Rum, the Most Valued Commodity

The first pot still in the New World was located on Staten Island in the Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam, circa 1640s. Rum distilling became a major industry in New England in the late 1600s, especially in the colonies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Between 1700-1750, Massachusetts boasted 63 rum distilleries and Rhode Island 30, with 22 in Newport alone. Medford, Massachusetts served as the colonial Rum capital due to the high quality of its “Old Medford” rum.

All were molasses-based Rums. The molasses originated in the Caribbean as a residual product of sugar refining. There were masses of molasses available. The enormous success of New England’s Rum distilleries gave rise to other key regional industries, such as shipbuilding (to transport the molasses and Rum), logging and ironworks (to build the ships) and cooperage (to produce the barrels needed to both mature and ship the Rums).

Rum’s Resurgence

Rum production deflated during the Revolutionary War. Molasses became scarce since the British-dominated Caribbean islands imposed a trade embargo with the feisty colonists. In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. Congress passed the Embargo Act that banned all trade with French and British territories and that further depressed the Rum market. Consequently, American whiskey filled the void left by Rum. Rum virtually dropped off the radar screen for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

After World War One (1914-1917), Prohibition (1920-1933), the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War Two (1941-1945), Rum made a significant comeback in the 1950s and 1960s. Credit is given to the “Tiki Craze” that swept across America’s bars. The proliferation of cocktails like the Mai Tai, Daiquiri and Piña Colada reestablished Rum as a major spirits category.