Whiskey may hold the title of “American Spirit,” but rum played a central role in American colonial life (1607-1776). It was used as currency instead of paper money, was believed to have medicinal properties, and even contributed to the growth of cocktail culture.
However, with the rise of nationalism at the start of the Revolutionary War and limited access to molasses and other necessary ingredients, rum gradually lost its prominence. Whiskey became more affordable for people in the continental United States, quickly filling the void left by rum.
Although whiskey is now an iconic American drink, it’s time to give rum the credit it deserves as an integral part of American history and culture.
Early Days of Rum
During the 17th and 18th centuries, alcohol was considered safer than water. However, rum stood out among other beverages because it was easier to transport and had a longer shelf life compared to beer and cider.
Rum served more than just a substitute for water. Privileged individuals, particularly European immigrants with capital, could purchase the low-value commodity of molasses and transform it into a highly valuable product—rum.
Furthermore, rum was used as currency, with many bills of sale including it as part of the buyer’s purchasing power.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, New England became involved in the triangular trade route, known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade between Europe, the West Indies, and the Gold Coast of Africa, largely due to rum. The American colonies traded resources like fish and lumber to the West Indies in exchange for molasses, which they distilled into rum. Some rum was consumed locally, but the majority was sent to Europe and Africa to be exchanged for enslaved individuals.
By the early 1700s, numerous rum distilleries had emerged in the American colonies due to the ready supply of ingredients like molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, from various British territories in the West Indies.
The prevalence of rum led to the development of various drink styles, some of which are still popular today, such as rum punch and grog.
However, everything changed during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).
Rum and the Growing Feeling of Nationalism
“The war had a significant impact on commerce,” says Steve Bashore, director of historic trades at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The British Navy controlled major trade routes and could block the colonies’ access to raw materials like molasses, thereby harming domestic rum distilleries. As a result, rum became increasingly scarce.
Despite the high demand for spirits, whiskey emerged to fill the void. Whiskey became a medium of exchange and continued to be the preferred spirit even after the war. Due to low imports of sugar and molasses, whiskey could be produced using local corn.
Bashore believes that whiskey’s popularity grew for another reason. “A sense of loyalty to the cause led to increased whiskey consumption, as it was made from American grains,” he says. According to Bashore, this sense of national loyalty persisted even after the war ended, and whiskey consumption continued to rise throughout the 1780s and 1790s because it was made from American products.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the land area of the United States, Americans began moving westward.
President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) authorized the purchase of French territory because he believed that the health of the republic depended on an independent citizenry and that small-scale land ownership was crucial for independence.
Jefferson successfully advocated for making land more accessible to small-scale farmers. Prior to this, land had been mostly available only to the wealthy and land speculators. This change resulted in a significant increase in both corn-growing areas and population. Consequently, there was a surplus of corn that farmers needed to find uses for. To prevent spoilage and losses, they began distilling it into whiskey.
Compared to corn, whiskey was easier to transport to eastern markets like Philadelphia. Production mainly took place on a small scale due to the risk of burning corn in large stills. However, larger distilleries existed, such as the one owned by George Washington, which produced nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799, making it one of the largest at that time.
Whiskey became so important to the U.S. economy that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) proposed taxing it to help pay down the national debt of $79 million, which is equivalent to $2.4 billion today. This eventually led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
Despite facing challenges during the 20th century due to Prohibition and limited availability during World War II, American whiskey is experiencing a revival thanks to domestic and international interest in American-style food and beverages, as well as its appearance in popular media like the TV show Mad Men.
On the other hand, rum has further faded from public consciousness in recent years.
“Rum produced during Prohibition may have been adulterated, diluted, or misrepresented, leading to a loss of confidence among drinkers and tarnishing rum’s reputation,” says Campbell. “Tiki bars were once trendy, but as the Vietnam War affected many Americans, a tropical bar no longer represented the romantic escape it once did.”
While whiskey remains closely intertwined with the identity of the United States, rum is making a comeback. According to Campbell, it is “connecting with modern drinkers” and “shedding its association with pirates and negative historical imagery to embrace all communities in America.”
Perhaps it won’t be long before the United States has two iconic spirits.