“There’s naught, no doubt, so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion.”
– Lord Byron
Who doesn’t like a spiffing peg of rum? Though some of the earliest varieties of rum are said to have been there in ancient India and China, in its present form, it originated in the Caribbean islands, thanks to the inventiveness of the sugar plantations there. Even the oldest brand of rum “Mount Gay Rum” is based in Barbados.
When it comes to its etymology, opinions are divided as to the exact origin of the word. Few experts consider the phrase “having a rum time” to be the source of the word. Others deem the word’s root is derived from the Romani language, where rum means “strong”. Yet some etymologists argue that its derivation was taken from the last syllable from the Latin word for sugar saccharum.
With its wealthy history and smooth, syrupy flavour profile, rum is an exceptional and timeless drink. So, you really can’t blame The Thirsty Barber for wanting to pay tribute to it – and what better way to do so than by delving into some lesser-known facts about this delicious alcoholic beverage?
1. Humble Origins
Its precursors date back to ancient India and China and are thought to have spread from there. As far as distillation goes, it was the sugar plantation slaves in the Caribbean who discovered that sugarcane molasses could be fermented and then distilled for a pleasant tasting drink!
2. The Battle of Trafalgar
In a remarkable display of a love for rum, the infamous Admiral Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, had his body preserved in a cask of rum before it was shipped to England and finally laid to rest. While accounts of the tale vary as to whether the cask was full or mostly empty at the time, what we do know for sure is, it was discovered that a hole had been drilled into the bottom of the cask so that all of the sailors could drink the rum before the cask’s arrival. Thus, the nickname “Nelson’s blood” was born.
3. Sailors lived off it
Eighteenth century sailors were often paid in rum. To test the rum’s authenticity, they allegedly mixed it with gunpowder — successful ignition indicated authenticity. Back in the day, long-haul pirates and the sailors of the British Royal Navy didn’t just use rum for recreation. To keep the crew hydrated, ships typically stored three types of liquid sustenance: water, beer, and rum.
First, they’d drink the water. But because the clear stuff was the most rapid to go rancid, they could only rely on it for so long before turning to the beer – which has a longer shelf-life. When the brews were all tapped out, they’d turn to rum, which could sit in the ship’s bowels for the longest period of time without going bad.
4. It was thought to have medicinal properties
These were especially useful for armies at war until a few decades ago. The British Army in particular was known to give rations of rum to its sailors as a mixture of rum and wine, kept the risk of scurvy (a major threat at the time) at bay. Then rum ration which had begun in 1655 (when the Royal Navy substituted half-a-pint of rum daily for the previous allowance of a gallon of beer), was referred to as ‘tot o’ rum’. Interestingly though, what actually prevented the scurvy was the dash of lime added to the mixture!
5. Rum was considered as a beauty product
Back in the 1800s, rum was highly revered as a go-to beauty product. It was known for its ability to clean hair and strengthen roots.
6. Rum and The Prohibition Period
Rum Running was a lucrative business during Prohibition. When the 18th Amendment effectively banned alcohol in 1920, Americans were left high and dry – but not without an alternative. It wasn’t long before rum-runners were trafficking the spirit from the Caribbean to ports and beyond. At night, Rum Rows would pop up along the Eastern Seaboard, a line of ships in international waters, ready to participate in forbidden trade.
7. Rum’s association with piracy
While it began due to English privateers trading it as a treasured article of trade, many of these privateers became pirates whose keenness for the sweet drink never died out. This association was only further strengthened by classic literary masterpieces such as Robert L. Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island.’
The Caribbean is undoubtedly the epicentre of all rum production in the world. Practically every island here produces its own distinct rum style. More than 80% of the world’s total output comes from there. But almost every other country produces their own rum as well, including India, whose Old Monk is a well-known brand.
9. The most expensive rum in the world
Though it lacks a specific name, it more than makes up for it in its fancy price-tag. Bottled in the 1940s by the Jamaican distillers Wray and Nephew, it contains blends that are believed to date as far back as 1915. The bottle was displayed at Europe’s first Rum Festival (RumFest), and there are only four such bottles remaining in the world, which represent the lost tradition of Wray and Nephew. They are valued at a staggering $40,000 a bottle!
10. Rum had some cool nicknames!
Possibly one of the best-known historical nicknames was: “Kill-Devil”. If you were issued a second rum ration by the British Navy, the order was called “splicing the mainbrace”. Other names for rum include Demon Water, Pirate’s Drink, Navy Neaters, Barbados Water, Grog, and Rumbullion.
Rum’s deceptively colourful concoction is determined by several factors – including the aging process, barrel type, filtration and the addition of cinnamon, caramel or other spices. It can vary in colour from virtually transparent to gold, brown and black! The aging process determines its colour. Oak cask aged rums become dark, whereas stainless steel aged rums remain virtually colourless.
Whether in Daiquiri, Hurricane, or Mojito form, the warming qualities of this spirit will melt your troubles before you can say “put it on my tab… and keep it open.” Like any beverage with a little fire in its belly, you should always drink responsibly. And on that inebriating note, we bid you adieu with these wise words, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of Rum!”
Did you find this blog interesting? Then we suggest you keep checking out our weekly updates – we’re always full of interesting facts and tidbits of information.