Rum, America’s First Spirit: An Often Overlooked History

More than likely, when you think about “the first spirit of America,” your mind probably turns to whiskey. While it is true that whiskey is an undisputed “American” liquor, it was not the FIRST to be produced in America. That distinction belongs to the sometimes overlooked rum.

The history of rum in America dates back to the early to mid-17th century. It was estimated that American colonists, on average, drank close to three gallons of rum per year. Rum was such a prevalent part of the early Americans’ lives that few realize it was a prominent cause of the American Revolution. Read on and see how rum is actually a big part of the American story.

Though the drink’s popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries, rum is deeply rooted in American history. And that history is almost as rich and robust as the drink itself. Read on and see how rum is actually a big part of the American story.

Coming to America

Though deeply steeped in American history, rum did not originate in the states, nor did all of the necessary ingredients for the spirit come from America.

While rum’s origins are not completely clear, it is thought that the earliest form of the spirit can be traced back to the 7th century. In the 17th century, people in the Caribbean started to distill rum to answer the question of what to do with the leftover molasses produced after the sugar cane purification process. That molasses was then exported to the states, where it was used as the base for rum.

The spirit’s popularity took off like wildfire.

Yo Ho Ho and Lots of Bottles of Rum

The rum business was booming in America by the end of the 17th century. The first distillery was opened in Staten Island, New York, in 1664, and it was not long until these spirit factories could be found in Boston, MA, and Newport, RI. Not long after, rum producers would have the largest and most prosperous industry in the colonies. By 1750, these three towns alone boasted over 110 distilleries.

The bustling rum business gave way to other offshoot industries necessary to produce the spirit. Some of these newly-created industries were:

  • Shipbuilding, which was necessary for the transportation of imported materials to produce and export the final product.
  • Logging and ironworking which were needed to build the ships necessary for transportation.
  • Cooperage was needed to age and transport the rum.

This rise in industry, and the fact that colonists were making money hand over fist made England pause and analyze the situation at hand.

They could not let it stand.

The Tax Man Cometh

During Colonial times, rum was a hot commodity. It was not only used to rouse the spirits of the colonists, it was also used as a form of currency used to purchase goods, services, and even slaves.

Because the rum trade gave the colonists so much buying power, England felt the need to impose different acts and taxes so they could, in essence, keep the colonists “in their lane.”

The English Navigation Act was one of the first restrictions placed on the colonists. This act prohibited Americans from sourcing molasses from any place other than England. In response to that, the crafty colonists smuggled in molasses from their customary, less expensive sources.

The next failed attempt at squelching good ol’ American ingenuity came in 1733 in the form of the Molasses Act. Again, Americans refused to adhere to British law, and smuggling ships into their ports became even more prevalent. In 1735, Britans should have been able to collect over 25,000 pounds in taxes, but they only netted just over 250 pounds.

Not to be deterred, the Brits imposed an even harsher tax in 1764 when they passed the Sugar Act. While this act actually lowered the tax on molasses, it gave the British Royal Navy the right to halt any smuggling ships entering the colonies and allowed them to seize half of whatever they confiscated.

This was one of the final straws for Americans, and it is believed that the imposition of the Sugar Act was a significant cause of the American Revolution.

But Why Was the Rum Gone?

In addition to the harshness of the Sugar Act making it much more difficult for Americans to procure the necessary ingredients to produce rum, there was another factor that contributed to its decline in popularity in America: patriotism.

In an effort to support domestic merchants, consumers and patriots realized that whiskey could be made from homegrown ingredients. It was just as inexpensive and potent as rum. This led to the decline of rum and the rise of whiskey in America.

Rum, America’s First Spirit

Though rum has had a resurgence in popularity since the mid-20th century thanks to the fun cocktails it is used in, it still takes a backseat to whiskey in terms of grandeur.

Yet, when we look back at the spirit’s long, rich past, we can see that rum holds a place in American history that no other alcohol can hold a candle to, regardless of its current status.

Rum is a robust drink that represents the people who distilled it in the fledging years of this great nation. Without rum, who knows if America would be here today?

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Rum, America’s First Spirit: An Often Overlooked History