The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th
Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process,
fermented into alcohol. Distillation removed impurities and produced the first true rum.
Tradition suggests that rum first originated on the island of Barbados.
Ancient History of Rum
The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is
believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or China, and spread from there. An example of such an
early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a
14th-century account of a "very good wine of sugar" that was offered to him in what is modern-day Iran.
To support this demand for the molasses to produce rum, along with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe
during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labor source to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was needed. A
triangular trade was established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies to help support this need. The
circular exchange of slaves, molasses, and rum was quite profitable, and the disruption to the trade caused by the
Sugar Act in 1764 may have even helped cause the American Revolution.
Rum in Colonial America
After rum's initial development in the Caribbean, the drink's popularity spread to Colonial America. To support
the demand for the drink, the first rum distillery in the colonies was set up in 1664 on current day Staten
Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New
England's largest and most prosperous industry.
The rum produced in Boston was quite popular, and was even considered the best in the world during
much of the 18th century. Rhode Island rum joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a period of time.
The popularity of rum continued after the American Revolution with George Washington insisting on a barrel of
Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration. Eventually the restrictions on rum from the British islands of the Caribbean
combined with the development of American whiskey led to a decline in the drink's popularity.
Rum's association with piracy began with English privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the
privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only
being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
The association of rum with the British Royal Navy began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of
Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given
to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lemon juice, the
practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors,
Admiral Edward Vernon directed that the rum ration be watered down before being issued. In honor of the grogram
cloak the Admiral wore in rough weather, the mixture of water and rum became known as grog. The Royal Navy
continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after July 31,
A story involving naval rum is that following his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson's body was
preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found
to be empty of rum. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the jack tars had
drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drank all the rum, in the process drinking Nelson's blood. Thus, this
tale serves as a basis for the term Nelson's Blood being used to describe rum. The details of the story are
disputed, with some historians claiming the term originated instead from a toast to Admiral Nelson.
Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was
based upon the lack of coinage among the population of the colony, and due to the drink's ability to allow its
consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of creature comforts available in the new colony. The value of rum
was such that convict settlers could be induced to work the lands owned by officers of the New South Wales Corps.
Due to rum's popularity among the settlers, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness even though their
alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.
When William Bligh became governor of the colony in 1806, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with
drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange. In response to this action, and several others,
the New South Wales Corps marched, with fixed bayonets, to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The
mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.