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The Spirited History of Rum - St. Croix, USVI

Rum has a very long and spirited history. While there are several precursors to rum that span the globe, it is generally accepted that rum was first distilled in the Caribbean in the early to mid-17th century. After its inception, rum became the drink of choice for a wide array of people from plantation slaves to pirates, colonial Americans to the Royal Navy, and even colonial Australians. Today, rum is enjoyed by the masses, and can be found on bar menus and market shelves worldwide. If you are here on St. Croix, visit our two rum distilleries to learn about the history of rum and sample the delicious spirit for yourself.

In its most basic form, rum is an alcoholic beverage made from molasses (or directly from sugarcane juice) by a process of fermentation and distillation. The British Caribbean island of Barbados and French Caribbean island of Martinique are considered to be the birthplaces of rum making back in the 17th century, but rum was produced on many of the Caribbean islands. Caribbean sugar plantations of the time produced an abundance of molasses, the byproduct of the process of making sugar. Sugar was produced by crushing sugar cane, boiling the sugarcane juice, and then leaving the boiled syrup to cure in clay pots. Then, the molasses would seep out of the pots leaving the sugar behind. While a popular cooking ingredient now, back then molasses was like industrial waste, and for every two pounds of sugar produced one pound of molasses resulted. Luckily, the resourceful plantation slaves discovered that molasses could be transformed into alcohol by mixing it with the liquid skimmed off of cane juice during its initial boiling, and then fermenting the mixture. This became the starting point for distillation and the resulting liquor became known as rum. 

History of Rum - Filling rum barrels on St. Croix by Allan Rinehart 1936

Filling rum barrels on St. Croix (photo by Allan Rinehart, 1936)

Aside from the British and French Caribbean, distillation of rum also spread to Europe and Latin America. The New England colonists also produced their own rum to cope with the many issues they encountered on the colonial frontier, most notably boredom, epidemic diseases, and an imbalanced ratio of men to women. The British Caribbean rum industry weakened drastically in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, due to the American Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade, slave emancipation, competition from European beet sugar industries, and the rise of whiskey drinking in the newly formed United States. Then, in the mid to late 19th century, the Spanish Caribbean began making rum, and Cuba emerged as one of the largest rum makers in the Caribbean. However, Cold War policies in the U.S. and the embargo resulting from the Cuban Revolution greatly benefited the rum producers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. 

The Spirited History of Rum - St. Croix, USVI

Sugarmill ruins and historic buildings of the Estate Diamond plantation are part of the Cruzan Rum distillery

Today, the majority of the world’s rum production still occurs in the Caribbean and Latin America, although rum is also produced worldwide in countries including: Austria, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Philippines, India, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, the U.S., and Canada. The U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix offers two well known distilleries, Cruzan Rum and Captain Morgan Rum (Diageo). The Cruzan Rum distillery was founded here on St. Croix in 1760 and is located on the grounds of the historic sugar plantation Estate Diamond. Talk about history, the Cruzan Rum distillery has been run by the Nelthropp family through eight generations – since the early 1800s. Originally distilled on Jamaica, then moved to Puerto Rico in the 1950s, Captain Morgan was acquired by Diageo in 2001 and a new state-of-the-art distillery was built and operating on St. Croix by 2012. Now visitors lucky enough to come to St. Croix can visit both distilleries!

Captain Morgan Visitor Center

Captain Morgan Visitor Center at the Diageo Distillery

Wherever it may have been produced, throughout its spirited history rum has been a party to the economy, history, politics, literature and more. Rum served as a popular means of economic trade in order to fund many enterprises (illegal and immoral as they may be) such as Triangle Trade slavery, organized crime, and military insurgencies including the American Revolution and Australia’s Rum Rebellion. In fact, the term “rum runners” was coined to describe those that illegally transported or smuggled alcoholic beverages in areas where such transportation was forbidden by law. This popular libation also has famous associations, such as its use by the Royal Navy in grog. Grog referred to a drink made from water mixed with rum, used to make stagnant water more palatable on long voyages. Invented by British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon when he commanded a naval squadron in the West Indies, Vernon’s 1740 order was that the daily issue of a half pint of rum be mixed with one quart of water and issued in two servings, one before noon and one after the end of the working day. This order became part of the official Royal Navy regulations in 1756, and lasted for more than two centuries!  Rum is also synonymous with pirates, hence Captain Morgan Rum being named after Sir Henry Morgan. Sir Henry Morgan started his career as an admiral in the Royal Navy, but made a name for himself as one of the most notorious and successful privateers and buccaneers in history, and one of the most ruthless among those active along the Caribbean’s Spanish Main.

The Spirited History of Rum - St. Croix, USVI

Illegal booze confiscated from rum runners | Royal Navy sailors getting their daily grog

Rum has come a long way since its invention, and is now produced in various grades and often aged in oak barrels prior to bottling to provide the flavor profile unique to each distillery. In addition to the well known light, dark, and flavored rums, aged and premium rums are also being produced by many distilleries for those with a more discerning palate. My personal favorite is the endless variety of flavored rums, which are perfect for making delicious and refreshing cocktails for the warm days on St. Croix. Both Cruzan and Captain Morgan make flavored rums, and their websites offer dozens of unique cocktail recipes to inspire you. However you enjoy your rum, the sweet flavor, and quintessential pairing of rum with tropical “umbrella” drinks makes rum the spirit of the Caribbean islands’ endless summers. 

– Jennie Ogden, Editor

 

 

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