The Molasses mixing with blood next to a rum and coke cocktail. The dark history of sugar.

The Ways of Rum and Sugarcane: A Brief Controversial History

Sugarcane, rum and the chains of slavery in the West Indies
Sugarcane, rum and the chains of slavery in the West Indies

The origin story of rum would not be complete without shedding light on the controversial history of sugar and molasses. Sugar, or what the British called “white gold,” was the cash crop that made the empires of Europe and their New World colonies, including the United States, the wealthy nations they are today.  Here’s a brief history of rum and its origins from sugarcane.  


Sugarcane  Origin Story  Pirates  American Revolution  Bacardi Family


It started with a sugar fix.

Europeans were hooked on sugar centuries before rum came along. To be fair, the most likely culprit were those delicious pastries dating back to the 14th century, but gastronomically speaking there was no turning back. 


Sugar was an addiction that would propel Europe’s violent quest for more centuries later. Ultimately, turning to the open seas to lay claim to tropical islands and distant continents that were suitable for sugar cane cultivation and production.  


The rise of every nation in the Caribbean Islands, most of South America, and parts of the southern United States can all trace their economic expansion to the demand for sugar. 


Things about rum’s history that might surprise you…

More sugar is produced in Brazil than anywhere else in the world.

Sugar cane field
Brazilian Sugar cane field

Sugarcane is not native to the Americas or the Caribbean. Sugar cane seeds from the genus Saccharum were brought to the New World on the voyage of Christopher Columbus, where it grew well on the warm tropical island of Hispaniola. The island now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti.


By the mid 16th-century, the Portuguese had brought seeds to Brazil and before long the cultivation of white gold spread to the colonized Caribbean islands of Britain, the Netherlands, France and Spain.

The way of making rum from sugar occurs in the refining process. The dark molasses is separated – with additives helping to create refined sugar's white appearance.

Refined sugar in pouches, bowls, cubes and spoons

After removing the crystalline sugar from the cane juice, molasses is what remains. A dark viscous liquid that contains around to 40 to 50% of fermentable sugar.

Pouring black molasses
Pouring black molasses

Molasses is used in the production of most rums, with the exception of French rums made from sugar cane juice.


For the ways of making rum, a mixture consisting of molasses (or sugar cane juice) is combined with water to create the mash. The mash is fermented until an alcohol concentration of 4 % to 5 % has formed. The mixture is then distilled. Aging is not required, but rum is often rested in oak barrels for months, or even years, depending on the style.


Rhum with an ‘h’ can be best described as the distilled spirit made from fermenting and distilling sugarcane juice. But it is more commonly made from molasses.

The Molasses mixing with blood next to a rum and coke cocktail. The dark history of sugar.
Rum's not-so-secret cultivation and manufacturing was founded on chattel slavery.


Labor Practices

After gaining a dubious reputation for rotting teeth, sugar consumption fell into decline. But in a cruel twist, enslaved workers would unwittingly enrich sugar barons and their overseers even more with their new discovery. 


As rum became more popular, it required more slaves to meet demand and the cycle continued for another century. The ways of making rum would further solidify the Western world’s dependence on slave labor.


Sugar plantations acted as both farm and factory, with enslaved men, women and children working nonstop in the tropical heat to keep pace. Making rum was dangerous business: slaves on sugar cane plantations lived only twenty years on average, losing hands and limbs in the process.


slave working on sugarcane plantation
slave working on sugarcane plantation

The origin story begins on Caribbean island sugarcane plantations where it is believed slaves discovered that leftover molasses could be fermented and distilled into liquor. Not so surprising when you consider that many soul food and creole dishes were invented from leftover rice crop grown on plantations. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.


The Early History of Rum


Barbados was the first English-Caribbean island to successfully produce sugar for commerce, so it follows that many historians believe rum was first discovered there. In 1651, a Barbados document read:


“The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias ‘Kill-Devil’, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”


There is more than one story for the origin for rum. The Portuguese version claims that rum was first produced in Brazil as far back as 1620s and another links evidence of alcohol made from fermented sugarcane back to 14th Century Europe, India and China. One more intriguing possibility is rum having its origins in the Canary Islands; where the sugar cane plantation system was first devised and exported to the Caribbean islands a half century later.


Rumbullion would eventually be shortened to rum, and by the late 17th century rum would replace French brandy as the preferred medium-of-exchange in the triangular trade. A new illicit state-sponsored and freelance business also emerged called piracy.

There’s no party like a pirate party! The Sea Dogs were originally a military branch authorized by Queen Elizabeth I to attack the Spanish fleet to loot ships and bring back treasure. England lacked a formal navy strong enough to defeat Spain, so the Sea Dogs served as a way to attack Spanish ships during what was technically considered peacetime. And liquid courage was on full display.


The Sea Dogs 

Sea Dogs and the British Navy received part of their pay in beer, and when that ran out they turned to rum. The Sea Dogs continued to carry out raids against the Spanish until 1604, when England and Spain made peace. After that, many of the Sea Dogs continued their exploits as pirates.

The British Explorer, Sir Francis Drake was one of the most profitable and successful Sea Dogs of all time.

The Explorer Francis Drake was a Sea Dog for Queen Elizabeth
The Explorer Francis Drake was a Sea Dog for Queen Elizabeth

Piracy on the High Seas

The pirates of the Caribbean were real. A loose band of bandits made up of former navy men, explorers and misfits that grew tired of working to enrich kings and queens. They maintained side-hustles that involved pillaging and looting Caribbean sea merchants to make ends meet. Their names are now celebrated and loom larger then life, with at least one distillery riding a pirate’s coattails to great success.

Sir Henry Morgan also known as Captain Morgan
Captain Morgan Rum is named after the 17th century Welsh  privateer, Sir Henry Morgan

Living off the rum and riches commandeered on the high seas had to be far more gratifying than having no time off and making meager wages. Needless to say, living free on the high seas often meant a much shorter life, but for some it must have been way worth it.


Rum and The American Revolution

The American Revolution and the fight for independence was literally and figuratively a saga about rum, sugar and tea. Rum was stronger and cheaper – from all that free labor! – and it posed a direct threat to France’s beloved French Cognac Brandy profits. 


To put an end to the competition posed by the sugar islands, France moved to ban the production of rum across their colonies. American colonists seized on the opportunity to buy cut-rate sugar cane from desperate French sugar plantations and reaped great profits. 


The marriage of convenience between the American colonies and the French sugar islands led to the rise of rum production in America and the first rum distillery opening on Staten Island in 1664. But it would not last long.


British rum producers were not happy, which led stricter enforcement of the Sugar Act of 1764 and ultimately to America’s war for independence.

Some historians argue, that if the British were not out suppressing slave revolts, fending off pirates or skirmishing with rival empires in the Caribbean islands, the American Revolution may gone much different.

On his inauguration in 1789, George Washington celebrated the sweet taste of victory with a barrel of the finest Barbados Rum.

George Washington celebrating victory with Barbados Rum

During the 19th century, further restrictions on sugar imports into the United States, the end of chattel slavery, poor cultivation practices, and the development of American whiskey made from grain –– all led to rum’s decline in popularity in America. But the quality of rum continued to improve. 

The Difference Between rum and rhum

A rum’s stature is determined by the quality and uniqueness of the base ingredient. One key distinction between the British-Caribbean style spelled r-u-m and the French-Caribbean island style spelled r-h-u-m is the French version uses sugar cane juice, while the British use molasses.


It should be noted that sugar cane juice has more available sugars and ferments easily, whereas molasses must be mixed with water to ferment. Rhum agricole tends to be more expensive because it is distilled from the more coveted sugarcane juice, not the molasses tailings from sugar refining.

Rhum agricole is the French term for rum that is distilled from freshly squeezed sugarcane juice rather than molasses.

sugarcane juice pitcher with stalks

Rum matures at a much higher rate than is typical for whisky or brandy due to tropical weather conditions and it also experiences a higher rate of evaporation known as the Angel’s Share. While products aged in France or Scotland see about 2% loss each year, tropical rum producers may experience as much as 10%. After aging, rum is often blended to ensure a consistent flavor and is usually the final step in the rum-making process.


The types of Rum

The grades and variation used to describe the type of rum are decided by the country of origin. Unlike many other types of distilled spirits, rum has no defined production methods or AOC. Instead, rum production is based on traditional styles that vary between locations and distillers. The only rule of thumb is that rum must be made from sugar cane.

Rums are classified by their color: light, gold or dark, with darker rums having more flavor from barrel aging and by adding additional herbs and spices.


In the 20th century, rum’s biggest story was the Bacardi family’s exile from Cuba that occurred when Fidel Castro confiscated their rum distilleries in 1960. The family set up facilities in Puerto Rico where it is now headquartered, and today Bacardi is by far the most poplar rum brand in the United States.

The Bacardi family fled Cuba to exile in Puerto Rico. Was this the inspiration for the classic drink, The Cuba Libre? Probably not.

During the 19th century, due to the restrictions on sugar imports into the US, the abolition of slavery and the development of American whiskey from grain, rum waned in popularity in America. But the quality of rum as a whole has continued to improve.


Learning the ways of rum and sugarcane might make some rum aficionados feel  uncomfortable––maybe even unpalatable––but remaining blissfully unaware is no longer an option. 


In many ways, learning the truth about rum spirits gives it more meaning and value. The demise of the Caribbean sugarcane industry has left molasses in short supply, forcing island rum producers to import sugarcane to meet demand. But on a positive note, craft producers are returning to growing their own local sugar cane.


Maybe Columbus had no idea where he was when he landed, or maybe he was just lazy when he named the islands of the Caribs, Arawak and Taino people the West Indies. We certainly know he was no where near India! But he did do one thing right: if it weren’t for Columbus dropping sugar cane seeds in the terroir of Hispaniola island, we may have never known the taste of this legendary spirit.


A few things are certain, the island natives suffered complete genocide at hands of European colonial powers and the tragic souls brought there as slaves were anything but lazy. Pour one out for all who gave their blood, sweat and tears to bring the world rum. Cheers to them!



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