Rum, like the hangovers it can create, is a side-effect, a by-product: a by-product of the juice that comes from sugarcane. This, really, is one of the few definitive things you can say about the origins of rum.
Rum, for instance, may or may not have been invented by Portuguese colonists operating along the coast of Brazil, when they created a harsh sugarcane concoction later called cachaça, or, after all, rum may or may not have been invented by the early Spanish colonists who populated the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. Or rum may or may not have been invented in the early seventeenth century, on the pear-shaped island of Barbados. The origins of rum have, in short, been lost — swallowed up by the mists of historical time.
The word “rum,” likewise, may or may not come from the Latin saccharum, which is the Latin word for sugar, or, alternatively, the word “rum” may or may not have come from the British term for “the greatest” (“We had a rum of a time at Joan’s party!”), or, finally, the word rum may or may not have come from the Gypsy word rum, which means “potent and strong.”
We do know that by 1654 both the name and the product were in common usage — the General Court of Connecticut having officially ordered “confiscations of whatsoever Caribbean liquors, commonly called rum, kill devil and the like.”
It was in the early 1600’s that sugar-planters crushed up sugarcane and boiled the juice that was then cured in clay pots from which oozed a black and viscous liquid we now call molasses. This was in the 17th Century, mind you, and at that time molasses was actually regarded as what we now call “industrial waste.” But because the ingenuity of the human mind is limitless, an admixture was soon created whereby the liquid skimmed off the boiled cane juice was fermented and then added to this molasses by-product.
This process is the provenance of rum.
I’m not saying I’m going to, but I could persuasively argue that rum is the most quintessentially American spirit there is.
Some say bourbon, but rum predates bourbon by far, and the rumrunners paved the way for the bootleggers that were to come.
Look at America through the lens of rum and what do you see?
You see this:
A great gurgling vat of sugar-cane liquor — a melting pot, the only spirit you can get in white, brown, or black.
You see a four-century survivor, who rose up through the classes, who belongs to them all, who went from the streets to the state-room, from sweaty to sophisticated, from poverty and prison to preeminence and patrician, self-made, not rare but beautiful — street-handsome — swashbuckling, never, unlike bourbon, over-regulated, pretentious. Never, unlike gin, snooty or precious.
“Of all the spirits in your home,” wrote James Beard, in 1956, “rum is the most romantic.”