I’ve always been curious about what thought processes lead to the invention of things. On the topic of rum, I’d long wondered who made the first rum and what gave them the idea? The book “Rum, A Social and SociableHistory” by Ian Williams provides a very plausible theory that I frequently recount to friends who are inquisitive about the history of rum.
St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados
It’s generally accepted that rum as we know it was first distilled on Barbados in the mid 1600s. Barbados had been visited by Spanish and Portuguese forces prior to the English arrival, but it was the English that decided that it was a good spot to grow sugar cane and set up a permanent settlement in the 1620s. At the time, sugar was scarce and very highly desired in Europe. Soon, nearly the entire island was dedicated to growing sugar cane, so much that food needed to be imported because Barbados land was more valuable for sugar production than for more readily usable food crops.
In the sugar making process, the cut cane is crushed and the resulting juices collected. Those juices are then boiled, causing the sucrose (what we think of as table sugar) to crystallize out. This process may be repeated to extract yet more sucrose. What’s left behind? Molasses. The various grades of molasses available are really a function of how much sucrose has been extracted.
In Barbados during the mid-1600s, molasses was an industrial waste product with very little value. It was used in mortar, fed to slaves, mixed with hay and feed to farm animals, or dumped in the ocean. So the natural question is “So who decided to ferment molasses and distill the result?” Ian William’s book suggest that Scottish/Irish whiskey making tradition may have birthed rum.
Going back in your world history, the English Civil war (1642-1653) was between various forces in England, Ireland and Scotland. Long story short, a collection of Irish and Scotsmen on the losing side ended up on Barbados either voluntarily (perhaps fleeing from home), or involuntarily as indentured servants. Ian’s book pick up the story here (quoting):
“Without being too stereotypical, we can hypothesize that some thirsty and inventive Scot or Irishman landed, voluntarily or involuntarily, in Barbados in its early days. Any exiled Celt who had dealt with malt to make a mash for a still would not need to be an Einstein to make the connection with molasses, not least on an island like Barbados, where traditional cereal production was insufficient for food, let alone brewing. So the odds are high that it may well have been an aesthete Celt, desperate for decent drink, who decided that all those spirits needed releasing from their distasteful, wet and murky brown shroud.”
Of course, this is conjecture and we likely never will know exactly what happened. However, if true it does provide the critical link between whiskey in the British Isles and rum in the New World. Folks who knew how to make whiskey simply adapted to a new source of fermentable mash. This narrative repeated itself later in America. For a while, rum was the dominant spirit in America, however its production requires molasses, which was economically prohibitive to transport to the western frontier. During the westward expansion corn and other grains were locally available, which led to the rise of American whiskeys such as Bourbon.
In April 2103 my wife Carrie and I visited Barbados for the first time. A few months earlier we’d won the bidding for a week’s stay at a home in Barbados after remembering that Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum. It went without saying that we planned to visit every distillery on the island, but the story of St. Nicholas Abbey made it the obvious first stop.
The Abbey has a long and storied history going back to 1658, which I won’t attempt to replicate here as it’s well documented elsewhere. What you need to know is that the Abbey was a fully functioning plantation and distillery, growing its own sugar and doing nearly everything else in-house. The owner’s mansion on the property is enormous, beautifully maintained, and would be worth a visit even if there wasn’t rum involved. At some point in the late 1900s you could visit the house as a heritage attraction, but the Abbey was no longer a functioning plantation after 1947.