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.

American Rum: a New Spirit for a New World

What is rum? Rum is a strong alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation and then by the distillation of the products of sugar cane: cane juice, molasses, skimmings etc.

It may be useful to remember that fermentation is the process by which microorganisms called yeasts feed on sugar, releasing alcohol, gas and heat. Fermentation is a natural, spontaneous process: for example, when fruit rots it often ferments. It was later gradually improved by men for their own ends, let us say that it is a relatively easy thing. When America was discovered, in Europe, Asia and Africa the production of fermented beverages had been commonplacefor thousands of years: wine, beer, etc.

The raw materials of rum are the coproducts of sugarcane: sometimes sugarcane juice, but mostly molasses, sometimes even syrups. The raw materials are put into a fermentation wash, to which water and other substances are added. Originally, the fermentation would happen owing to the yeasts naturally present in sugarcane, in the soil, in the air, and so on: it was a spontaneous process which man was unlikely to be able to influence, whereas today specifically selected yeasts are used, the whole process is monitored, by adding or removing nutrients, modifying the temperature, and so on. The production of alcohol takes place entirely during the fermentation process.

Alcoholic distillation, on the contrary, does not exist in nature, it is an artificial process, devised and realized by men. And it is difficult. The fermented liquid, or wash, is put into a container, pot-still or column-still, and heated until it boils and produces vapors. The vapors are then collected, cooled and brought back to a liquid state. At the end of this process, in the liquid produced, the spirit, there will be a much lower percentage of water than what was present in the fermented liquid, whereas the percentage of alcohol will be much higher. We have therefore produced an alcoholic beverage that is much stronger than any fermented liquid, which is exactly the desired result. To put it simply, distillation concentrates alcohol. For the sake of clarity, I’ll say that again: distillation concentrates the alcohol already present in the wash, it does not produce it.

According to some archeological remains the distillation of alcohol was made in present-day Pakistan as early as c. 150 B.C. and from there it spread later in south-east Asia and China. There are also some uncertain references in Indian literature that could push back its origins to c. 500 B.C. But this is not our point here. As far as we are concerned, it is more or less generally accepted that the history of distillation starts in the West with the Greeks of Alexandria before the Christian era. Later the Arab alchemists used distillation for studies and research of various kinds, and for making perfumes and maybe also to produce alcohol for medicinal use. In the XII century, it is thought to have reached Italy at the famous medical School of Salerno, where it was used to distill wine, creating a new, wonderful beverage, an almost pure alcohol called in Latin aqua vitae – water of life – from which derive the Italian acquavite, the French eau de vie and also the Gaelic uisgebeatha, later whisky. But, as far as I know, the earliest description of an alcoholic distillation can be found only about a century later. It is again from Italy, in the book Consilia by Taddeo Alderotti, a famous physician and scientist who was born in Florence, but lived in Bologna in the XIII century. It then spread all over Europe, but usually in limited quantities, quite expensive, that doctors and pharmacists dispensed to their élite customers. “Est consolatio ultima corporis humani” (“Last solace of the human body”), Raimond Lull will write later. Anyway, scholars agree that the first use of alcohol was medicinal.

Over the centuries, all over Europe people started to produce distilled beverages not only as a drug but also as a beverage for pleasure consumption. For example we know that in 1514 the King of France, Louis XII, issued a decree with which he granted the Guild of “vinagriers” (vinegar makers) the right to distill wine to produce brandy. And this is an important step in the long process which has transformed distillation from a mysterious activity, restricted to alchemists and pharmacists, into a mass production for the pleasure of drinking.

There isn’t a general consensus among scholars, but it seems to me reasonable to think that large scale commercial production of distilled beverages meant for drinkers’ pleasure consumption started in Europe, probably in Holland, in the second half of the XVI century. Holland was at that time the most modern and technologically advanced country in Europe and the very word brandy is thought to derive from the Dutch gebrande wijn, which meant, basically, burnt wine. And we know that a John Hester started his “Stillitorie” in London in 1576 with this advertisement: “These Oiles, Waters, Extractions or essences, Saltes, and other Compositions; are at Paule Wharfe ready made to be soldem by IOHN HESTER, practisioner in the art of Distillation; who will also be ready for a reasonable stipend to instruct any that are desirous to learne the secrets of the same in few dayes”.

The new importance of distilled beverages is reflected in the foundation of Guilds of distillers. The London Worshipful Company of Distillers was founded in 1638 and in the same years similar Guilds were born in Paris, Rotterdam and elsewhere. However, the distillation of wine continued to be expensive. Even producing alcoholby distilling grain was costly, and it was dangerous too: cereals were the staple diet of the majority of the population and harvests were often poor. Therefore, diverting a significant share of the harvest from food consumption to distillation increased the risk of hunger and famine. In any case, distillation was seasonal, it was done after the harvest and before the raw material could deteriorate.

Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations changed the situation radically. Sugarcane provided distillers with plentiful, cheap raw material. Molasses in particular was extremely cheap: actually, before it started to be used to produce rum, it was largely thrown away. Rum, our rum, was born when European distillation techniques met sugarcane and this meeting took place in the Americas between XVI and XVII centuries. But where exactly, and when?

We will deal with this issue 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 – Introduction


For some years I have been studying the history of rum, and in particular its origins. The results of this research are to be found in my articles published in “Got Rum?” magazine, and in some websites about rum. Many articles were about Great Britain and the British Empire, owing to the early, massive diffusion of rum among British people. The very word Rum is generally held to be English, even though its origins are uncertain.

But, around 2014, while I was studying the history of British rum, I came to realize with astonishment the enormous importance that rum had in Early America. More, the very birth of the new American Republic was dripping in rum. As a matter of fact, colonials drank a lot. And they drank mainly rum. Rum was not only a very popular commodity, but a lubricant of social life. Taverns were the focus of political and social life and in taverns most people drank, first of all, rum. And rum was present in all the rituals which mark life: births, weddings, all kinds of festivals and celebrations, funerals. North American colonists imported great quantities of rum from the West Indies, but I discovered that they were also great producers of it.

In the British Colonies of North America, rum was so important that, as money was scarce, rum often replaced it as currency and the real indicator of the value of goods. Rum is also generally thought to have played a pivotal role in the infamous slave trade which enriched the new nation and in the subjugation and destruction of American Indians. And above all sugar, molasses and rum are largely considered among the real reasons of the rebellion of the American colonists against their homeland. Therefore it is not without a reason that it has often been written that rum is the real Spirit of 1776. All this, I was saying, kindled my interest in the role that rum played in the birth of the United States.

At the same time, I had become aware that something extremely interesting was happening in the US around rum.

First of all, for some years rum had been produced again in the US, after a long period of neglect. There were already hundreds of rum distilleries in the US. They were usually small craft enterprises, with a strong territorial bond, which often used locally grown sugar cane. New ones were starting, month after month. Each of them produced small quantities, but all together they already represented a considerable, and ever growing, proportion of rum consumption in the US. It was also evident that there was a substantial growth in the sales of quality rums, with higher prices, the so called Premium Sector, and I think the two things are connected.

This in itself is of great interest to the rum enthusiast. But as a historian I am truly impressed also by the political demands of many of these small producers. To put it simply, and I apologize to them and to the readers for this oversimplification, American small producers of rum come up against the great multinationals and ask for lower taxation and greater freedom of enterprise. And their pressure is growing. And all these trends are increasing day by day.

In short, prompted by the importance that rum had in the past, and the renewed importance it has in the present, I became convinced that the history of rum in early America, from the first settlers until the decline of rum and the surge of whiskey around 1830 in the United States, deserved a book. So, I decided to write that book.

A warning. As my readers will see, I have devoted many pages to Boston and New England, both for the unquestionable importance of Boston in the history of American rum and for the quantity, the quality and the availability of the sources. If, by reading this book and finding the gaps in its scope, others will be encouraged to carry out more extensive research about the history of rum in the other Colonies, I will be extremely happy.

Marco Pierini