The history of Rum
Back in the days
The origin of the word Rum is unclear. The name may have derived from rumbullion meaning “a great tumult or uproar”. Some claim that the name is from the large drinking glasses used by Dutch seamen known as rummers. Other options include contractions of the words saccharum, latin for sugar, or arôme, French for aroma.
Rum, Rhum or Ron
In current usage, the name used for rum is often based on the rum’s place of origin. For rums from Spanish-speaking locales the word ron is used. A ron añejo indicates a rum that has been aged and is often used for premium products. Rhum is the term used for rums from French-speaking locales, while rhum vieux is an aged French rum.
Sugar cane, originally from Papua New Guinea, was taken to Asia where it was cultivated and then carried to Africa, India and then Spain. European explorers were lured to the West Indies by legends of El Dorado, a city paved with gold. Ironically, the tall sweet grass that Columbus took to the Caribbean in 1493, and the sugar and rum made from that sugar-cane, was ultimately worth more than all the lustrous metal taken from the Caribbean basin.
In the 17th century,
thousands of sugar works dotted the islands landscapes and nearly every plantation employed a copper pot still to make alcohol from the fermented skimmings and molasses.
Sales of the potent liquor to the British Navy not only brought extra revenue but more importantly, it attracted a naval presence that deterred pirates lurking in the area. In 1655 Admiral Penn of the British fleet captured Jamaica from the Spanish and authorised the locally made sugar-cane spirit to replace the official beer ration. When he sailed from Jamaica he found that the rum had the natural advantage of remaining sweet in the cask for very much longer than water or beer.
However, it was not until 1731 that the Navy Board were persuaded to make the official daily ration, one pint of wine or half a pint of rum, to be issued neat (at 80% vol.) in two equal amounts daily. Every ‘rating’ would be entitled to the ration each day, plus a gallon of beer if he wanted it. It was a right and prized privilege that shielded him from the squalor and brutality of life on the ocean waves.
In 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon claimed, ‘the vice of drunkenness is but too visibly increasing in our mariners’ and secured the change of ration to a reduction of a quart of water to every half pint of rum. Because of the unusual grogram material of his naval cloak, he was known as ‘Old Grog’. Hence when the lower strength ration was enforced it was referred to as ‘Grog’. Vernon suggested the addition of limes and sugar to make the drink more palatable, which led to grog mixed with limejuice being known as ‘limey’. Americans calling British people ‘limeys’ derives from this.
The drunkenness was, later, reduced by the drinking of tea and cocoa, however, it was still a threat to naval efficiency so in 1850 the rum ration was fixed at an eighth of a pint, until it was abolished in 1970. The last Navy issue took place on 31 July 1970 known as ‘Black Tot Day’. The first Sea Lord pointed out that, ‘ a large tot in the middle of the day was not the best medicine for those who had to handle the Navy’s electronic mysteries’.
Many other naval stories abound including that of Bill McCoy. During the Prohibition Era in the USA, those who tried to make the new law unworkable by running in the forbidden liquor were known as Rum Runners. The most famous being Bill McCoy ‘the real McCoy’, to mean the genuine article.
Rum now has a much more respectable image.
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