History of the U.S.: Rum Punch

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Rum wasn’t invented in America, but it proved so popular in the colonies that it should qualify as an all- American drink.

It wasn’t the flavor; by all accounts, the batches produced in the seventeenth century were incredibly nasty and dangerous. That’s not surprising, considering the liquor was invented to get rid of the thick and sticky molasses that had to be drained from sugar crystals during the refining process. At first no one knew what to do with the stuff, but eventually someone realized that molasses contains enough sugar to allow fermentation; a little tinkering converted it to booze.

But not delicious booze: one early imbiber called it “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” If this sounds unappealing, consider that distillers might throw a dead animal or animal dung into the “wash” to speed up fermentation. They also used lead pipes in the still construction, sometimes poisoning heavy drinkers - which was mostly everyone. In Barbados, each colonist drank about 10 gallons of rum annually, while North American colonists averaged three gallons per year. That this foul liquor was the most popular drink in the colonies is evidence of the miserable conditions there, especially among poor colonists who came as indentured servants. Despite the occasional case of blindness or death, rum got you drunk enough to temporarily forget your miseries - and when you came to, you could start forgetting all over again.

Obviously this was incredibly bad for your health. In 1639, a visitor to Barbados recounted men so wasted they passed out on the ground and were eaten alive by land crabs. In 1707, a visitor to Jamaica estimated that rum killed over 1,000 colonists a year on that island alone (out of a total population of 7,000 white colonists). Colonial legislatures tried to control the sale and consumption of rum, with laws passed in Bermuda, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even Barbados itself – but human misery trumped the law and rum continued making great if somewhat unsteady strides.

Fed by molasses imported from the Caribbean plantations, distilleries were established on Staten Island and Boston in the mid-1600s. These drastically lowered the price and increased the level of intoxication to new highs (or lows, depending on your point of view). In fact, rum played an integral part in the development of the American colonies, as New England businessmen invested their rum profits in new industries like textiles.

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September 21, 2010 - 7:12am
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