With hot weather upon us, tropical rum tipples are totally in season. But the stories behind these drinks—and their evolution—often parallel the history of the spirit itself.
According to Wayne Curtis, author of And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, “any given cocktail would arise only when the confluence of economics, technology, trade, and culture came together. Without all those elements, that drink—grog, mojito, whatever—would fail to appear. Drink deeply of any historic drink, and you'll usually find a good story.” Rum is no exception.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, sugarcane farmers were producing a lot of molasses. At the time, it wasn’t considered to be a proper food, so it was given to slaves or dumped in the ocean. Luckily, someone realized that it could be fermented and distilled. The result, as they say, made history.
1. EL DRAQUE
Like the Sazerac, some claim that the El Draque was the world’s first cocktail. Though the claim is questionable, the drink’s history largely parallels that of rum itself. We know for certain that the Draque (also known as the “Draquecito”) was likely named for Sir Francis Drake.
As the legend goes, the English vice admiral’s fleet of ships became stranded near Havana in the late 16th century. His crew sick, Drake responded by whipping up a medicinal concoction using tree bark soaked in crude rum (known as aguardiente), mint, lime, and sugar. Each of the ingredients served a medicinal purpose, and they also helped cover up the taste of the rough spirit.
Aguardiente (which translates as “fiery water”) was basically rough, un-aged rum, and it would’ve likely been the only spirit available in town.
Some time after that point, some intrepid drinker substituted white rum for aguardiente. Ice was added. Someone else, probably a bartender in Cuba, topped it with soda water, changed the name, and the Mojito was born. It’s likely these small changes happened over years or decades, but the result is one of the most recognizable cocktails ever sipped.
Grog is probably best known as the precursor to the Daiquiri, that familiar combination of rum, sugar, and lime. “The main difference [between the two is] ice,” writes Wayne Curtis, though “Grog was originally just water and rum.” In the 1740s, Admiral “Old Grog” Vernon campaigned for soldiers to mix their rum rations with water.
Later on, British naval decrees issued daily lime and sugar rations. According to Curtis, “all the ingredients were there, but it needed to be deeply chilled and served shaken until frigid to make it into the sublime sip we now know as the Daiquiri.”
By this time, rum was an ingrained part of overseas trade and colonial life. Rum doesn’t spoil like beer, wine, or sugarcane. And because it takes up much less space, it makes for easy transport. As a result, it was used as currency in the tragic and shameful Triangle Trade of slaves across the Atlantic.
That rum was made in New England, not the Caribbean. During the 1700s and 1800s, the sugarcane exported from tropical regions fueled the stills in the Northeast. At the peak of the New England rum boom, the colonies imported six million gallons of molasses to fuel the area’s 159 distilleries. Most of the rum was produced for domestic consumption, but some was exported. How much, exactly, is a contentious issue among historians. Many, Curtis included, believe that the amount involved in the Triangle Trade has been overstated.
After the American Revolution, the British cut off the supply of cheap molasses. Grain, however, was plentiful and cheap, so whiskey began to eclipse rum in the mid-1800s in America.
Before the craft cocktail revival of the late '90s, the Daiquiri became a class of drinks rather than a singular beverage. Though many know the syrupy sweet frozen Daiquiri that certainly holds a spot in cocktail culture, the classic, simple Daiquiri has made a resurgence.
3. THE ZOMBIE
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, rum largely faded from public view in America, but the emergence of the tiki movement in the 1930s helped to bring back it back in style. Not only that, the tiki trend also called for combining different spirits into a single drink.
The tiki trend was fun and a little weird, and The Zombie embodies that strangeness and strength (and sometimes its slightly less-than-palatable kick). According to cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, the Zombie was created as an extremely potent hangover cure in the late '30s. Before you go searching out recipes for making it at home, please note that it's well-known for its potency, not its deliciousness. Please drink responsibly.
4. RUM OLD FASHIONED
In the world of cocktails, few contemporary drinks are 100 percent original. Take, for example, the Rum Old Fashioned (and all the different variations on this theme). Though you may be more familiar with the Old Fashioned made with whiskey, bars are constantly looking for ways to tweak the classics.
Back in the 19th century, the Rum Old Fashioned would probably have been called a Rum Cocktail. This simple mixture of bitters, sugar, water, and spirit fits the first known definition of an alcoholic cocktail perfectly.
Despite its simplicity, there’s not a standard definition of what constitutes a Rum Old Fashioned. As a result, it’s the perfect drink to customize exactly how you like it. Like with other spirits, the quality of available rum has risen and the number of brands on the market has skyrocketed, making it easy to find a rum that matches your tastes. Check out some of our suggestions here.