Advocates for whiskey in general and bourbon in particular like to claim they represent the true spirit of America. They insist you should reach for liquor made from grain when you’re feeling wistful around holidays like Thanksgiving.
Yes, but…no. Celebrating whiskey as the quintessential American spirit is like celebrating Wii Golf as the quintessential American sport. This just in: The Wii came to the game a little after baseball. And in the liquor world, whiskey is Wii.
Rum is baseball.
Rum established itself first and foremost in the nation’s narrative arc, serving as the engine that helped the colonies grow and become economically confident enough to make a play for independence from Great Britain. (Spoiler alert: It worked.)
You may be thinking, hey, wait a minute… Sugar—the main ingredient in rum—wasn’t a serious crop in the North American colonies. How did rum become such a player?
Well, England had territories scattered around the New World in the 18th century. And that included several in the West Indies, where sugar generated remarkable wealth. (It was the precursor to railroads, oil and the internet in the spawning of outrageous fortunes.)
Trade among the colonies was robust—the North Americans provided almost everything the islanders needed to survive, since virtually all the arable island land was devoted to growing sugar cane. Dried cod, salt pork and other foodstuffs sailed south, and in return, molasses (a byproduct of sugar production) sailed north.
Now, New Englanders liked baked beans and gingerbread. A lot. But that’s not why they loved molasses. It was because you can use the stuff to make rum. On the eve of the American Revolution in 1776, some 160 distilleries were cranking it out.
After independence, trade between the newly formed country and colonies still under British rule was disrupted. Thanks to this sudden opportunity, and to an abundance of grain, the age of whiskey dawned in the United States.
So with Thanksgiving on the horizon, if you want to properly celebrate the patriotic early-American spirit, my suggestion is to reach for rum.
Click here for the Pineapple Syllabub recipe from Wayne Curtis.
Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. He is also host of the site Slowcocktails.com.