Rum – The Spirit of the Cane

It may have seemed like the Promised Land to early European emigrants. 

Sapphire skies, turquoise seas, rich soil, a virgin land- scape. It was most certainly was a new frontier, brimming with financial potential. The European powers who followed the Spanish to this economic cornucopia during the 1600s saw sugar cane as the source of untold riches.

The monetary paradise that was Cuba was soon outstripped by the sugar plantations that cropped up on Barbados, Jamaica, the French Antilles, and in Brazil. Wine and beer spoiled on the long transatlantic ocean voyage. Brandy was far too expensive to import. Colonists resorted to producing their own alcoholic beverages. These settlers were familiar with arrack, a southeast Asian distillate made from sugar cane juice, red rice, or coconut flowers that was imported to Europe by Arab and Genoese merchants as far back as the Crusades.

The technology was already perfected in Europe during the 1300s based on earlier Arab alchemical studies and made accessible to a wide audience thanks to the invention, during the 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type printing press. Thus, the settlers imported their own distillation equipment and instruction manuals to the New World so they could produce not only their own spirits but essential medicines.

Demand for a non-imported and thus less expensive spirit led to the rapid development of domestic alcohol production in all of the New World colonies. With each step sugar cane played a dominant role.

sugar brandy is born

Spanish settlers in Santiago de Tequila, Mexico succeeded, in 1531, in distilling the juice of the native Agave tequilana plant and blending it with sugar cane-based spirit to make mixto. 

According to historian Marcelo Cámara, five Portuguese colonists in Brazil established three sugar mills around the same time: São Jorge dos Erasmos, Madre de Deus, and São João. In addition to sugar pro- cessing equipment, the partners—Martim Afonso de Sousa, Pero Lopes de Sousa, Francisco Lobo, Vicente Gonçalves, and Erasmo Sheetz of Antwerp— installed copper alembic stills, in 1533, at São Jorge dos Erasmos to produce an aguardente de caña [cane brandy] from guarapa azeda [sugar cane wine].

Today, this site is a national monument supervised by the University of São Paulo, since 1958, containing the ruins of Brazil’s first cachaça distillery.

Fifty-two years later, success was apparent. Brazil boasted 192 established distilleries. Spanish settlers in Cuba experimented with distilling black treacle (aka: molasses) which is the uncrystallised residue that results from the sugar production process. They succeeded at Guayacan, Cuba, in 1598, and named the spirit aguardiente de caña [cane brandy].

The Dutch West India Company, chartered in 1621, was largely responsible for the development of the “sugar brandy” industry throughout the Caribbean colonies. Brazil became the world’s largest sugar producer and exporter after the company captured northeastern Brazil, in 1630, and held jurisdiction over the territory until, in 1654, it capitulated to the Portuguese Crown.

The British settled, in 1627, on the island of Barbados. According to some historical sources, in 1637, Dutch émigré Pieter Blower imported cane seedlings and distillery equipment to the new British colony from Brazil, encouraging the distillation of molasses to ex- tend the value of the sugar cane harvests. A traveler to the island Henry Colt noted that Barbadians were “devourers upp of hott waters [sic] and such named good distillers thereof.”

French settlers, on 15 September 1635, landed on the island of Martinique to colonise the territory under the banner of the Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique which was chartered by Cardinal Richelieu and led by Pierre Bélain d’Esnambuc. However, the sugar and distilling industries were absent until 1644, when the Dutch Jewish émigré Benjamin Da Costa introduced sugar processing and possi- bly distillation equipment from Brazil, following in Blower’s foot- steps.

Cuban planters also experimented with sugar distillates. Author Miguel Bonera Miranda uncovered an early mention of Cuban aguardiente de caña distillation, dating from 1643, in which alder- man Álvaro de Luces stated in a meeting that: “in almost all the sugar mills they make aguardiente de cachaza and in others aguardiente de caña …which they sell in their bars.”

The North American mainland was another landmass that was ripe for settlement and the establishment of a new industry. Es- caping both religious and political persecution in their homeland, Brownist English Dissenters (aka: the Pilgrim Fathers) arrived at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1620, on board the Mayflower. The Dutch settled the portions in between, stretching from what is now Connecticut to Delaware, including the establishment, in 1624, of the New Netherlands colony. Further south, the Virginia colony at Jamestown, which was established in 1607, thrived thanks to the successful planting of tobacco as a cash crop. But the Plymouth and New Netherlands colonies had to search for alternative means of economic survival because of the brutally harsh winters and less fertile soil. Fur trading, lumber, pitch, and eventually rum became the most profitable export trade.

Dutch settlers were the first to establish a distillery in these new colonies. Willem Kieft [below] opened his distillery, in 1640, on the island of New Netherlands (now Staten Island) making “brandy-wine” from, fruit, molasses, and grain.

Emmanuel Downing opened his operation, in 1648, in Salem, Massachusetts. In a letter to Governor John Winthrop, Downing wrote: “The water I make is desired more and rather than the best spirits they bring from London.” Winthrop’s cousin George Downing had spent five months in Barbados, in 1645, which triggered interest in trade with the island for both molasses and slaves. The Rhode Island colony also successfully established, in 1684, a rum distillery, thus enjoying the profit-making potential that assured the financial success.

Cuba benefited most from the establishment of these northern distilleries. 

Here were eager, potential purchasers for the island’s bounty of molasses, the cheap by-product of the sugar production pro- cess. Shipping molasses was also inexpensive because of the island’s proximity to the New England and New Amsterdam colonies.

By the turn of the century, Spanish Caribbean rum production threatened southern Europe’s grape-spirit industry as exports trick- led across the Atlantic. The Spanish crown outlawed rum-making in the Caribbean colonies. Distillers merely went underground with their lucrative operations.

French Caribbean rum production was also outlawed. But these distillers established a sales network along the Atlantic that avoided metropolitan port cities.

French producers such as Joseph François Charpentier de Cossigny differentiated styles by calling the vesou [pure sugar cane juice] distillate guildive and the spirit made from sugar scum or molasses, tafia. Guildive was considered the preferred spirit because it was less likely to have an acidic palate.

British Caribbean rum producers fared best of all as the British crown saw this new enterprise as a viable way to attack Spanish and French wine and brandy exportation. Then wars assured the grape industry’s declined. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) struck the first blows to wine exportation. Then the Spanish crown ordered that all rum-making equipment be destroyed in its colonies to prevent further decline and encourage Peruvian vineyard production. A decree was issued, in 1739, giving Cuban rum distillers fifteen days to cease operations or face financial and material ruin. Yet the distillers continued to produce their spirit until strict enforcement, in 1754, led illegal distillers to be forced to work on public works without pay until they were impoverished.

The Seven Years War (1756-1763) cut off all trade with the Americas as Britain, French, and Spanish fought for supremacy in the age of empire-building. But it also freed Cuban distillers from Spanish oppression. 

British forces captured and occupied Havana, in 1762, lifting the prohibition on distillation and introducing new equipment and production techniques. Four thousand slaves were imported during this brief occupation, indicating the British intention to exploit Cuba’s potential as a sugar colony. After the British occupation, in 1764, Spanish officials found it impossible to control illegal rum production and thus finally lifted the ban.

Anistatia and Jared’s incredible book, The Spirit of the Cane is available to buy now. So make sure you do!

About the Authors

The inseparable cocktail couple, Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, are the directors of Mixellany Limited®, a consultancy and publishing company that specialises in anything and everything to do with spirits and mixed drinks. During the course of their 20+ year collaboration, Miller and Brown have written more than 30 books including Shaken Not Stirred®: A Celebration of the Martini, Champagne Cocktails, Cuban Cocktails, The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs, and The Deans of Drink.

Miller and Brown were co-founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail with Dale and Jill DeGroff. They were the curators of a three-year project in the south of France, restoring Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux, a museum of wines and spirits founded in 1958, and cataloguing the 8000+ bottles, 1200 menus, and other antiquities in the collection.

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