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Ever wondered; what is rum made from? Dig into a world of Black tots, bottled currency, daily rations, rum punch and rum gunpowder. 

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Fun facts about rum

The world’s oldest spirit drink – what is rum made from?
The history of rum starts with sugarcane, which originates from Papua New Guinea, where it appeared around 4,000 years BC. The tradition of distilling rum as we know it today, however, comes from the Caribbean. The drink was first known as “kill-devil” or “rumbullion”. Since 1667 it has been known as “Rhum”, “Ron”, “Rum” in French, Spanish and English respectively.

Cheers to Columbus
It was Christopher Columbus who involuntarily became the ancestor of modern rum, when he discovered the West Indies on his second voyage in 1498. Columbus and his entourage brought, among other things, sugarcane and planted them on the islands. In doing so, they laid the foundation for the Caribbean rum adventure, which really took off in the 18th century.

A daily ration of rum
They say that you should never mix alcohol and water sports. But it was not always so. In the 18th century, life at sea was a harsh affair with hard work and many deprivations. Therefore, the daily ration of rum – a tot – was a bright spot. The ration was distributed at lunch and consisted of 0.7 dl rum with a minimum alcohol strength of 50%. The officers received their ration “neat”, i.e. undiluted. The privates got the same ration but diluted with two parts water – a so-called Grog. Serving rum also improved health on board, as it could counteract scurvy, which many sailors contracted due to the lack of vitamin C from fruit and vegetables.

Black Tot day
The daily rum ration was quite common practice in the Royal English Navy right up to the present day. But in 1970 it was banned when it was considered that the consumption of strong alcohol could lead to errors during work in the engine room. The ban was implemented on 31 July 1970 – also known as “Black Tot Day” – which is still marked in bars around the world with massive consumption of the golden drink.

Bottled currency
Throughout history, there are several examples of rum being used as a means of payment. Rum was easy to trade, easy to store and did not deteriorate over time. Sailors in the navy were paid part of their wages in rum. Rum was also used as a means of payment in the trade between the Americas, Africa and Europe. At the end of the 17th century, rum had become so popular that it replaced cognac as a form of payment. At the end of the 18th century, rum found its way to Australia, where the construction of larger buildings such as Sidney Hospital was paid for in rum. The problem was that the workers often drank the rum instead of buying goods for it. And that is probably also one of the reasons why we have switched to money today.

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Vintage drawing of man drinking rum in bed

Rum and gunpowder
The popularity of rum made fraud widespread. To make sure that the rum was not diluted, a simple test was invented. You poured rum on some gunpowder that you had on hand in the navy. If the gunpowder could ignite, it meant that the alcohol content was over 57% and the rum was proof or full-proof (= safe/guaranteed). In the USA, the term “Proof” is still used as an expression of alcohol strength in spirits. A rum that is 100 Proof has an alcohol strength of 50%. Rum which is even stronger, e.g. A.H. Riise Navy Frogman 60% is described as Over-Proof.

Rum punch – the start of cocktails
The drink “rum punch”, which appeared in the middle of the 17th century as West Indian rum came to Europe, is considered by many to be the forerunner of modern cocktails. The punch typically consisted of rum mixed with lemon or fruit juice and water – spiced with, for example, nutmeg. The drink was initially popular among artists, aristocrats and intellectuals and quickly became widespread as a party drink.

Rum on doctor’s orders
In the 19th century, rum was sold as a medicine at the pharmacy, e.g. from A.H. Riise’s Apothecary Hall on the West Indian island of St. Thomas. It is said that rum (in limited quantities) is good for blood pressure and prevents gallstones and diabetes. According to some studies, the consumption of rum can also lower the risk of a number of cancers. It was also common knowledge that rum had an antiseptic effect and could be used to clean wounds.

Rum as aftershave and perfume
Rum was wildly popular and had many uses. In the 19th century in the West Indies, rum was used to make aftershave/cologne – also called “Bay Rum”. One of the most successful producers was A.H. Riise, who combined his interest in botany with his knowledge of rum production. Bay rum contained extract from the leaves and berries of the West Indian Bay Tree (Pimenta racemosa), citrus or lime oil, clover and cinnamon. The aromas were released by adding rum, which also contributed to the perfumed scent. Rumor has it that “Bay Rum” with its alcohol percentage of more than 50% was not only used on the skin, but also drunk during the prohibition era in the USA in the 1930s.

Cure against hair loss
Many believed that rum also had rejuvenating properties and that it could cure ailments. The wonder remedy “Bay Rum”, which was produced at A.H. Riise’s Apothecary Hall from the mid-1800s, had a reputation for being able to counteract baldness and even make hair thicker. Today we know that might be an exaggeration. But it is a fact that excessive consumption of rum can give you a big head.


Vintage drawing of man drinking rum

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