07/25/07 - rum

In today's excerpt - rum. Unable to make beer or wine of any quality, the early colonists stumble upon a new drink which some authors regard as the drink that built America:

"Amid [the New World] hardship, securing a reliable supply of alcohol assumed great importance. ... When a third English colony was established, in Massachusetts, the settlers made sure they brought plenty of beer. In 1628, the ship Arbella, which carried the leader of the Puritan colonists, John Winthrop, had among its provisions '42 Tonnes of Beere' or about ten thousand gallons.

"Owing to the harsh climate, European cereal crops, which could be used to make beer, were very difficult to cultivate. Rather than rely on imported beer from England, the settlers tried to make their own from corn, spruce tips, twigs, maple sap, pumpkins and apple pairings. ... The colonists [also] tried to introduce European vines, but their efforts failed due to the climate, disease and, since they were from northern Europe, lack of wine-making experience. They tried to make wine from local grapes instead, but the result was revolting. ...

"Everything changed in the second half of the seventeenth century, however, when rum became available. It was far cheaper than brandy, since it was made from leftover molasses rather than expensive wine, and did not have to be shipped across the Atlantic. ... Rum was stronger too ... [and] quickly established itself as the North American colonists' favorite drink.

"From the late seventeenth century, rum formed the basis of a thriving industry, as New England merchants—primarily in Salem, Newport, Medford and Boston—began to import raw molasses rather than rum and do the distilling themselves. ... In 1733 ... rum accounted for 80 percent of [New England's] exports ... [and] was being consumed at a rate of nearly four American gallons per year for every man, woman and child in the colonies. ... In addition to selling rum for local consumption, the New England distillers found a ready market among slave traders, for whom rum had become the preferred form of alcoholic currency with which to purchase slaves on Africa's west coast. ...

"It played an important role in election campaigns: When George Washington ran for election to Virginia's local assembly, the House of Burgesses, in 1758, his campaign team handed out twenty-eight gallons of rum, fifty gallons of rum punch, thirty-four of wine, forty-six of beer and two of cider—in a county with only 391 voters."


Tom Standage


A History of the World in Six Glasses


Random House


Copyright 2005 by Tom Standage


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