Today, 80 percent of the world’s rum is produced in the Caribbean. All spirits start with a plant, and rum starts with a species of grass called sugarcane. But it took sugarcane almost 10,000 years to make it to the Caribbean. And it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when it started tasting decent. Up until then, it was harsh.
Here is the short story. We know sugarcane is indigenous to South Asia, and it is believed that the sweet grass was first domesticated on the island of New Guinea around 8000 BCE India is known to have first extracted and crystallized the sugary plant around 350 CE, and from there trade merchants brought it to Africa and then Spain.
By the 1400s, there was a huge demand for the “sweet salt” (sugar) in Europe, so the Portuguese began planting sugarcane on the Island of Madeira. They soon realized that it was an extremely labor-intensive task in all processes of growing, harvesting, and production. Slaves were therefore imported. In 1493, Christopher Columbus attempted to bring sugarcane seedlings to the Caribbean, but they did not survive the voyage. Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez was on the ship with Columbus and settled in Hispaniola (Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the tiny islands around them) to be of service to Spanish knight and soldier Nicolás Ovando y Cáceres, who a couple years later became the governor of the Indies.
In 1501, Pedro de Atienza was the first to successfully import sugarcane seedlings to Hispaniola. He harvested his first crop four years later. In 1511, on behalf of Spain, Diego Velázquez conquered Cuba, bringing Hispaniola sugarcane with him. In 1518, a royal decree from Charles V (ruler of the Spanish and Holy Roman Empire) licensed 2,000 slaves to be imported to Hispaniola to work the sugarcane fields. And in 1523, another royal decree imported 1,500 slaves to Hispaniola and 2,500 to other Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico and Jamaica. The Portuguese took their production to Brazil and by the mid-1500s, there were almost 3,000 sugar mills. The Dutch started taking sugarcane seedlings to plant on any Caribbean island they could. Barbados and the islands around the Dominican Republic were among the first. By the 1600s, rum in daily rations was common for the Royal Navy.
In 1758, George Washington campaigned for the Virginia House of Burgess by offering free Barbados rum to voters, and he won. In the 1700s, the Caribbean Islands were losing money on their tobacco and cotton crops due to America growing their own, so switching to sugarcane crops solved this problem. Thus began a mass production of Caribbean rum.
In 1810, the first hospital in Sydney, Australia, was financed by local businessmen in return for a contract that licensed them to import 60,000 gallons of rum to sell. The hospital was called Rum Hospital. In addition, in 1862, Don Facundo Bacardi began filtering his Cuban rum through charcoal.
The Top Things to Know
The Top Things to Know
Early America was funded by rum sales. In 1657, the first rum distillery was built in Boston.
In 1664, a rum distillery was built in New York City.
The Royal British Navy gave sailors a daily ration of rum from 1731 until 1970.
Bacardi’s first distillery was in Cuba, not Puerto Rico.
No one knows where the word “rum” came from.
Eighty percent of rum comes from the Caribbean, but it can be made anywhere in the world.
Rum is made from fermented sugarcane juice, sugarcane syrup, or sugarcane molasses, which comes from squeezing, cutting up, and mashing sugarcane stalks. To this day, in many parts of the world, the cane is still crudely harvested by hand with machetes.
“Rum and Coca-Cola” by the Andrews Sisters was the number-one song in 1945.
The most popular rum cocktails are the Daiquiri, Mojito, Hurricane, Rum Punch, Mai Tai, Dark ’n Stormy, Cuba Libre, Zombie, Planter’s Punch, Piña Colada, and Hot Buttered Rum.
Barbados Mt. Gay is the oldest rum company in the world. They have held the oldest surviving deed, dating back to 1703.
Brazil grows the most sugarcane in the world and has over 2,000 nicknames for rum.
Types of Rum
There are six categories of rum: light (also called white, silver, or platinum), gold (also called amber), dark (also called black), anejo (also called aged or premium), overproof, and flavored.
Some light rum is distilled and then poured directly into the bottle. This light rum (also called fresh rum) is raw. Fresh distilled rum contains trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas, which makes the rum taste harsh. This is probably close to the way rum tasted in the 1600s.
Most light rum is aged up to a year in oak barrels previously used for aging American and Canadian whiskey. Aging light rum gives it a better taste for a commercial market.
The most popular light rum in the world is Bacardi. Bacardi’s distillery is located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and produces 100,000 thousand gallons of rum a day. That amount equates to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in one week!
Gold rum is light rum that has been aged in oak barrels until it reaches a golden color. The aging mellows the light rum, resulting in a light-to-medium-bodied rum. It is then filtered and poured into bottles.
Dark rums are made from the thick black by-product of sugarcane called molasses. After distillation, they are aged in barrels.
Anejo is the Spanish word for “aged.” Anejo rum is light rum that has been aged. There are no guidelines for how long to age rum, so the process ends when the rum master determines it is ready. The result is dark, smooth-sipping rum. Anejo rums are compared to Cognac.
Overproof rum is just what it sounds like. To be considered overproof it has to be bottled 100 proof or more, which also means bottled at 50 per cent alcohol by volume or more. The number-one overproof rum found in most bars is Bacardi 151.
Flavored rums are infused with a myriad of flavors. Almost every rum brand has a portfolio of flavored rums.
More to Know About Rum
Rhum vs. Rum
If you find yourself looking at rum labels, every once in a while you will see rum spelled “rhum.” Rhum is short for rhum agricole, which just means that the rum in that bottle was made from fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice and not with by-products like molasses.
Brazilian rum is called cachaça (ka-SHAH-suh). It is only made from fresh-squeezed Brazilian sugarcane juice.
Navy Strength Rum
When you think of Navy strength rum, think overproof gunpowder test. See, the Royal British Navy used to give sailors a daily “tot” of rum. A tot is about eight ounces (one cup). To make sure the rum was not cut with water (its strength weakened) they would put some rum on gunpowder and attempt to ignite it, and if it ignited, the rum was over 114 proof (or over 57 per cent alcohol).
Fun Facts About Rum
Rum has gone by many names such as: Barbados water, demon water, grog, kill-devil, Nelson’s blood, rhumbooze, rumbowling, rumbullion, rumbustion, and splice the main brace.
On January 15, 1919, at the US Industrial Alcohol Company in Boston, Massachusetts, a cast-iron tank holding 400,000 gallons of molasses ruptured, creating a sixteen-foot-tall sticky tsunami through the Atlantic railway station, lifting a train off the track, injuring a hundred fifty people, killing twelve horses and twenty-one people, until it finally rested as a lake of molasses in North End Park.
August is National Rum Month.
Bacardi has the largest rum distillery in the world, located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you visit by cruise ship, skip the expensive excursion to tour the distillery. Instead, just pay twenty-five cents to ride the ferry. You can see the distillery where the cruise ships dock.
Most rum is produced in the Caribbean and almost every island produces rum.
Jamaica’s Wray & Nephew overproof rum is the world’s highest proof rum at 63 percent.
In 1943, the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck drank cachaça, and in the same theater feature, Saludos Amigos (Spanish for “Greetings, Friends”) Disney introduced a new character from Brazil named José Carioca.
The most expensive rum is a 1940 bottle of J. Wray & Nephew. It is valued at $54,000.
The team at Porco Lounge and Tiki Room created the world’s largest Daiquiri on November 11 at the Fabulous Food Show in Cleveland. Setting out with a goal of making a 100-gallon cocktail, the bartenders mixed rum, simple syrup, lime juice and ice in 12-quart batches and then poured it all into a massive barrel decorated to look like a Tiki mug.
The site of Rum historian and brand owner, Ed Hamilton. He is the real deal who actually lives on a boat visiting all the Caribbean Islands. The name is his rum brand that is produced in Jamaica is called Hamilton.
1595 engraving with modern watercolor of African slaves processing sugarcane to make rum in Hispaniola.
Everett Historical / Shutterstock
By Wayne Curtis
Wayne Curtis was the spirits and cocktails columnist for The Atlantic magazine for eight years, and has also written about drinks for the Wall Street Journal, Imbibe, The Daily Beast, and The American Scholar. In 2002 Curtis was named Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers. He lives in New Orleans and Maine.
Held every June in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Huge list of rum events worldwide.
Rum in Film
1942 Across the Pacific
Humphrey Bogart orders two Planter’s Punches.
1944 To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall drinks a Daiquiri.
1950 Father of the Bride
Cocktails ordered are Rum & Coke, Tom Collins, and Frozen Daiquiri.
1955 Guys and Dolls
Marlon Brando gets Jean Simmons to drink several Dulce de Leches in Cuba.
Simmons: What did you order?
Brando: Dulce de Leche. Dulce is the Spanish word for “sweet.” De means “of” and leche means “milk.” Sweet of milk.
Simmons: Don’t they serve it plain?
Brando: Well, only in the mornings. It has to do with the heat. At night, they put a kind of preservative in it.
Simmons: That’s interesting. What do they use?
Simmons: Doesn’t that have alcohol in it?
Brando: Well, just enough to keep the milk from turning sour.
When Simmons is on her second drink, she says, “It’s so delicious. That Bacardi flavoring certainly makes a difference. You know, this would be a wonderful way to get children to drink milk.”
1959 Our Man in Havana
Alec Guinness and friends drinks Daiquiris.
1960 The Apartment
Shirley MacLaine asks for a Daiquiri and Hope Holiday asks for a Rum Collins.
1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn drinks a Planter’s Punch.
1963 Come Blow Your Horn
Frank Sinatra orders a Rum & Coke.
Sean Connery orders a Rum Collins.
1969 Hello, Dolly!
Barbra Streisand mentions a Rum-Toddy.
1974 The Godfather: Part II
John Cazale orders a Banana Daiquiri.
1996 Up Close and Personal
Michelle Pfeiffer has a Banana Daiquiri.
1997 Open Your Eyes
Fele Martinez and Penelope Cruz drink Rum & Cokes.
1998 Wild Things
Matt Dillon orders Rum & Coke.
1999 Me, Myself, & Irene
Renée Zellweger and Jim Carrey have Rum & Cokes.
2000 Chuck & Buck
Mike White orders a Rum & Coke.
2000 Reindeer Games
Ben Affleck orders Rum & Cokes.
2000 The Banger Sisters
Goldie Hawn makes herself a Rum & Coke.
2002 Die Another Day
Pierce Brosnan drinks a Mojito. Forty years prior, James Bond exploded the Vodka Martini and now revives the 1920s classic Cuban cocktail, the Mojito.
2003 Bad Boys II
Gabrielle Union and Jordi Molla drink Bacardi Mojitos.
2003 From Justin to Kelly
Greg Siff has a Piña Colada.
2004 I Heart Huckabees
Jude Law mentions that in the future he will drink Piña Coladas.
2005 The Ice Harvest
John Cusack orders a Rum & Pineapple Juice.
2007 Perfect Stranger
Hemmingway Daiquiris are ordered.
2007 Shrek the Third
Puss in Boots daydreams of fishing with a pitcher of Mojitos beside him.
2008 Nim’s Island
The captain talks about selling Piña Coladas to tourists.
1843 Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
“He could…smoke more tobacco, drink more rum-toddy"
1920 This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This book has the first known literary mention of the Daiquiri.
1958 Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
The first sentence in the book reads, “Wormold enjoyed his rum cocktails frozen, with lime.”
2014 Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Mojitos are mentioned.
Rum in Books
Rum in Song
1939 “Little Brown Jug” Glen Miller
“My wife and I live all alone, In a little log hut, we called our own, she loved gin, and I loved rum I tell you what we'd lots of fun.”
1945 “Rum and Coca-Cola” Andrew Sisters
“Drinkin' rum and Coca-Cola, Go down Point Koomahnah, both mother and daughter, workin' for the Yankee dollar.”
1947 They Raided the Joint” Helen Humes
“Now they were drinking gin, drinking mighty fast, some were drinking whiskey, some were drinking rum, they had some sneaky peep but they wouldn't give me none.”
1975 “Bad Sneakers” Steely Dan
“Bad sneakers and a Piña Colada my friend.”
1978 “Werewolves of London” Warren Zevon
“I saw a werewolf drinking a Piña Colada at Trader Vic's.”
1979 “Escape” Rubert Holmes
“If you like Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain.”
1983 “Name Your Poison” Richard O’Brien
Cocktails mentioned are Mai Tai and Planter’s Punch.
1997 “Two Piña Coladas” Garth Brooks
“So bring me two Piña Coladas, one for each hand, let’s set sail with Captain Morgan and never leave dry land.”
2003 “Ignition” R. Kelly
“Sippin’ on coke and rum, I'm like so what I'm drunk, it's the freakin’ weekend baby, I'm about to have me some fun.”
2004 “Drinks” Twista
“Sexy like Champagne glass, you what I’m talking about, her skin tone was like a Piña Colada, I saw two Japanese chicks that got bodies, so I ordered them a Mai Tai
2004 “Piña Colada in a Pint Jar” Gaelic Storm
“She wants a Piña Colada in a pint glass, she wants to be where the summer won't stop.”
2005 “Be as You Are” Kenny Chesney
“Man, I could use a Piña Colada, little bit of sun on my skin.”
2011 “Piña Colada Girl” Davis Hasselhoff
“Piña Colada girl, you make the boys go ahh.”
2013 “Going Hamilton” Rif Raf
“Long Island Iced Tea filled up with butter rum.”