an English word, but what about the “h”?

So, what are we to make of it? I don’t know, but after reading Josselyn the real origin of the word Rum is really obscure.

But back to America. In his account of his second voyage, Rum, or better, Rhum, is mentioned several times. Jocelyn speaks of it as a remedy for several illnesses:

The Stone terribly afflict many, and the Gout, and Sciatica, for which take Onion roasted, peeled and stampt, then boil them with neat-feets oyl and Rhum to a plaister, and apply it to the hip”.

It is hardly surprising: even nowadays, in the Caribbean but also elsewhere, Rum is a sort of universal remedy for colds, influenza and so on. Josselyn recommends it for hair loss too:

“For falling off of the hair occasioned by the coldness of the climate, and to make it curl, take of the strong water called Rhum and wash or bath your head therewith, it is an admirable remedie.” Cool, but alas, too late for me! But if I were you, in case of need I would give it a go.

Then, he gives us an example of precocious Yankee entrepreneurial spirit. Local fishermen spent long periods at sea, working hard on fishing grounds in the bitter cold of New England. And, since they couldn’t go to the taverns, the taverns went to them:

“at the end thereof comes in with a walking Tavern, a bark laden with the Legitimate bloud of the rich grape, which they bring from Phial, Madera, Canaries, with Brandy, Rhum, the Barbadoes strong-water, and Tobacco”.

The fishermen drank a lot, with the inevitable corollary of drunkenness, brawls, and wages spent even before they had been received.

In conclusion, now we know that perhaps Rum was known in New England as early as 1639. What we now do know for a fact is that, not later than 1663, the love story between Rum and the colonists had already started: Rum was well known and widely consumed, at the heart of a thriving, specialized trade. And it came from Barbados.

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: Why Rum?

Why did the british colonists go to great pains to produce rum? To find the answer, we have to take a step back and, in order to simplify such a complex point, we have to narrow our scope and focus on English colonists in the Americas.

In the England they came from, the consumption of wine and beer was widespread and extremely large. Since the beginning of 1600 distilled beverages had become relatively common too.

The first colonists sailed to the Americas full of dreams and hopes, but what they found was very different from what they had expected. In the West Indies life conditions were appalling. The environment was alien and hostile. New, terrible diseases scourged the settlements. Hurricanes battered men and their things. There was a permanent state of war against the Spanish and the French, and pirates were a constant threat. Poor white people had to work very hard, while the élite, the plantation owners, feared their rebellion. There were few white women. Finally, all white people lived in constant fear of a slave rebellion.

Mainland Colonies were relatively safer, but in the XVII century life was very hard. Clothes, tools, home furnishings, medicines, food, in a word all the ordinary things of everyday life in Europe had to be imported at an exorbitant price and sometimes they did not arrive at all, or they had to be wrung from a still wild, untamed and hostile environment. On top of that, in New England the winters were very long, dark and bitterly cold. And all the colonists had settled on the verge of a big unknown land, with immense dark forests, new animals and plants, Indian warriors… In a word: The Wild.

In order to soldier on, in order not to go crazy, the colonists wanted to drink: drink hard, get intoxicated, escape from reality for a while. In alcoholic beverages they didn’t look for the pleasure of taste, but for the inebriation that only alcohol could give. But wine was expensive and difficult to get on a regular basis. Beer and Cider were more easily available, but their alcoholic strength is low, so its inebriating effect was limited. Spirits are strong, bring to inebriation quickly and give warmth, energy, merriment. But imported brandy was expensive and local distilled whiskey suffered a chronic shortage of his raw material, grain.

Then Rum arrived. The new drink could be produced in great quantity, was affordable, it was cheap and very strong. It had everything the colonists wanted. Sure, it did not taste very good, indeed at the beginning it was really bad, but it guaranteed inebriation cheaply and that was all that mattered.

The elite went on importing wines and brandies, but the vast majority of the settlers began to drink mostly Rum, and Rum became their cheap Stairway to Heaven.

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: Thirsty Settlers

It is not easy for us to understand the significance of alcoholic beverages in XVII Century’s British Colonies. Today, we drink alcohol for our pleasure, not because we need to. We drink spirits for the sake of the taste, of feeling exhilarated, of being in good company, etc. but we do not actually need spirits. They are an extra, a little luxury that we treat ourselves to. But back then, things were very different and alcoholic beverages actually fulfilled a far more important task.


As Hewson L. Peek writes in his delightful “ Americana Ebrietatis” first published in 1917, “At the time when America was settled, no European people drank water as we do today for a constant beverage. The English drank ale, the Dutch beer, the French and Spanish light wines, for everyday use. Hence it seemed to the colonists a dangerous experiment to drink water in the New World.”


We have to remember that in XVII century’s England water was something to be wary of. It was not advisable to wash oneself too much, or to drink water on a regular basis. Many, both doctors and common people, considered it dangerous for the health. There was certainly a grain of truth in this belief: water-pipes and sewers were non-existent, and water was badly stored in wooden casks, therefore it was often polluted, and always of poor quality. To drink, to quench one’s thirst, one had to resort to beer and, for those who could afford it, to the more expensive wine. Beer and wine were considered the most suitable drinks for everyday life, and probably they really were, since the alcohol in them clearly had an antiseptic function. They were also nutritious. In a world perpetually on the brink of starvation, beer was an important addition to the everyday diet of the lower classes. Teetotalism would have been quite unintelligible to the farmer or burgher of those healthy days of breezy activity out of the doors” (Peek).


Why would a grown man in a civilized society drink water? It was something odd, noteworthy: It was not accounted a strange thing in those days to drink water; thus, in a book published in London in 1654, a colonist recounts the hardships of the first days. Then, after recalling the shortage of food and the bitter cold too, he adds and most began to repent when their strong Beer and full cups ran as small as water in a large Land”.


For some time, also distilled beverages had come into common use, and they were considered as wholesome and nourishing as wine and beer. Moreover, to distilled beverages were attributed healing, medicinal properties, useful to treat many diseases. Besides, they provided warmth in the long, chilly winters. And then, of course, people drank for the feeling of intoxication, in order to experience a moment of joy and oblivion in an otherwise hard, drab and dangerous life. In short, for the colonists alcoholic beverages were an absolute necessity. And at the beginning it was necessary to take them all the way from England, or get hold of malt to make them.


As early as 1643, in Virginia colonists were already distilling. We know it because that year, worried by the general scandal of heavy drinking, the local authorities decided that “no debts for wine imported nor for strong waters distilled and made in the colony should be recoverable in any Court in the Colony”. And also archeological work conducted in Virginia corroborates the documentary records. But in spite of this early start, commercial distilling did not develop in Virginia during the colonial period. The American distilling industry started instead much further up North, in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts Bay.


Even in the preparation stage of the first voyages, Puritan leaders advised the colonists to take with them an adequate supply of alcoholic beverages. Reverend Francis Higginson, the first Minister at Salem in 1629, wrote:

“Therefore be sure to furnish yourself with things fitting to be had before you come: as meale for breads, malt for drinke, woolen and linnen cloath …”

His ship, the Talbot, carried a cargo of 300 tons, among which 9 tons of water, 45 tons of beer, 20 gallons of brandy and 20 gallons of Spanish wine.


In the same year, the Massachusetts Bay Company sent Rev Samuel Skelton there too, whom they supplied with food, clothes and the wherewithal to live, including “one gall. Aquavite” and “five qu. of stronge water”.

Incidentally, I thought that the terms aquavite (water of life), strong water, hot water and similar were the same thing at the time, but it seems that I was wrong because two different words in the same list must have meant two different things. However, the stocks were bound to run out sooner or later, and it was extremely expensive to have beer, wine etc. brought over from Europe; therefore, from the very beginning the colonists tried to produce alcoholic beverages themselves using fruit, grain and also imported molasses to brew beer.

Let us see some verses from the 1630s:

“If barley be wanting to make into malt,

We must be content and think it no fault,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips


They also tried to grow vines, but without success.

In one case they were immediately successful: apples were not native of North America, but grew well in New England. Apples naturally fermented at about 7% abv to make hard cider. As Georg Francis Dow writes in “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony” (1935):

“Cider mills were found on a great many farms where the apples, which were mostly natural fruit, were made into cider. This was a common drink and found a place upon the table three times a day with each meal, and was carried into the fields to quench thirst forenoon and afternoon. The men of those days assumed to be unable to labor without a liberal supply of cider, as water seldom agreed with them.”


They also distilled cider to make the so called “applejack”. And in the Southern colonies also peach brandies were popular. But the colonists were accustomed to drinking much better stuff in England, and they were not prepared to give it up. With part of the grain of the first harvests they soon started to brew beer and to distill grain-spirit, whisky, even though at the time the word had not come into common use.


The Mayflower arrived in 1620 and as early as 1648 Emmanuel Downing, Governor John Winthrop’s brother-in-law, claimed that his spirit was better than the imported one. But he had a big problem: shortage of raw material. The local production of grain was scarce, and it constituted the staple diet of the majority of the population. Giving up part of the grain crops to distill it was costly, dangerous and, in any case, there wasn’t enough. His wife Lucy gets to the heart of the problem in a letter to her brother, written on 17th December 1648:

Our stillings might be pritty strong but that all the rye was eaten up allmost before the Indian [corn] was gathered. Could you but teach us to kern [i.e. To make] rye out of the sea watter, that invention, I question not, would quicklye make the still vapor as far as pecoite [i.e. Pequot], and the Indians I beleev would like that smoake very well for the English here have but 2 objections against it, one it’s too dear, 2 not enough to it. Cure those, and we might all have implayment enought at Salem to make liquors, and as it is we could have custome ten time more than pay.”


Of course Lucy Winthrop couldn’t know it, but before long the solution to the shortage of grain to distill would come right from the sea. It wasn’t rye, wheat or another kind of grain. It was instead a dark, thick liquid, sticky and cloying. It had an exotic name: molasses.


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: 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: 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.

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.

American Rum: the Dutch Empire

Present day Holland is quite a nice country. Civilized, tolerant, rich, peaceful: European civilization at its best. Few remember that in XVII century Holland built a vast colonial empire with sword and fire. While at home they were fighting a long, bloody war of independence against the Spanish armies, the Dutch threw themselves into the conquest of the seas. In Asia they overwhelmed the Portuguese and secured the control of the Indian Ocean and of the spice trade. In Africa they built fortresses and trading posts along the coast and they became the main slave traders. In America they were the first to colonize Manhattan, occupied several Caribbean islands and some mainland territories and acting as middlemen they almost monopolized the trade among the English colonies and between the colonies and Europe. Their merchant fleet was by far the largest in the world and Amsterdam was the center of world trade and finance. And of sugar refining.

At the beginning of XVII century, Holland was the richest and the most modern and technologically advanced country all over Europe. The Dutch were also the pioneers of commercial distillation onalarge scale, we already know that the very word brandy is thought to derive from the Dutch gebrande wijn. In 1624 the Dutch West India Company occupied the coastal region of Pernambuco, now Recife, in Brazil, then part of the Spanish Empire. Pernambuco was a great producer of sugar and after the military occupation the Company made great investments, bringing from Holland men, capital, technical skills, equipment.

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 already 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 joined 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 of American nature. 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 he 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.

Why am I speaking about an old, half-forgotten book written in Latin? Because in this book I found the historical evidence that in Dutch Brazil they commonly distilled a strong spirit from sugar cane.

Let’s see in detail. “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 author wrote.

Piso had first to understand himself what he was seeing, and it was not so easy. Then he had to explain it to his European readers. And he had to explain it in Latin. But the ancient Romans, whose language he wrote in, did not know 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 alcoholic (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, 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 is the Garapo, that is the fermented beverage made from sugar juice (and maybe also from molasses), a word with a long History in Latin America, see for instance modern Spanish guarapo.

Acetum (vinegar) is the raw juice of the cane mixed with water. We know that after a few days it went sour and was used in medicine.

Cooked honey is molasses. I am not an expert of philology (sad to say), but it is likely that the English word molasses came from the Spanish melaza or the Portuguese melaço, based respectively on the words miel and mel, honey.

And, of course, sugar is sugar.

So, what is this vinum adustum? The literal translation is “burnt wine”. Evidently, it was another beverage, besides Garapo, that was obtained from the 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.”

We know that in 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, better known later 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 beverage made from the cane juice was then burnt, that is, distilled in a still, as they did for brandy, resulting in a new beverage, as strong as brandy. 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 the monosyllabic power of its modern name: Rum.

So, now we know that in Dutch Brazil they produced rum. But there is more. Reading Piso’s description carefully it is evident that this new strong beverage was, in Dutch Brazil, something commonplace, locally well-known and widely-spread. It is hard to think that it was a recent invention of the just arrived Dutch. Moreover, all the sources of the time confirm that the Dutch were not skilled in the growing and processing of sugarcane, which they left largely in the hands of the Portuguese landowners. So it is reasonable to think that it was the Portuguese who started the production of this new beverage, before the arrival of the Dutch.

It is easy to recognize that the conclusions of this research are consistent with Prof. Azevedo’s essay. To sum up, thanks to the documents quoted by Prof Azevedo and in accordance with his analysis, and with the help of a careful reading of Piso’s part of the “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”, we can conclude that Brazil is the real birthplace of Rum. And that its birth happened probably at the beginning of XVII century.

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: Brazil

Let’s define precisely our field of enquiry. We are trying to understand who started commercial production of rum on a large scale – where it started, and when. I’ll say that again, for the sake of clarity: commercial production on a large scale.

We are not looking for isolated experiments, chance events, home-made distillation which never crossed the local boundaries and then came to nothing. We are trying to establish who started the journey of our rum, that journey which has continued uninterruptedly until today.

For reasons of national and corporate prestige, many countries and some brands claim the right of primogeniture of rum, often basing themselves on sentences taken out of context, ancient documents, sources which are often dubious and difficult to verify.

Actually, sugar production was widespread in Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) as early as 1520, and we know that slaves drank a fermented beverage made from sugar cane. But I have not found any reliable evidence of distillation in Hispaniola nor in the other Spanish colonies in that century. Moreover, the Spanish sugar industry itself collapsed at the end of ‘500 for reasons not yet clear. We know that in XVII Century’s New Spain (roughly modern day Mexico) there was an important production of sugar, mostly for the local market, and we know that in spite of the law that prohibited it, they produced an aguardiente de caňa too, later called also chinguirito, but again only for the local, clandestine, market.

Shortly after Hispaniola, also Brazil became a great producer of sugar and for a long period it was the biggest in the world. As in the case of Hispaniola, we know from many sources that African slaves, native indios and poor whites drank a fermented beverage made from sugar cane.

But in Brazil we have something more: the first clear evidence of distillation in the Americas, at the beginning of the XVII century. To begin, let’s see what the renowned Brazilian scholar, Prof João Azevedo Fernandez writes about cachaça in his seminal essay: “Liquid Fire. Alcohol, Identity, and Social Hierarchy in Colonial Brazil” (2014):

“Aside from the commercial labeling difficulties, the historiographical interest in cachaça is almost nonexistent. … Among the various underexplored themes, thanks to the disinterest of historians, is the very origin of the beverage. Although sugarcane had been established in Brazil in the early 1530s (becoming the principal export good in the colonial period), it is unlikely that the production of aguardente began in this era, because 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 governor-general of Brazil, Pedro da Silva, released a provision prohibiting sugarcane aguardente. This is a very interesting document because, among other reasons, it shows that the production of aguardente was already commonplace, because “many stills” existed, and numerous people ‘benefited from the trade (that is, sale) of it.” And later in the essay, he goes on:

“It was not always for the slaves to buy the distilled beverage because we know that one of the principal sugar mills in Bahia, Sergipe do Conde, was distributing the drink (called ‘agua ardente’ [burning water]) to the African slaves and the ‘negros da terra’(literally ‘slaves of the land’, meaning the natives) already by 1622 or 1623.”

Moreover, as well as the authoritative Prof. Azevedo’s essay, another independent research path took me to the same conclusions. And for this reason, after Brazil we have to concern ourselves with Holland.

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.