George Washington samples some rum.

For centuries, rum has been a warming folk remedy for colds, flu—and indeed cold itself. As the winter solstice approaches in its various festival forms, one worldwide constant is the need for rum to bring a little tropical warmth into the winter. In places like the Caribbean, India, and Australia a solid rum-drinking tradition ensures that the amber nectar is savored year-around, but in colder climes, rum in eggnogs, Christmas cakes and puddings, mince pies and of course just rum in tots, are traditional accoutrements for the holiday season.

Rum is the world’s biggest selling spirit—and both the European Union and the United States define it as any drink distilled from sugar cane products, so Brazilian cachaca is rum whether the Brazilians like it or not. (And they do tend to like it, whatever it’s called.) While a certain formerly Cuban transnational corporation is, despite its bland tastelessness, the biggest brand, India’s “Old Monk” and the Philippines’ “Tanduay” are next up there. From Cuba’s “Havana Club” to Barbadian “Mount Gay,” “Guyanese ElDorado,” and Jamaica’s “Appleton,” rum offers a range of experiences for guzzlers to gourmets, from those best drunk in cocktails to those best savored sip by sip.

Not So Useless Byproduct

Most rums are made from the molasses left over when the white sugar is crystallized out, and one of its original attractions was that it used an otherwise useless byproduct instead of competing for scarce food grains—as whiskey did for example. The American colonies banned whiskey distillation because it drove up the price of grain and hence bread. And when that happened, old Anglo Saxon tradition was that you rioted and knocked the Town Hall down until the authorities did something about it.

On current evidence, Barbados is the place where nascent Northern technology and tropical agriculture combined to bring about the distillation of spirits of unsurpassed strength and in unsurpassed quantities. The Caribbean was a great melting pot for cultures and for a brief period in the seventeenth century, Barbados was at their focus.

The Portuguese in Brazil had brought sugar-growing from the Arabs in the Mediterranean. The Dutch and the Portuguese Jewish refugees had brought milling and trading skills. And one can only suspect that among the prisoners and indentured servants sent from Britain were some Irish or Scottish exiles who were familiar with the new technology of the still.

Hot Hellish Liquor

People knew that the molasses left behind by sugar refining fermented easily, but only the bold risked drinking it. It continues fermenting in the stomach, according to some who’ve tried. However, put it through a still and you had a potent and palatable drink. They called it Kill-Devil, or rumbullion, “a hot, hellish liquor,”—and they loved it.

Rum was born.

Soon, they discovered that storing it in oak barrels did wonders for the palatability. Killdevil became rum or “Barbadoes Water” and was in demand across the Atlantic World, until in Jamaica, they discovered that if you redistilled the liquor, it was still hot, but a little less hellish.

It soon spread. New Englanders made rum from contraband molasses that they smuggled from the French colonies, where Paris forbad distillation, in case it competed with Cognac. The enterprising Yankees drank a lot of it, and as Benjamin Franklin boasted, used what was left to help ethnically cleanse the Indian tribes to the West and to trade for slaves in West Africa.

They did so initially under the protection of the British Royal Navy, which won its wars with the French through the period not least because the British national debt was underwritten with the profits of the Caribbean sugar and rum trade. The British Navy was also fuelled more directly by rum. For hundreds of years, every British sailor had a daily ration of a pint of overproof rum.

Revolution Over Taxation

After defeating the French, the Royal Navy turned to defeating American smugglers who had been busily trading with the enemy, and the American Revolution began. The British felt that the American colonists should make a financial contribution to the biggest national debt hitherto that they had run up clearing the French threat from Canada. American colonists were as averse to taxation as some of their descendents. The revolution was about taxation, not representation—and it was not about tea but molasses and rum. In fact, the core problem was American resentment of military policing of civilians. This was two centuries before the White House reintroduced the concept after 9-11 of course.

Throughout the 18th century, the Caribbean was the equivalent of the modern Persian Gulf. The great powers went there to fight their wars over the liquid energy and liquid capital of the islands. France, Britain, and others sacrificed untold hundreds of thousands of white indentured laborers, African slaves, soldiers, and sailors on the altar of sugar and rum.

Not that it did him much good, but Napoleon devalued Britain’s Caribbean empire while losing most of the important battles. In 1811, Benjamin Delessert had a pilot plant working with Spanish POWs who were experienced in sugar refining, when the emperor turned up, with a troop of horse guards, pinned a Legion D’Honneur on his chest, and ordered the wholesale expansion of sugar beet production.

Within a few decades, beet sugar and the anti-slavery movement had converted the Caribbean from being the engine of North Atlantic economic and military power to a backwater of empire and they have never really recovered.

Bacardi and Revolutionaries

The English-speaking islands had lost American markets to the new whiskey distilleries that Western grain made possible, and the French and Spanish colonies were finally allowed to make rum themselves. Even so, Jamaica rum was the standard until the 20th century and it was Jamaican distillers who moved to Cuba who probably founded the original Bacardi distillery.

Bacardi won prizes from the Spanish Court for its rum, credited with bringing young King Alfonso of Spain back from death’s door with a tot of the family specialty in 1892. Bacardi was revolutionary in many ways.

Even as it saved the royal life, the family supported the Cuban revolutionaries against Spain, and later supported Fidel Castro and the guerrillas against Batista. The Bacardi clan even provided members of Castro’s first trade delegation to the United States. And then he nationalized them and they took it personally—very personally. They have been fighting on every level ever since, especially politically in the United States.

Bacardi boss Juan Pépin Bosch brought a touch of the old connection between buccaneering and rum back to life in 1961 by buying a surplus U.S. Air Force B-26 Marauder medium bomber, to bomb a Cuban oil refinery. Later he was the money behind a plot to assassinate Castro.

In fact, the Castro takeover had not fatally wounded the company, which had already become one of the first trans-nationals. From 1955, Bacardi was headquartered in the Bahamas, getting British Empire tariff preferences, and from the 1930s its major distillery was in Puerto Rico to get access to the American market that it had cornered during Prohibition, when it was the rumrunner’s favorite product.

Evil Empire

Bacardi has been the evil empire to the other smaller Caribbean rum producers. It works to keep them out of markets as fervently if they were all Castroite allies. On some islands you cannot get the local rum in the hotel bars, because Bacardi has bought the concession.

The Caribbean islands that once fuelled world wars and industrial revolutions are now almost entirely dependent on tourism for their economic survival. First President Bill Clinton took them to the World Trade Organization to remove preferential access to Europe for their bananas. The Drug Enforcement Agency takes strong measures against another traditional island recreational crop, and in the face of protected EU and U.S. sugar substitutes, their sugar cane fields are being leveled to make golf courses for gringos.

But tourism and rum could go together. The region’s Rum producers should be selling more than a drink—they should be selling a concept, a life style. As Johnny Depp exulted, staggering round his desert island in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “Rum, sand, and sun! It’s the Caribbean!”

And almost every shot you down will help development. Sugar cane only grows in the tropical zone, which as it happens, is mostly underdeveloped in the modern world. Selling high value-added branded spirits on the world market makes much more sense than trying to compete with cane sugar in a market where the EU protects sugar beet farmers and the United States looks after the double interests of Cuban exile sugar plantation owners in Florida, and Archer Daniels Midlands’ high fructose corn syrup, made from maize.

Pathetic Substitutes

These pathetic substitutes need high tariff protection and subsidies because there is nothing as efficient as cane for producing sugar and energy—and hence rum. As a result, as Fidel Castro discovered, mass marketing high-value added Havana Club rum across the world produces far more revenue than bags of sugar in the supermarkets.

Somehow, the Caricom island rum producers have to overcome their insularity. Just as the island governments have been selling the Caribbean as a concept, they should be boosting Caribbean rum as the distilled essence of the islands, whose every sip in the cold of winter evokes happy memories of sultry tropics, and an altogether better and more relaxed life style. They should be keeping their sugar plantations because, not only can they produce gasohol like Brazil, they can produce rum and attract tourists to watch it being cooked up.

Trade Spats

Caribbean Rum distillers have millions of potential customers coming into their territories who can take their acquired tastes back with them to the bars of London and New York. They have expatriates in their millions who can guarantee exporters a market. So far, whatever dents there have been on the Bacardi empire have come from major international spirits acquiring distribution rights for island products. The biggest success story is Pernod Ricard’s partnership with Havana Club. That old Bacardi magic in Washington ensures that they cannot sell it in the United States and indeed the dispute over the trademark has almost provoked trade wars between the EU and United States.

However, it takes more than variations on “Old” and “Aged,” on the bottles to build a brand. Discerning and affluent consumers want to see precise ages and they want a back-story for their bottle. And what a back-story rum has. It can beat any other drink with four centuries of Caribbean history to call on. Rum launched revolutions, slave rebellions, and fuelled wars on land and on sea. Its devotees include pirates, sailors, soldiers and admirals, planters and field hands, rum shops and chic bars.

Every rum bottle on every cold northern bar shelf should be a spirited ambassador for Caribbean tourism. Vodka, whose sales are booming world wide with heavy advertising, is just a dull spirit, literally ethanol and water. But rum, in its infinite flavorsome variety, is the true global spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean.

Ian Williams is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor (www.fpif.org) and the author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation Books, hardback 2005, and paperback 2006). This article is specially written for FPIF in aid of development and merrymaking.

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