Today I am presenting the book ‘Rum: A Social and Sociable History’ by Ian Williams. Ian Williams was formerly the UN correspondent for “The Nation” and is the author of several books of which this is the only one on rum or the subject of spirits in general. Let’s start with the basics. The book was published in 2005, has 312 pages and the paperback version costs around 15€. It is divided into three parts which I briefly introduce.
Part I: Origins – “A hot hellish liquor”
The chapter starts with the origin of the word rum, outlining the different theories such as that it derived from the archaic English term “rumbullion” (If you want to read a bit more on the topic, check out this link). Fact is that the word rum first appeared in its monosyllabic version in an order of the Governor and Council of Jamaica in 1661. Anyhow, the chapter continues with a short overview of the history of sugar and the production of alcohol and concludes with a part on ‘Barbados, the birthplace of rum’. Although it is often said that Brazil was the first place on earth where a sugar cane distillate was produced, it is in Barbados where the history of rum truly starts. This part guides you through the history of the island and makes you want to learn more about the island itself. By the way, did you know George Washington visited Barbados in 1751? You might want to check this link if you want to visualize his trip.
Part II: Rum in the Americas: The Spirit of 1776
Part II discusses the many facets of the history of rum in the Americas in great detail. Rum became very fast the spirit in the Americas, thanks to an oversupply of molasses in the Caribbean countries and a shortage of grain in the Northern colonies. The chapter goes on to describe how rum was traded, drunk, demonized as well as being used as medicine.
What makes this chapter so great is Ian Williams’ ability to also outline the historical context at that time and rum’s role in it, especially during the American Revolution. For example, the tax on imports of molasses from non-English colonies, famously known as the molasses act, which aimed to curb the import of molasses from the French Caribbean islands. Molasses from the French Islands was 60-70% cheaper than the molasses from the British colonies. The molasses act led to widespread smuggling and, to quote Ian Williams, “the insatiable demand for rum and molasses certainly distorted and eventually broke the ties with the mother country, since this demand pitted the patriotism of the colonists against their purses-and the later won”.
Part III: Rolling around the world
This part starts with a closer look at the spirit itself and its progression from “Kill Devil”to a “Lively Spirit”. Moreover, it covers issues such as Navy rum, Cuban rum and even a visit to the Mount Gay distillery by the author.
As it has been my first book on the history of rum, I still consider it my “baseline-book”on how to judge other books on the same topic. It is very well researched and written and Ian Williams’ little puns here and there made me smile more than once.
So do you need this book? Well, if you really want to learn something about the history of rum, I think you do.