Demon Rum – and sugar

There is no rum without sugar (this is true for any alcoholic drink). Prior to the Revolutionary War most people drank rum or hard cider. Sailors were paid partly in rum. The early settlers, however, drank it in a punch or toddy. Early on, rum was distilled in the Caribbean where sugar was grown. Then it made sense for the rum to be distilled where the prime market was – New England. By the mid-1700s, though, most rum was made, and made more cheaply too, in New England. Many fortunes were made by this rum and I’ve read that one of those fortunes was made by. the Kennedy family.

But I digress.

What were some of the consequences of this cheap and easily obtainable rum?

Well, sugar is very labor intensive so the cultivation of sugar resulted in a tremendous need for slaves and was one of the big drivers of the slave trade.

Second, sugar exhausts the soil quickly so planters had to keep finding new land. This was certainly a big reason for the push for plantations and slavery westward.

Third, Americans drank more than ever. ‘Demon Rum’ became one of the many names for rum, leading to the temperance movement and to Prohibition with all of its associated crime and other problems.

And yes, although many New Englanders were abolitionists, New England profited hugely from the trade. New England ships brought slaves to the New World. New England ships brought sugar north. And New England ships brought codfish south for the slaves to eat.

Rum drinking declined after the Revolutionary War since rye was grown in the frontier – then around Pittsburgh – and distilled into whiskey. Of course, that came with its own set of problems.

Sugar is still grown in Louisiana and Domino has a big presence there. (Their factory looks abandoned – broken windows and shabby exterior.) In Louisiana there are two plantings a year.

How much sugar do we consume now? Well, in the early 1700s, a few pounds or less might be ingested by the average person per year. In 1999, the peak of sugar consumption, it was 111 grams a day, just about half a pound a day.  In 2016, that dropped to 94 grams a day. Soda is one culprit but actually sugar and high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything.

And what about rum? Well, by Prohibition, although rum was castigated as the ‘demon’, most people were drinking whiskey. Rum’s big day had already passed. And in a weird twist, New Englanders again made fortunes by becoming ‘rumrunners’, making available alcohol during Prohibition.

And it all started with sugar.