Rum is a hard alcohol made from fermented sugar. This process usually includes the fermentation of the juices of the sugarcane plant, as well as of molasses and other by-products of sugar production. Rum is one of the major liquors in the world, with a history steeped in the myths of piracy, the Caribbean, and slavery.
The first true rums were made in the Caribbean during the early 17th century by fermenting the molasses left over from refining sugar into a heady liquor. Barbados is held by many to be the birthplace of this liquor, and for many years the Caribbean rums were known for their low quality and fiery taste. Not much later, much of the production moved to New England, which used imported Caribbean molasses to produce their liquor. By the end of the 17th century, rum was New England’s most produced commodity and played a crucial role in the establishment of the region's early economy.
Eventually, rum helped establish what became known as the triangular trade, a three-part loop of international trade that endured until the late 18th century. Because of the popularity of New England rum throughout the Old World, more sugar plantations were needed in the Caribbean. With the increase of sugar plantations to produce sugar for consumption and rum making, more labor was needed to work the land. Slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean, where they were traded to plantation owners for molasses, which was brought to New England and traded for rum, which in turn was sold in Europe to generate more wealth to purchase more slaves.
Rum was a hugely popular drink both in the Americas and in Europe — so much so that, for a time, some New England rum was used alongside gold as an acceptable currency. Nowhere, however, was it more popular than at sea. As the British Royal Navy became active in the Caribbean, rum replaced brandy as the standard liquor ration — a rationing that continued until 1970. With the dawn of the great age of piracy in the latter quarter of the 17th century, rum became the drink of choice for pirates and privateers operating in the Caribbean and off the coast of Africa.
One of the most ill-defined of the world’s major liquors, rum standards differ drastically from nation to nation. In general, however, light rums are low on flavor and primarily used in mixed drinks, golds are slightly higher-quality and aged somewhat, and dark ones are aged even longer and have a very rich and full flavor. Many rums are also flavored with spices, coconut, and various fruits. The liquor may be enjoyed on its own, in cooking, or in a mixed drink, though most connoisseurs hold that a rum should be aged and drunk alone or on the rocks.