The Golden Age of Rum

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

Unfortunately I have to disappoint them. Historical sources show us that, at least as regards rum, in truth there is nothing to be nostalgic for, and that the good old times were not so good after all. Obviously we can’t know exactly what rum tasted like in the past, but I think it can reasonably be said that it was generally bad, often disgusting and probably undrinkable for today’s taste. And in many cases it would be prohibited today by all the health authorities on the planet.

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

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

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

Here is one famous excerpt from it.

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

 

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

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

“The spirit we make on the Islands with mash & sugar syrups, it’s not one of the least used drinks, we call it Guildive or Taffia. The Savages, the Negros, the lowly settlers & craftsmen are not looking for another one & they lack self-control with this item, it is enough for them that this liquor is strong, violent & cheap; it doesn’t matter whether it’s harsh and unpleasant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Frank Litherland Teed, recalled

  1. Have you any reason to think that this imitation rum is being sold in this country? – I have no means of knowing. Of course, you might get the import numbers from the Customs, but I do not see how you are to get the quantities that are actually manufactured in this country. If you take the patent still grain spirit which I believe is now called patent still Scotch Whiskey, and put some of these ethers to it, it becomes rum. We have heard this morning that it becomes gin under certain circumstances, but, of course, if you put in other essences it may become brandy.

Twenty-seventh day. Tuesday, July 21st, 1908

Mr. James Monro Nicol, called

  1. You are exporters of Scotch whiskey, West Indian rum, British rum and compounded spirits, and you are proprietors of Customs bonded warehouses? – Yes.
  2. You wish to make some remarks to the Commission about a certain practice of mixing rum and plain spirit for exportation? – Yes.
  3. It has been suggested by one witness that this practice should be prohibited? – That is so.
  4. I understand that you take a different view: Will you kindly explain to the Commission exactly what that view is? – As stated in my précis, my present company and its predecessors have carried on that business for almost 40 years in accordance with the regulations of the Excise and Customs.
  5. That is the business of mixing Demerara rum with plain spirit in bond? – Yes. We therefore feel that it would be very unfair to us now to have that permission taken away not only on account of our own loss but we feel that it would be to the loss of the trade of the country, and there is no doubt about it that other countries would step in and do the trade if we did not do it.
  6. Under what designation is this mixed rum exported by you; how is it described? – It is ordered first of all from us as a rum and we invoice it as a rum. We use the term “rum” in our correspondence ourselves, but in the Customs, of course, the name “rum” is not recognised. The casks do not bear on them the name “rum”. They have to be marked “mixed”: That is certain.
  7. Not “rum” but “mixed” by itself? – Yes, the word “mixed”, which I suppose is a sufficient indication, or at least it meets the requirements of the Excise and Customs, that is a mixed spirit.
  8. That is, mixed for foreign use? – Yes.
  9. But is there any further mark on the cask that is exported? – That depends entirely on the market that the article goes to.
  10. Take Australia, for instance? – For Australia it is now necessary to add the country of origin on the casks and therefore they are marked: “The product of Great Britain and the West Indies”: There is no objection to putting on the word “British rum”, and as a matter of fact in exporting to Australia these two words do appear over and above the statement as the country of origin.
  11. You have on that cask when sent to Australia, have you not “British Rum”, the produce of Great Britain and the West Indies, in addition to the word “mixed”? – Yes, that is so.
  12. How do you invoice those mixtures? – It is invoiced as “rum”.
  13. Where does the bulk of that spirit go to? – It goes to Australia, New Zealand and the Australasian islands as well as to different parts of Eastern Europe.
  14. Would you regard that as a legitimate trade in this country? – I would.
  15. To sell that as “rum”? – Yes. I consider that there is no monopoly in the word “rum”.
  16. … What is the smallest amount of rum you can get in the cheapest article you send out? You must have a cheap trade as well as anybody else. What is the smallest amount of rum you would put in? – That we use, or that might be used?
  17. That you can put in? – I should say if you use one gallon of Demerara rum with your British spirit it would have to go out as mixed spirit.
  18. One gallon of Demerara rum to how many gallons of plain spirit? – One gallon of Demerara rum to 100 of plain spirit.

Mr. F.W. Percy Preston, called

  1. What is the nature of the business of your firm? – We are distillers and also exporters.
  2. Distillers of what? –What do you distill? – British plain spirit.
  3. Is that grain spirit? – Molasses spirit mostly. There is a little grain, but the bulk of our trade is molasses spirit.
  4. You are proprietors of Excise bonded warehouses? – Yes, and also of a vatting establishment over the top.
  5. You wish to give evidence before the Commission as the desirability or otherwise that the mixing of rum and plain spirit for exportation should be prohibited? – Yes.
  6. What do you wish to say in reference to that? – I simply say that if that is taken away from this country, the Germans take the trade and we lose it. They would send it direct from Hamburg to the West Coast of Africa, where I should otherwise send it, and they would simply take the trade off us, and our trade is ruined.
  7. What you export is a mixture of West Indian rum and British plain spirit? – Yes, made from molasses, which I call plain spirit.
  8. How do you invoice it? – It is really a trade term. A merchant writes to me and he says, “What is your price for African rum”, and I tell him what the price is. Another man from Manchester, from where most of the Mediterranean trade is done, writes and says, “What is the price for your Mediterranean rum”, and an Australian writes and says, “ What is your price for Australian rum”, and I tell them. The Excise know the proper thing to put on the cask. We do not work under the Customs, but we work under the Excise.

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

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

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

Marco Pierini

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

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

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 www.gotrum.com

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 www.gotrum.com


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 www.gotrum.com

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 www.gotrum.com

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.