Pushing Back The Invention of Rum…

I finished my first post here by promising to explain how an old beverage was recently proved to be much older. The drink is rum, and the person who found the citation is the great drinks historian and general raconteur David Wondrich.

In my book I mentioned that the oldest confirmed reference to distillation of alcohol from sugar cane was in Brazil in 1552, but I suspected that the practice was much older. Wondrich found a reference that pushes that back over two hundred years, probably more. I can’t state it more succinctly than he did:

-the Indian historian Ziauddin Barani, in his 1357 Tarikh i Firoz Shahi, describes the pre-Moghul Sultan of Delhi ‘Ala ud-Din Khalji (who ruled from 1296 to 1316) prohibiting those who distill “wine” from granulated sugar (“qand,” hence our “candy”) from doing so or selling the product, an order which was later partially rescinded to allow production but not sale. So clearly in at least part of India rum-making of some kind was well established by around 1300, and I suspect very much earlier indeed.

Governments don’t prohibit something that nobody is doing, and they don’t move particularly fast, so the trade was probably well established before it was prohibited. That beverage wasn’t rum as we know it today. The stills were made of pottery and it was probably consumed unaged, so it was a raw, impure spirit. Still, I can easily imagine some alchemist making a cocktail with rose water or one of the other fragrant potions of the Indian subcontinent to delight his friends. Somewhere in some lost archive there may be a poem to the joys of strong wine, perhaps finishing with a complaint about feeling like an elephant had stepped on one’s head the next morning. If that poem has even one reference to distilled sugar, the literature of rum will be greatly enriched.