Rum’s origin lies in the 17th century Caribbean Islands.  The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations, located on the island of Barbados.  Slaves from the plantations discovered that by fermenting molasses, a byproduct of refining sugarcane, they could create alcohol.  Then by distilling this alcoholic drink, they could create a concentrated and purer spirit.  This is how modern rum was first created.

After the development of rum in the Caribbean islands, it quickly spread throughout the American Colonies.  The very first rum distillery was established on Staten Island in 1664.  This was the beginning of a very popular and prosperous industry for New England.  Rum from Rhode Island was even accepted as a currency within European trading networks.

The popularity of rum continued to grow exponentially after the war.  George Washington even required a barrel of rum from Barbados for his 1789 inauguration into the presidency. 

How to Make Rum:

Okay, before we get started here, remember that Federal law states that it is legal to own a still of any size. … However, be advised it is illegal to distill alcohol without having either a “distilled spirits permit” or a “federal fuel alcohol permit.” It does not matter if the alcohol is for personal use only or for sale.  What is presented here is not recommended.  The Colonial Brewer only does this under an authorization for chemical research.  We are discussing history and research into history.

Start with Sugar or unsulfured Molasses.  Modern sulphured molasses has been treated with sulphur dioxide that acts as a preservative.  Sulphuring process can leave the molasses with a chemical flavor.  A good historically correct substitution for molasses is turbinado sugar

Place your brew pot on its heat source and fill with 5.5 gallons of water.  Heat water to ~125 °F.

Dissolve 10 lbs of molasses or turbinado into the water.  This may require extensive stirring and some time.  It is important to fully dissolve all the sugar before proceeding. Allow to cool until the temperature drops to about 80 °F. This process can take several hours on its own, but can be sped up significantly with the use of an immersion cooler.  Add yeast and place in a fermentation vessel and ferment as you would beer for two weeks or until there is no gas coming out of the air-lock.  Then rack this “beer” into your still being careful to not carry over any particulate matter.

That rum wash currently contains many undesirable alcohols, esters, and ketones.  When we make beer, this is a trivial issue because they are very dilute but when we concentrate our spirits through distillation, we must take extreme care that these are removed. This process of distilling the fermented rum “beer” or wash will make for a purer and more concentrated spirit.  This step separates out all of the undesirable types alcohols such as acetaldehyde, acetone and methanol.

It’s now time to fire up that pot still! Distillers frequently run through multiple sequential distillations in order to make purer (though less flavored) alcohol.  This is where you see the notations “XX” or “XXX” referring to spirits that have been distilled 2x or 3x.  In each distillation, the distiller will separate their product into heads, hearts and tails.  The lighter contaminants come off in the “heads” and are discarded, the “hearts” are the portion of rum that includes ethyl alcohol which we keep, and the tails are the heavy contaminants like acetaldehyde which remains in the still at the end of the distillation.

In a time before the widespread availability of thermometers, distillation required a very sensitive nose.  Distillers would periodically smell the product coming off the condenser arm of the still and assess if they were pungent ketones, sweet alcohols, or acrid acetaldehydes.  This is a very inexact process but multiple distillations and aggressive “cuts” allowed them to distill reasonably pure 60-80 proof rum.

Tied up with the unsavory market of the infamous Triangle Trade, the production of New England rum a key element in the rebellion against the Crown.  Colonists in places like Boston ran a very profitable business in taking Caribbean sugar and molasses distilling rum.  It is estimated that at the peak of its popularity, colonials supposedly consumed more than 5 gallons of rum per person each year, paying mere shillings per gallon.

Threatened by this new line of economic independence, the British Parliament imposed a tax of six-pence per gallon on imported molasses, an act that ruffled feathers decades before the Sugar and Tea Acts were ever drafted. Throughout the area, bans and legal measures were passed to limit or halt distillation, but New England’s thirst proved more powerful than the law.  Colonists, like John Hancock, began to subvert the tax system as rum runners and smugglers. 

While we celebrate the anti-taxation protests of people like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, it’s also important to remember the dark side of the rum trade.  The Triangle Trade routes refers to the engine that drove British Commerce in the 18th Century.  Manufactured goods would be shipped to colonies in Africa and traded for slaves, these slaves were then shipped to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations.  Sugar from the Caribbean was shipped to New England and distilled into rum then that rum was traded for more manufactured goods.  So, when you see “NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION,” what you are really seeing is a call to exploit slaves and subjugate others for the economic benefit of manufacturers and bankers. 

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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