Rum is a tropical spirit that conjures up white sand beaches, salty ocean breezes and cocktails with names that sound as if they were created by Isaac, the bartender on the Love Boat.
It’s not surprising that rum’s development is linked to the sea. While making alcohol from sugar cane goes back hundreds of years to places like China, India and Iran, much of today’s rum production is centered in Caribbean island nations and Latin America. Early records from the 1600s suggest slaves made alcohol by fermenting molasses. Ironically, rum would become a key component in the triangle between Europe, Africa and the New World. The demand for labor to work Caribbean sugar plantations fueled the slave-trading market in the New World.
Most people associate pirates with rum, but wide distribution of the spirit was propelled by the British navy when it adopted rum as its drink of choice in 1655. The British captured Jamaica and its sugar cane plantations and rum distilleries from Spain. That allowed them to eliminate brandy, which had to be procured from oft-enemy France, changing the daily ration for sailors. Rum was part of daily British naval life until 1970. Now it is served only on special occasions declared by the queen or high-ranking naval officers.
Rum came to what would become the United States more than a century before the Revolutionary War. To keep up with the growing demand in the colonies, the first rum distillery was built on Staten Island in 1664. Today, a growing number of American craft distillers are producing rum, and many of the traditional producers have added aged expressions that put rum on par with whiskey and cognac.
Mat Perry was a high-school history teacher in New England and knew that rum was once a major part of the regional economy. During a sabbatical, he started to wonder if there was a place for a new rum distillery in his hometown of Ipswich, Mass. Soon Perry and a friend, Evan Parker, quit their jobs and launched Turkey Shore Distilleries. The company’s Old Ipswich Rum, which is available in several expressions, rolled out in June 2011.
“There was a pretty steep learning curve,” Perry says. “You spend so much time worrying about making it and what the rum is going to taste like, but then you realize you still have to market it and sell it.”
Perry said the goal of Turkey Shore is to reawaken the appreciation of rum in New England and turn Old Ipswich into a regional brand with a distinct New England flavor. “New England rum has drier components and is not as sweet as Caribbean rums,” Perry says. “We use new North American white oak barrels with a medium char on them. Rum from New England traditionally had a bit more of a smokier profile, in some ways more whiskey-like.”
The experience you have with rum starts with the style of rum you are drinking. Setting aside the overproof and spiced rums, rums from the Caribbean and Latin America can be broken into three major categories. Each traces its roots back to colonial outposts that were once controlled by major European military powers that fought wars and jockeyed for position to control the New World.