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The Tradition of Rum and the Sea

by Ed Hamilton, Minister of Rum

Mention the Caribbean and almost everyones thoughts turn to beautiful beaches, lush tropical landscapes and rum cocktails with friends in the cockpit of a yacht at anchor, waiting for the elusive green flash when the sun dips below the horizon. Most of us ran out of the little bamboo umbrellas and cherries that adorn the drinks in the more posh resorts long ago. But when the sun dips below the cockpit awning, you will hear the click of glasses and bottles in even almost every harbor. Sailors the world over identify with rum, especially those in the Caribbean- the birthplace of the traditions of rum and the sea.When the European interest in the Caribbean islands began to develop in the early 17th century, the colonists were accompanied by armed naval vessels for protection from the pirates and the navies of competing European powers. Even when stationed in Europe, life aboard a navy ship was boring as well as hazardous. Food was notoriously bad and inadequate. A sailors pay was hardly enough to keep the men in clothes much less support a family ashore. To compensate the sailors and help take their mind off their condition, the crews were given a daily allowance or beer or wine. When naval ships were stationed in the West Indies the stores of wine often turned to vinegar and the beer spoiled shortly after, if not during, the long trans-Atlantic voyage.
Fortunately for the sailors, by the mid 1600s, sugar had taken its place as a major export commodity from the islands. France and England prohibited the export of alcohol made from the skimmings of the sugar making process, but this strong white spirit was eagerly sold to the ship pursers. The presence of navy ships helped deter pirates and soon a pint of rum had, unofficially at least, replaced the lesser spirits in the sailors daily routine.
Competition for the presence of naval ships was keen with price being the planters most common lure. And soon unscrupulous planters were diluting the rum sold to the ships in an effort to stretch their available supplies and increase their profits. Without an accurate hydrometer on board to measure the alcohol content of the spirits, another method was employed. A measured amount of rum from the cask was mixed with another amount of gunpowder from the gunners stores. The spark from a flint was struck into the mixture and if the rum was of appropriate strength, the powder would burn. If the plantation manager had added too much water the powder would be thrown overboard as well as the cask of rum, and sometimes the manager himself. This became known as `proofing the spirits and corresponded to about 56% alcohol by volume, hence the term overproof that is in common use today.

As more islands began producing rum and competing for the only legal market they had, other than local consumption, the planters petitioned their governments for a share of the growing naval consumption. In an effort to appease the planters and guarantee the supply of rum for their ships, in 1687, the Royal Navy officially adopted a blend of rum from several islands as the daily ration. Ships were dispatched to collect and blend the rum that would be distributed among all those ships in the Caribbean as well as those closer to home. The navy pursers blend became known as `pussers rum and continued for nearly three centuries.

West Indian rum was a lot stronger than the beer and wine it replaced and caused such disorder among the sailors and marines on board the ships that Admiral Edward Vernon ordered the ration be diluted with two parts water prior to issue. He also ordered sugar and lime juice to be made available as a reward for good behavior. The mixture became known as `grog, in deference to the popular Admiral that wore his finest grogam coat in battle.

In this century the American, English and French Navies recognized that the daily tot was not conducive to the mental concentration needed to fly supersonic aircraft or operate the sophisticated electronic equipment used to wage modern war and the daily tot was abandoned. The tradition of the daily ration of rum does, however, live on aboard private vessels at anchor throughout the Caribbean and the world.


by Ed Hamilton, Minister of Rum

Looking to the Caribbean to thaw out this winter? If youre one of the millions of people who plan on heading to the Caribbean for some sun, sand and sea in order to survive the winter, plan on including a distillery tour on your next Caribbean vacation. Its no secret that the Caribbean is home to the lions share of the worlds rum production, so no matter which island is your destination you wont be far from a distillery. Take advantage of the opportunity to see for yourself how this versatile spirit is made and discover some of the overlooked treasures of the islands.

On the English-speaking islands spirits are generally made from imported molasses and distilleries produce their wares year round. But on the French islands the rhum season is roughly from the middle of December through the end of May depending on the weather. Everywhere you travel on Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie Galante youll witness the annual harvest of mature cane, the first step in the production of rhum agricole. Some of the cane on Martinique is cut by modern machines but on the other islands nearly all of this back-breaking work is done by hand. Large trucks carry the freshly-cut cane to the distilleries but on Marie Galante ox-drawn carts still ply the roads in a scene which has been part of the landscape for centuries. At the distilleries the cane is crushed and the sweet juice is collected to be fermented in 15,000 to 30,000-liter tanks. The sharp aroma of the fermenting juice fills the air near the bubbling tanks.

On most days during the rhum season, a single distillation column will be stripping the alcohol from the fermented juice. The fragrant clear liquid is collected from the distillers sight glass and then stored in tanks if it will be bottled as white rhum agricole, or put in oak barrels if it will be bottled as rhum vieux. Visiting the distilleries also offers an opportunity to taste the best of the distillers art.

Most of the small family-owned distilleries only sell their best spirits where they are made. Distillerie Bielle, on the island of Marie Galante for example, offers their oldest spirits in ceramic containers that are made in a small studio on the grounds next to the still house. Other distillers bottle their rhums in colorfully painted bottles that depict island scenes. However, most of the painted bottles dont contain the most prized spirits. Wherever you go, seeing for yourself how the sweet sugar cane is processed into delicious spirits will be a highlight of your Caribbean experience. And while Customs regulations limit the amount of alcohol you can bring back without paying any additional tax, I always bring back as much as I can carry. The federal tax is less than about $3.00 per bottle so indulge yourself.

Most of the spirits youll find in the islands arent available at your local liquor store back home, so unless youre bringing back more than a case of spirits per person, or unless the spirits are over proof, you probably wont be charged any additional duty. Special spirits from the islands also make wonderful gifts for your frozen friends you left behind.

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