The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol and so the wonderful journey of rum began.
Sales of this wonderful liquor to the British Navy not only brought extra revenue but more importantly, it attracted a naval presence that deterred pirates lurking in the area. In 1655 Admiral Penn of the British fleet captured Jamaica from the Spanish and authorized the locally made sugar-cane spirit to replace the official beer ration. When he sailed from Jamaica he found that the rum had the natural advantage of remaining sweet in the cask for very much longer than water or beer.
However, it was not until 1731 that the Navy Board were persuaded to make the official daily ration, one pint of wine or half a pint of rum, to be issued neat (at 80% vol.) in two equal amounts daily. Every man would be entitled to the ration each day, plus a gallon of beer if he wanted it. It was a right and prized privilege that shielded him from the squalor and brutality of life on the ocean waves.
In 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon claimed, ‘the vice of drunkenness is but too visibly increasing in our mariners’ and secured the change of ration to a reduction of a quart of water to every half pint of rum. Because of the unusual grogram material of his naval cloak, he was known as ‘Old Grog’. Hence when the lower strength ration was enforced it was referred to as ‘Grog’. Vernon suggested the addition of limes and sugar to make the drink more palatable, which led to grog mixed with lime juice being known as ‘limey’. Americans calling British people ‘limeys’ derives from this.
The drunkenness was, later, reduced by the drinking of tea and cocoa, however, it was still a threat to naval efficiency so in 1850 the rum ration was fixed at an eighth of a pint, until it was abolished in 1970. The last Navy issue took place on 31 July 1970 known as ‘Black Tot Day’. The first Sea Lord pointed out that, ‘a large tot in the middle of the day was not the best medicine for those who had to handle the Navy’s electronic mysteries’.
Many other naval stories abound including that of Bill McCoy. During the Prohibition Era in the USA, those who tried to make the new law unworkable by running in the forbidden liquor were known as Rum Runners. The most famous being Bill McCoy ‘the real McCoy’, to mean the genuine article.
Rum now has a much more respectable image. Light white rums are mixed with many different fruit juices to create exotic cocktails and along with dark rums drunk with coca –cola and similar additives.
Dedicated rum bars are becoming more popular and the real discerning customer realizes that high quality premium rum sits with the very best of spirits.