Originally posted 09 May 2012
I was exchanging emails with Captain Jimbo of Captain Jimbo’s Rum Project, and he brought up one of the mysteries of rum – that it was not invented earlier. After remarking that sugar and the use of the alembic still both spread westward across the Mediterranean, he wrote, “To deny that this coexistence did not result in distilled cane spirits much earlier (and not in the Caribbean or Brazil) is not convincing. Anything that could be run through an alembic probably was, not least something as common as sugar cane.”
He is right that sugar was widely available in cultures where distilling was a commonplace task. Unfortunately, in some of the likely places nobody made or kept records of economic activity. Sugar was grown in Sicily as early as the year 1000 – is it credible that for over 500 years nobody thought to run the byproduct of refining through a still? Or in Madeira, where the Portuguese were growing sugar by 1400? Unfortunately, with the exception of monasteries where monks used alembics for medicines, almost everyone who might have been involved in the distilling business was illiterate. What few records survived from that turbulent era were made by the aristocracy and concerned with their affairs, not the commercial dealings and diet of their inferiors. At least that is the case of the documents that have been translated – it may be that someone could delve through monastic records or the private letters of merchants and find some casual mention of a new distilled drink. The evidence may languish in some archive, waiting to be found and to extend the history of rum back by hundreds of years. We can only wait and hope.