From Sugarcane to Spirit: The Origins of Rum

Rum. Just say the word and it conjures fantastic images: Ernest Hemingway drinking in Cuba. Hunter S. Thompson sipping the colorless spirit straight as he wrote The Rum Diary in Puerto Rico. And, of course, pirates of folklore drunkenly sailing the Caribbean.

But does anyone know the history? Where did rum originate? And how did it become associated with beach bums, Jimmy Buffett fans, and college kids?

We have you covered. Not only will we go through rum’s history – we will tell you how to start taking it seriously as a high-quality spirit.


What is rum?

So, what is rum, besides the go-to drink of 17th-century seadogs and revolutionaries? We’ll get to that later. First, to appreciate the history of the spirit, you have to know what it is.

Rum is a liquor made from fermenting and distilling either sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. Yes, you read that correctly, rum is made from sugarcane, from which molasses is also made. Yeast and water are added to the molasses and allowed to ferment.

The quality of a rum is almost entirely dependent on the quality and variety of the sugarcane the distiller uses. So much can impact the quality of sugarcane, including soil type and climate. Much of the sugarcane molasses rum is made from comes from Brazil.

Once the sugarcane is fermented and distilled, it is aged in oak barrels, yielding golden or dark rum. Or it can be bottled and sold immediately as a light rum.


Where did rum originate?

The true origins of rum are unclear.

Yes, the word “rum” began popping up in the 1600s. Where that word came from is under discussion. It either came from the word rumbullion, meaning “a great tumult or uproar,” or it was named after a Dutch drinking vessel known as a rummer. Or it may have been derived from a combination of different words from different languages.

But the spirit was around long before people began calling it “rum.”

Sugar cane originated in Papua New Guinea but was cultivated in Asia, Africa, India and Spain.  So it is no surprise that an early version of rum dates back to ancient China, in which sugarcane juice was fermented to make a colorless spirit. But it wasn’t only made in ancient China. The Malay people fermented a drink they called brum, which was passed from generation to generation and believed to be thousands of years old.

From there, the spirit made its way through trade routes and spread from China to the Middle East. There, famous explorer Marco Polo noted a "very good wine of sugar" in modern-day Iran sometime in the 14th century. Slowly, rum crept across the world, but it really took off when it began to be produced in Brazil around 1620.


The Rum We Know and Love

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the spirit became anything we would consider to be rum today. Out of the sugarcane plantations across the Caribbean islands, rum (as we know it) was born into the world. Experts trace the origins of rum to the island of Barbados, a conquest that was part of the Portuguese effort to colonize what was called the New World. However, once rum got started in the Caribbean, there was no stopping it. Some say that it was difficult to find a plantation without a copper pot still. These were used to make the alcohol from the fermented remains of the sugarcane crop and molasses.

It was so popular that it became a part of what we now know as the Atlantic triangular trade: the route that defined an international trade in sugar, rum, and slaves. The profits from the sale of sugar to North Americans were used to purchase rum, among other goods, that was sold to European and African markets. The profits went to purchasing slaves, which were then sold in the Caribbean for sugar. And around and around it went until the 19th century.

Seamen in the British Navy loved rum, so much so that in 1731 the Navy Board made it an official daily ration. Each seaman was issued one pint of wine or half a pint of rum twice daily.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, rum integrated itself into the North American landscape, becoming a favorite of Americans. In fact, during Prohibition in the United States of America, those who ran illegal liquor were known as Rum Runners. And one of the more famous Rum Runners was a man named Bill McCoy. This is where the expression “the real McCoy” came to mean “genuine” – if a batch of alcohol was “the real McCoy,” then it was probably real rum.

Now, rum can be seen in almost every bar and is a staple during the summer months at parties and beach-side gatherings.

Want to know more about rum? Check out our ultimate guide to rum here.

Best Rums To Try

Did the history of rum get you craving it? We have the three best rums for you to try right now.

  1. Mount Gay Black Barrel -- $50

Directly from the birthplace of rum itself, this Barbados rum is aged for three to seven years, blended, and finished in heavily charred bourbon barrels. At 43 percent ABV, it tastes of gingerbread, vanilla, and toffee. Try it for the unofficial National Rum Punch Day this September.

  1. Barrell Rum “Tale of Two Islands” 8 Year -- $72

This easy sipper hails from Jamaica and tastes of smoke, tropical fruit, and grapefruit. This pot still rum is aged for eight years and finished in Islay whiskey barrels, giving it a unique, smoky flavor.

  1. Holmes Cay Barbados 2005 -- $80

A deep mahogany color, this rum is powerful with a fiery hint of spices that blends beautifully with a complex palate of toffee, orange zest, clove, and coffee. Made in Barbados, this is a small-batch rum that will have you wishing for more.

Want more suggestions? Check out our article on different kinds of rum here.

There you have it, a short history of the origin of rum. Have questions? Leave a comment below.