Caribbean Rum Origins
In the 1600s, it was discovered that molasses, a by-product of refined sugar cane, could be fermented to alcohol. That’s when the first rum distillation took place in the Caribbean. Throughout the years, rum distillation techniques improved, the alcohol produced had fewer impurities, and the quality of rum significantly increased. The drink was introduced to colonial America by sailors and ships’ crews, and although distilleries were set up in the United States, rum was frequently exported into the U.S. from The Bahamas and other Caribbean islands.
The Golden Age of Grog
During the late 1600s and early 1700s, in “The Golden Age of Piracy”, The Bahamas was a hotbed for pirate activity. On long ocean voyages, fresh drinking water tended to spoil quickly in its casks — growing algae and slime in the process — so the rum was added as a preservative. At the same time, grog, a mixture of rum, water, sugar, and lime juice, was made popular by the Royal Navy. The drink of choice for pirates was a mixture of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg, which they called bumbo. Pirates didn’t want to be associated with the drink of British sailors, so they put their own spin on it and added lime juice when it was available.
Prohibition Era Profits
Between 1920 and 1933, prohibition was in full swing in the United States, and the people of The Bahamas seized this opportunity to turn a profit. Thanks to The Bahamas’ proximity to Florida, rum runners made a handsome profit ferrying Bahamian rum into the U.S. during the prohibition era, where it was then distributed to speakeasies and lounges throughout the country. Captains of rum-running ships could earn several hundred thousand dollars per year, compared to an annual salary of $6,000 for the Commandant of the Coast Guard or just $30 weekly for the average seaman.
During these times, the rum wasn’t always the best quality. As a result, rum runners would frequently water down the rum to increase their profits, or re-label low-quality spirits as premium brands. One of the most successful and famous rum runners was Captain Bill McCoy, who only sold high-quality spirits and never watered them down. McCoy’s reputation for dealing quality products led to the coining of the phrase “the real McCoy”, which is still used today to describe something as being of high quality.
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