Researching distilled spirits history is a bit like panning for gold—lots of work for the occasional grain of gold remaining in your pan. But there are also jaw-dropping moments when a sizeable nugget suddenly appears. These “A-ha!” moments motivate you to keep dipping your pan in the riverbed and swirling away.
Over the past eight months I’ve become fascinated by the history of the rum arriving in the U.K. during the 1700s to 1900s. This was the era of London Dock rums and British navy rum. What I’ve uncovered is quite surprising and little known by the vast majority of today’s rum enthusiasts. In an upcoming book that Plantation Rum commissioned me to research and write, I tell many of these stories; it’s in the final production stages and should be available later this year. Still, with my enthusiasm for the topic quite high, I keep finding interesting tidbits that make for a more detailed picture.
While recently hunting for references to spirit adulteration, I came across Ham’s Revenue and Mercantile Vade-Mecum, an 1876 handbook sure to induce sleep in all but the most rabid fans of historical texts. In those days, books had very long subtitles, and Ham’s doesn’t disappoint here: An epitome of the laws, regulations, and practice of Customs, inland revenue, and mercantile marine, together with the Statistical and General Information forming a book of reference for the trading and mercantile classes, as well as for the revenue officers.
In short, it’s a British trade encyclopedia.
Under the “Fining” heading is a section entitled Fining, Sweetening and Coloring Foreign Wines and Spirits in Bond. (For those not in the know, fining is the process of clarifying or filtering a wine or spirit, typically with a commonly used agent such as gelatin, egg white, bentonite, carbon, or milk, which causes undesired small particles in the liquid to cling to the agent and sink to the bottom of the vessel.)
A key portion of it reads:
Neither fining nor coloring may be added to foreign spirits for home consumption.
The Board by special permission in each case, have allowed the addition of two gallons of sweet fining to each puncheon of rum, for exportation only.
Spirits may have sweet finings added to the extent of one per cent, for exportation only, or for bottling in bond, but application must be made to the Board in each instance for their sanction.
Foreign spirits may not be compounded in bond.
Spirits in a vat may be colored for exportation only, to any extent that the merchant may desire; coloring matter may also be added to spirits in casks, but it must be at the time of shipment.
Rum, for exportation, may, by special permission of the Board, be flavored in bond by the addition of pine apple juice. In the West India Docks, London, a press has been erected in bond for the process. The juice is in the first instance extracted from the sliced fruit by pressure, and the pulp, after it has been steeped in rum for two or three weeks, is again pressed, and subsequently destroyed in the presence of the proper officers.
There are several things of note in the passage, but what first caught my eye was this, which brought together two areas of my research that previously hadn’t been connected:
Rum, for exportation, may, by special permission of the Board, be flavored in bond by the addition of pine apple juice. In the West India Docks, London, a press has been erected in bond for the process.
The West India Docks held Rum Quay, the greatest rum warehouse the world has ever seen. The vaults and warehouses of Rum Quay held up to four million Imperial gallons of overproof rum, in bond. The 40,000 rum puncheons within contained more than 18 million liters. That amount of rum diluted to 40 percent ABV would fill more than 48 million of today’s 750 ml bottles—let that number sink in a bit. (The aforementioned book will have much more on Rum Quay, so I won’t dwell further on it here.)
As for pineapple rum, this text isn’t a particularly early reference. It was definitely “a thing” dating back as early the late 1700s. There are countless newspaper advertisements from the 1700s and 1800s offering pineapple rum for sale. Up till now, the few references to its production I’d found had the pineapple added in the West Indies, where the rum was made. For instance, Mortimer’s 1823 A General Commercial Dictionary says:
It is customary in some of the West India islands, to put sliced pine apples in the puncheons of rum designed as presents for European friends; this gives the spirit a very agreeable flavour, and hence we have the designation of pine-apple rum.
Nothing in the many passages about the West India docks ever suggested that they were pressing pineapples to make pineapple rum. It was new, completely unexpected finding.
The West India Dock pineapple rum was made in a multi-step process: First, they extracted most of the juice from the pineapple with a press. Then, they infused the rum with the pressed pulp for several weeks. Presumably, both the pineapple juice and pineapple-infused rum went into blending vats with a large quantity of regular rum before being re-casked or bottled for export.
The pineapple rum made at the West India Docks appears to be different from many of today’s pineapple rums. Today the producers of spirits like Maggie’s Farm Pineapple rum or Plantation’s Stiggins’ Fancy infuse the rum with pineapple and then redistill the rum. The West India Dock pineapple rum was simply the addition of pineapple juice and pineapple-infused rum to a much larger quantity of regular rum.
Finds like this, where another piece of the rum history puzzle drops into place are what keeps me doing this sort of work.
Also of note in the Ham’s passage is that the British regulations of 1876 allowed additives to exported rums, both in terms of sweetening (“Spirits may have sweet finings added to the extent of one per cent”) as well as extensive use of coloring (“Spirits in a vat may be colored for exportation only, to any extent that the merchant may desire”).
Simply put, they allowed additives for rum shipped outside of the U.K., but not for rum sold and consumed within. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a blanket okay to sweeten or color; each instance required an application.
Additives in rum are a hot topic in today’s enthusiast market, with many people vociferously against them in any form. Without touching this third-rail here, I’ll simply point out that there are many sources of historical context on the subject, readily available to those who wish to learn more.
Why go to all this effort to hunt through historical text? Learning the unfiltered, unbiased history of rum is particularly gratifying to me. Also, some brands selectively cherry-pick historical facts to tell a marketing story which may only bear a slight resemblance to that tale. I don’t expect that to stop, but by continued research and sharing of historical texts, it’s possible to slow down some of misrepresentations that may occur, intentional or not. With more and more enthusiasts joining the ranks, I hope that some of them will do their own research and play a vital role in recasting rum equal in history and artistry to any other distilled spirit.