The birth of rums in the Caribbean
What a difference a few centuries makes. Back when rum was created, it seemed the spirit least likely to succeed. That was the early 1600's and rum, born of humble beginnings as a distillation of fermented molasses (itself the unwanted dregs of the sugar refining process) — was called rumbullion, which translates as "a great tumult or uproar," referring, no doubt as much to the experience of drinking the rugged libation as to the behavior that often followed.
Rum was also called kill-devil, for obvious reasons, though raise the devil would have been equally apt. One early imbiber famously described the rum of the day as a "hot, hellish and terrible liquor." It was the favorite of murderous pirates and salt-crusted sailors. As a product of sugar refining, its history is forever tied to the brutal triangular trade in which African salves were sent to Caribbean sugar plantations, slave produced molasses was sent to Colonial America for distillation, and Colonial rum was sent to Africa to be traded for more slaves.
Considering that provenance while sipping an oak-aged, super-premium rum, a person might well wonder: How did such a nasty spirit come to be so good? Suffice to say, rum's redemption took time. It began with Christopher Columbus, who brought shoots of sugarcane with him on his second voyage to the "Indies". Never mind that he was many thousands of mils from his destination; sugarcane was right at ho in the Caribbean climate. Sugarcane and rum with it, then spread like green fire across the Caribbean with virgin forests being cleared or tobacco plants ripped out and replaced by sugarcane.
As distilling practices improved, rum become so popular in Europe, that England and Franc passed laws against importing it to protect their gin and cognac sales. The rum market then moved to New England, where Colonists soon decided to import the molasses and distill the rum themselves. Distilleries sprang up, and by the mid-1700s, Colonial rum consumption was four gallons per person. George Washington liked rum so well when he first tasted it during a visit to Barbados in 1751 that he later served it at his presidential inauguration. After the Revolutionary War, however, rum experienced a recession as the American bourbon industry grew, while Europe's trade laws and expanding sugar beet industry put pressure on Caribbean sugarcane growers. The end of slavery in 1834 closed the door on the Age of Sugar in the Caribbean.
The region was left with a glut of sugarcane and on French island, distillers began making a new kind of rum by distilling the sugarcane juice itself. Combined with cane syrup and a squeeze of lime, this rum agricole remains the heart of the simple mixture of rum, sugar and lime called "ti" (for petit) punch that is a daily part of life on some Caribbean islands.
In the 1850s, a Spaniard named Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, living in Cuba at the time, produced the first light, or "silver" version, which would become the benchmark of modern rum and serve as the foundation for his company still the world's largest rum producer.
Though not a particularly sophisticated spirit, rum sailed along for years as the signature of a thousand exotic cocktails and the tiki bars where they were served in the 1950s. Then came the 1980s and '90s and the emergence of quadruple-distilled super premium spirits. Vodka and gin went upscale, Americans developed a taste for fine single-malt scotch and small-batch bourbons, and tequila began spending extended time in oak. Now, sophisticated American drinkers are discovering the best of rum, and while many fine examples are aged only briefly, a growing number of long aged añejos have enlivened this storied spirit.
The value of aging has been apparent since the early days, when traders discovered that the rum they had loaded in the Caribbean tasted better after the weeks-long ocean crossing to Europe or the American Colonies. But spirits also evaporate while aging, and because rum is traditionally made in the warm tropics, evaporation happens faster, so aging time tend to be shorter than for scotches or cognacs, which barrel-age in cool northern climates.
Today's distillers are pulling out all the stops to satisfy the increasing demand for high end rums, whether top shelf anejos for slow sipping or elegant silver versions that can breather new life into venerable rum cocktails. Fine rums are produced from both molasses and sugarcane juice, then aged from a few months to 20 years and longer in American and French oak barrels — being blended then aged and aged then blended.
Savor the flavor of the Caribbean with Rums from Puerto Rico, and keep the party going at home, long after your trip to the island.
Rum Cocktail Recipes
No other spirit seems to have as much fun in a glass as rum does. It gets to mix with exotic tropical flavors in coconuts, pineapples, whimsical tiki glasses, and often wears a fancy headdress of bright garnishes. Just the names of the rum drinks are enough to get the party started:
Daiquiri: The drink made famous at the Floridita Bar in Havana was the proclaimed favorite of both Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy. A simple blend of light rum, fresh lime juice and sugar served on the rocks or blended, its is a close nearly identical cousin of the Planter's Punch and Ti Punch.
Mai Tai: Tropical fantasy man "Trader" Vic Bergeron created his famous drink at his eponymous tropically themed San Francisco restaurant in 1944. Legend has it that he handed the first one — a mix of rum, almond syrup, Curaçao, simple syrup and fresh lime juice to a Tahitian friend, who sipped then said, "Mai tai, roa ae". Translation: Out of this world—the best.
Piña Colada: Typically served blended, this Puerto Rico native is a dangerously delicious mélange of white run, coconut cream, pineapple and ice. Often served with a popular umbrella along with the traditional pineapple slice and maraschino cherry garnishes. Originally seeking a cure for hangovers, Ramon Monchito Marrero, a bartender at the Beachcomber's Bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico invented the sweet pick me up in 1954. Puerto Rico's official libation.
Zombie: No one would ever guess that this "killer" combination of dark rum, light rum, over-proof rum, cherry brandy, orange juice, lemon juice, grenadine and ice made its debut not at a rowdy bar, but rather at the 1939 World's Fair.
Mojito: A Cuban-born refresher made by muddling sugar or simple syrup with lime wedges and mint leaves, adding light rum, straining the mixture into a tall glass, then topping it with a splash of club soda and more mint leaves as a garnish. Fresh!
Killer Bee: The aptly named signature drink at the famous Sunshine's Bar on the Caribbean island of Nevis is a concoction of light rum, overproof rum, passion fruit juice, soda water, honey and lime juice that can sting the unwary.
Fog Cutter: This misnamed libation is a haze-inducing heavyweight whose origins are, understandably, lost in the fog of mixological history. The boozy recipe remains: lots of rum, plus gin, brandy, orange and lemon juice and almond syrup.
Cuba Libre: Rum's contribution to frat parties is a simple blend of rum, Coke and ice in a glass with a lime wedge.
Excerpts and recipes from Rum's Redemption by James Badham
For HCP/Aboard Publishing
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