Was Rum the First Distillate?

Because so relatively little irrefutable historical record exists of beverage alcohol’s beginnings prior to 1000 B.C., it’s often difficult to pin down exact historical dates, especially for the origins of distilled spirits like rum. Beer and wine were known to be widely produced and consumed in northern Africa, Asia Minor, parts of southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin throughout the dynastic Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman eras of power. This was due to the commonplace cultivation of grains and grapes in these regions.

We know that sugarcane was cultivated in south Asia as early as 5,000 years ago. Indeed, one enticing tendril of existence of early rum-like spirits hails from Taxila, an ancient city located in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Mid-twentieth century archeological excavations from what appears to be a merchant’s building (or maybe the earliest grog shop in history) hint strongly at organized distillation occurring in remarkably well-preserved terracotta pot stills that date from about 300-200 BC.

Tantalizing Evidence

The earthen stills at Taxila had all the usual chambers needed to distill liquids: a kettle chamber where the liquid was boiled, a vapor chamber where the gaseous alcohol collected as the components separated and a cooling chamber where the alcoholic vapors turned back into clear, shimmering liquid. Around the same time, the Malay peoples brewed a sweet and intoxicating libation that they called “brum”.

Could these early Asian distillers have been distilling potable liquids as well as essentials oils for cosmetic and medicinal purposes? Because sugarcane was doubtless a commonly cultivated crop in those areas, the possibility of a sugarcane-based distilled liquid cannot be summarily dismissed. But nor can a Taxila rum-like liquid be proved to exist from 300 BC…yet. Though the evidence is circumstantial, the possibilities are enticing.