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

The new Regulation on the Definition, Description, Presentation and Labelling of Spirit Drinks

Big news for the world of RUM and of Spirits in general.

On 17 April 2019 the European Parliament and the Council have adopted the new REGULATION ON THE DEFINITION, DESCRIPTION, PRESENTATION AND LABELLING OF SPIRIT DRINKS …

The new Regulation will enter into force soon, after its publication in the Official Journal of the European Union.

The new Regulation repeals the old Regulation 110/2008.

It is a long and complex text, it will require a careful reading.

At a first glance, with regard to RUM it seems to me that the most relevant innovation is that now rum may be sweetened to a maximum of 20 gr. of sweetening per liter.

The full text can be read and downloaded here:
https://data.consilium.europa.eu/…/…/PE-75-2018-REV-1/en/pdf

Marco Pierini

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.

The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: from Apothecary to Tavern

As we have seen in the previous chapters, as far as we know, large-scale commercial distillation of alcohol, that is, the practice of distilling wine to produce water of life in sufficient quantities for regular sale and consumption began in Modena, Italy at the beginning of the 13th century. The distillation of wine became common throughout Europe after this.

In the Nordic countries, where grapevines would not grow and wine had to be imported and was therefore expensive, someone began to distil alcohol from grains. In Gaelic this was known as uisgebeatha, meaning the water of life, later to become whisky.

Let’s read our Forbes again: “It seems that the apothecaries were the first to produce alcohol on a large scale. …  That they were the principal tradesmen in alcohol is clear from early police regulations such as those of the Town of Nurnberg of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, in which ‘ gebrannter wein, bernewin, brandwin, etc.’,  that is, brandy, is specified as their special product. There is no doubt that brandy was not an expensive drink used by the higher classes only before 1500 as some authors have claimed. It was consumed by all classes and its spread can be read from the regulations cropping up from time to time, for instance in Frankfurt, where we find regulations of 1361, 1391, 1433, 1456, 1487, etc. which intend to cope with the spread of drunkenness and unruly behavior of intoxicated burghers.’  … Gradually the preparation of alcohol passes from the hands of the apothecary to those of specialists like the vintner or the ‘water burner’ (Wasserbrenner), the distiller…”

Forbes also writes: “Towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth the manufacture of spirit from corn was discovered, which meant a cheaper product in those countries where wine had to be imported such as the Low Countries, England and Northern Germany. At the same time the use of sweetened alcoholic beverages spread again from Italy, where we find recipes as early as VILLANOVA [1240-1311]. These ‘liqueurs’ and the secret of their manufacture were brought to Paris by Italian distillers in 1332. In general liqueurs consist of alcohol, sugar or syrup and some flavouring matter. … The most beloved liqueur which the Italian brought to France was  ‘rosoglio’, a liqueur with the smell of roses. From France the habit of drinking liqueurs spread, and though the amount consumed grew it remained rather a luxury.  … In the wake of the liqueurs, brandy and aquavit came to France. The art of the distillers of Modena travelled along the same road as their product to Germany, where wine spirit came into vogue in the mining industry. At the end of the fourteenth century strong spirits were drunk all over Europe …”

Moreover, we know that at the court of the Popes in Avignon, writers addressed the question of preserving the health with the water of life in the early decades of the 14th century, and that in 1330 Pope John 22nd had an alembic made to produce it. We know of the existence of a true professional corporation of distillers (ayga ardenterius) in Provence as early as 1411.

As we know, there were two basic types, right from the start: water of life simple (aqua vitae simplex) made of distilled wine alone, practically nearly pure alcohol; and water of life composite (aqua vitae composite), in which plants, roots and medicinal herbs of all kinds were added to the distillate. As well as their curative properties, these also often added flavour.

People had been drinking fermented beverages, above all wine and beer, for thousands of years for their flavour and nutritional value, but above all for the effect that the alcohol contained in them has on our minds, alcoholic intoxication. Conviviality, relaxation, joy, forgetting their daily troubles… people sought this and more in alcohol, which is why it has found such an important place in the culture and everyday lives of so many peoples.

In the early 14th century, though it was now widely available and consumed in fairly large quantities, aqua vitae was still taken primarily as a medicine, not for the effect of the alcohol it contained. But both doctors and patients soon realised that aqua vitae (or rather, the various different types of aqua vitae that were becoming available) was much stronger than wine and beer and could produce the same effects more rapidly and effectively.

We don’t know, and perhaps will never know, exactly when, where and how aqua vitae stopped being a medicine and became a drink enjoyed for pleasure, but the overall picture is clear.

Where did it happen? On the basis of what we have seen so far, we may say that consumption of aqua vitae for pleasure probably became widespread in Italy first, then in Germany and France, before spreading to the rest of Europe.

When? It’s impossible to date this event precisely, as it was a process rather than a sudden change, but we may say that aqua vitae came out of the pharmacist’s laboratory and onto the innkeeper’s table at some point in the 14th century, following the success of Taddeo Alderotti’s works and after aqua vitae from Modena became common.

Lastly, how did the custom of drinking the water of life for pleasure, along with or in place of the traditional beer and wine, originate? The merit lies with the doctors and their prescriptions: Alderotti and other physicians of his age prescribed aqua vitae not only for rubbing onto painful or diseased body parts, but above all for drinking. Physicians not only prescribed it to treat a number of illnesses, but, fascinated by its virtues, recommended drinking it regularly, every day, even when healthy, not to cure but to prevent illness, stay healthy and – dulcis in fundo – ward off old age. Drinking aqua vitae became a habit for many well-intentioned patients, and we may well imagine they quite enjoyed it. In Tuscany, an anonymous fourteenth-century author wrote a treatise entitled Ars operativa medica in which we may read of aqua vitae: “And its goodness acts not only on the body, but on the soul: it causes us to forget our sadness and anxiety, makes us merry and refreshes the intellect when we dedicate ourselves to the study of difficult and subtle matters, gives courage, helps to lessen the effects of pain and fatigue, and has many more properties of this type.” And here we are coming very close to consumption for pure pleasure.

Lastly, fear made a significant contribution to the spread of the practice of drinking aqua vitae, or rather, liquor and spirits. The Black Plague made its appearance in 1348: one of the greatest pestilences in European history, the disease killed about a third of the continent’s population, and other lesser but still terrible epidemics continued to strike all over Europe in the centuries that followed. Physicians were practically powerless, and recommended the terrified population drink aqua vitae (which many of them called aqua ardente) every day not only to treat but to prevent the Plague.

Franciscan friar Giovanni di Rupescissa wrote in his “De consideratione quinta essentia” around the year 1350: “A little good aqua ardente must be taken every morning, as much as may be contained in an eggshell; and as much may be contained in a walnut or hazelnut shell, four to six times a day, if desired. In this way, corrupt air cannot harm.”

And many people continued to drink it after the Black Death was gone.

One of the most unusual of the many types of liquor produced, at least in terms of today’s tastes, was Aurum potabile (which, more or less, we may translate as drinkable gold), a great success among the wealthiest. It was made from an infusion of gold bars or foil (or even just gold filings) in wine and then distilling it. Distillation had to be repeated to extract all the (supposed) medicinal virtues of gold and transfer them to the resulting liquor, which was universally viewed as a very powerful drug. People were convinced that drinking it regularly had numerous beneficial effects, including preservation of the body against the corruption of time. And of course its high price made it available exclusively to the upper classes.

Marco Pierini

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: 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.

The Origins of Alcoholic Distillation in the West: the Water of Life from Modena, a first for Italy

According to the ancient Romans, the genius loci was the protective spirit of a specific place; in contemporary usage, it usually refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, culture, skills, etc.

Founded by the Romans in 183 B.C., the ancient town of Modena is located in Northern Italy, in the Po River Valley. Modern Modena is a rich and pleasant town with a genius loci for hard work and technological excellence: suffice to say that Enzo Ferrari was born there and opened his Ferrari factory in nearby Maranello and that it is also the location of the Maserati factory. Moreover, among several delicacies produced there, Modena is also the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. Modena’s genius loci evidently has ancient roots, because, as far as I know, Modena is where we find the first traces of large-scale commercial production of aqua vitae, that is water of life.

According to a local historian, R. Bergonzini, “If the truth be known, tradition holds that water of life was distilled as early as the 11th century in the ‘apothecary’ of a Benedictine monastery in the city, though no documents have yet been found to demonstrate the truth of this rumor.” And the city’s Benedictine monastery of course had a close relationship with the famous ancient Benedictine abbey of Montecassino, which played an important role in the birth of the Medical School of Salerno, the cradle of  alcoholic distillation in the West.

Modena is not far from Bologna and has always been under its influence, especially that of its university. We know that Taddeo Alderotti made at least two important trips to Modena, in 1285 and 1288, under rather odd circumstances.  It was not unusual for a prominent physician such as Taddeo to travel to treat wealthy patients, and it was perfectly normal for him to be well-paid to do so. But these trips were different: before the trip, Taddeo signed contracts with a number of persons who were to escort him to Modena, complicated contracts involving the handover of considerable sums of money. Now Bologna and Modena are less than 50 km apart, on level ground. Of course he was traveling in the 1280s, but even then, 50 km was not far; it probably took less than a day for a healthy young man on horseback, perhaps two whole days for an elderly gentleman such as Taddeo. We know that travel was not safe in those days, but to sign two complicated contracts involving the transfer of large sums of money to be escorted for less than 50 km still seems a bit excessive.

N. G. Siraisi, in his scholarly masterpiece “Taddeo Alderotti and his Pupilspublished in 1981, suspects that the two contracts actually conceal two hidden forms of usury: “By mid-1280s, when his career reached its peak, Taddeo was a man of substantial property; most of the surviving documentary records of his activity concern his involvement in various business transactions. Evidently he multiplied the wealth brought by his profession through careful investment. He acquired real estate and a mortgage, and also, it would appear, engaged in money lending. Two curious contracts regarding excursions Taddeo made from Bologna to treat patients in Modena indicate this.”

Or were they perhaps investments? We will probably never know, but Taddeo definitely liked business. Siraisi notes: “Presumably Dante had good reason to select Taddeo as a type of worldly ambition, as contrasted to Saint Dominic, who acquired learning from purer motives. … Moreover, in his will he was careful to provide that some of his charitable bequest be invested so that the beneficiaries might enjoy the fruit and return.”

Just after these trips, we have certain information about the production of water of life in Modena. According to economic historian M. Cattini, “From the Lombard cities came iron in rods and metal tools for working the fields, wool cloth and cheese. In exchange, Modena provided cattle and swine, barrels of wine and water of life, raw and worked hides, lumber for construction and charcoal.”

There is, of course, no proof, but I like to think of a start-up in the 1280s arising out of the encounter of Taddeo’s scientific research and technical innovations with the traditional know-how of unknown Modenese craftspeople who were perhaps already distilling small amounts of water of life by slow, costly, traditional methods. A new enterprise that, for the first time in known history, manages to produce significant quantities of water of life (let’s remember that it was almost pure alcohol) of good quality, at a relatively low price. In short, making it into a commercial product to be sold on the market.

And now let’s read some quotes from our Forbes.

“ …the Middle Ages bring the discovery of the mineral acids and alcohol. … Gradually we see that the center of the chemical industry is shifted from the monastery and the home of the private artisan to a real industrial center or to a chemist’s shop. The rising capitalism of the later Middle Ages lead to a concentration of those trades which formerly formed part of the housework or belonged to the monk’s work. The earliest centers of the industries that concern us here were situated in Italy (Salerno, Venice and the Po Valley).”  

 “… distilling became more or less an industry, first in Italy, where we find a burgher of Modena producing larger quantities of alcohol for sale as early as 1320.”

 “ …at the same time distilling became more or less an industry, first in Italy, where we find a burgher of Modena producing larger quantities of alcohol for sale as early as 1320.”

 “Apart from the old centers of Modena and Venice, which exported large quantities of distillates not only to Germany but even to Turkey, other local centers of distillation of wine or fermenting of corn, barley etc. were formed.”  “Brandy was imported into England by the Genoese from the fourteenth century.”

And now let us leave Forbes behind and look at a precious little book published in 1999 by the  Grappa Documentation Centre, entitled “Grappa and Alchemy. A pathway into the thousand-year old  history of distillation” (Centro Documentazione Grappa “Grappa e alchimia. Un percorso nella millenaria storia della distillazione”)

“Testimony of this ‘first’ for Modena comes from afar. From Germany, in particular, where a series of surprising documents attribute to Modena the merit for production of water of life as early as the beginning of the 14th century. It is certain that at the start of this century they were already exporting discrete quantities of distillate beyond the city boundaries, and over the Alps to Germany via Venice.” (Bergonzini)

In a manuscript of 1320 the Burgermeister of the German city of Frickenhausen invited citizens to use the distilled wine imported from Modena as an effective defense against the plague and other common contagious diseases.

In the same years, Ludwig the Bavarian came down to Italy to be crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome. Modena, like other Italian cities, initially welcomed him with all due honors. Then things changed, but this is not our concern here. Ludwig brought with him a German physician, Hieronymus Burkhard, who stopped in Modena to study the distillation method for water of life, already renowned in Germany. Burkhard spent a considerable amount of time in the city, and later, in 1351, received permission to open the first two Pharmacies in Berlin and the nearby Collin on Spree, with an imperial license authorizing him to distil water of life the way it was done in Modena.

Then came the taxes, the nightmare of all distillers over the centuries, which are however useful to us as proof of the existence of widespread production and sale of water of life in Modena. The 1487 Statutes of the town, reformed on the basis of those of 1327, establish a tax of three “soldi” to be paid to export a certain amount of water of life to any foreign country, clearly demonstrating the existence of a consolidated business of production and sale of the distillate in the city.

Lastly, F. Brunello writes in “History of water of life” (“Storia dell’ Acquavite” 1969), “How and when alcohol became a popular beverage in the form of aqua vitae or liquor, we do not know with precision; it is however certain that water of life was already traded in Italy in the 14th century XIV, and significant quantities were being traded over the Alps.”

To conclude, as far as we know, large-scale, commercial alcoholic distillation – that is, the practice of distilling wine to produce water of life in sufficient quantities for sale, consumption, export and taxation – began in Modena, Italy, around the year 1300. And, if I may be allowed to add a personal note, I cannot help being proud of this Italian First.

But while water of life had become a well-known and widely used product, at least in Italy, it was still sold and consumed above all for medicinal purposes. When and how did water of life come to be drunk for pleasure, and not as a medication? When and how did it leave the pharmacy and enter the tavern?

We shall see in the next article.

Marco Pierini

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