The Role of Rum in Early America

published Jun 26, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

In the year 1770 — the same year as the infamous Boston Massacre — the colonies that would soon coalesce through revolution, violence, and democracy into the United States were also home to more than 140 rum distilleries. These operations, many of which were based in New England, produced an estimated 4.8 million gallons of rum per year.

Rum was a very big deal in early America; here’s a closer look.

According to Ed Crews, writing in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, domestic rum production was supplementing close to 4 million gallons arriving from outside the colonies, largely from the Caribbean, particularly the West Indies. That’s a lot of gallons for a population of around 2,150,000 people—and no doubt in part why Crews claims that, “Rum was king of the colonies before the Revolutionary War.”

Rum’s popularity in early America is immortalized in the mixed drinks of the era. Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, which cocktail historian David Wondrich holds up as “the greatest of all American Punches,” features Jamaican rum among its several potent potables.

Drinks like Black Strap (rum and molasses) and Hot Buttered Rum (rum, sugar, spices, and, yes, butter) were also part of the early canon, Wondrich documents in his book Imbibe!.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Rum and early America have a long, boozy, sordid, and sad history together — and not simply because, as a distilled spirit, it presented a lineage of beer and cider drinkers with a far quicker path to drunkenness. Rum was an economic force in the American colonies, but tied to the contemptible practice of human slavery. Through the infamous Triangle Trade, rum made in New England was shipped to Africa, where it was exchanged for slaves; the ships then headed to the Caribbean, where slaves were traded for sugarcane and molasses; finally, the ships returned to the Northeast so the molasses could be distilled into rum.

Domestic-made rum of the era was very inexpensive, as a result. Crews notes that “a gallon of American rum cost 1 shilling and 8 pence in Philadelphia during 1740.”

The rum business helped early New England to prosper, while its grim underpinnings remained largely out of sight for the colonists. With the coming of the Revolution, Caribbean molasses became harder to source, and soon whiskey — made from domestically grown grain — took hold as the fledgling nation’s spirit of choice.

But in its early heyday, rum played a central role in tavern life, serving as a social lubricant. Town taverns were often the gathering places where political discussion took place and ideas were exchanged. Those countless gallons of rum, begun in slavery, ironically also perhaps helped sow the seeds of democracy.