The Geopolitics of Rum


Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a series entitled Rum as an Ethos, where we discuss the Caribbean’s most popular spirit and how it’s engrained itself in the culture of the region. The first part of this series will focus on the geopolitics of rum, and the second will discuss one traveler’s experiences at a bar in Cuba (suffice it to say, he didn’t work there, but wound up making drinks anyway). This series is perfect for the spirit of the summer, because if you’re not drinking rum cocktails in the warmer months, you’re really missing out.

Despite both parties’ best efforts, talks between the United States and Cuba to re-open an American embassy in Havana failed to reach an agreement last month to end American isolation of Cuba could have strategic benefits, but is likely to run into domestic opposition. The possibility that “we could be drinking Havana Club mojitos and smoking Cuban cigars next Christmas” remains uncertain, because lifting the embargo on Cuba will require congressional action.

From a rum drinkers perspective, the prospect of an open Cuba is intriguing. Cuba has long held an historical allure for many Americans. We’re intrigued by our government’s strategic obsession over the island’s importance to American shipping, and many of us have heard our parents and grandparents wax nostalgic for its pre-Castro past. Cuba’s reputation as a source of illicit contraband actually pre-dates the current embargo, and goes all the way back to the days of rum running during Prohibition.

After Congress ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919, many American bartenders fled to Cuba in search of a place to ply their trade. Their eventual return to the states helped popularize drinks like the Daiquiri. The return of expatriate bartenders, coupled with authors like Hemingway romanticizing Cuba’s drinking scene, cemented the island’s reputation as a good place to drink rum in popular culture. Cuban rum, and its allure in the American psyche, is more intimately tied to the island’s geopolitical history than many realize.

When European colonialists introduced widespread sugar cultivation by slaves to the Caribbean, it had long-lasting effects on the ecology, economy, and language of the region that are still evident in rum production today. In fact, the colonial history of a specific rum’s country of origin is a good indicator of how that rum is likely to taste. Unlike many other spirits that have legal, internationally agreed-upon definitions (for example Scotch in contrast to Bourbon whiskey), rum doesn’t really have a strict taxonomy. It’s generally accepted that rum is a spirit made from sugar cane, but that’s about as far as the definition goes. Despite this, rums produced in countries that share a similar colonial history tend to share stylistic attributes and production methods.

Of course, given the lack of an official taxonomy, and the fact that Caribbean colonial possessions changed hands frequently among the various European powers of the time, there are plenty of exceptions to this general rule. Nonetheless, England, France, Spain, and Portugal, (the four major powers in early 18th century Caribbean) left a colonial legacy that includes four fairly distinct styles of rum. Overtime, Caribbean distillers also borrowed techniques from their European patron countries: French colonies borrowed certain elements of the cognac production process, British colonies used pot stills that mimic those used to make Scotch, and so on.

Most rum is made from molasses, the residue leftover from boiling sugar cane to extract crystalline sugar. The production of rum was a profitable way to utilize this cheap byproduct of sugar production. When sugar prices declined precipitously as a result of increased competition among Caribbean sugar plantations and the discovery of the sugar beet in Europe, some Caribbean sugar plantations decided to forego sugar production altogether and just make rum using juice from the sugar cane instead of molasses. At this point in time, most of the less efficient sugar plantations were located on French colonies. Known today as rhum agricole, the French style of rum is still produced from sugar cane juice in former French colonies such as Haiti where the drink of choice isn’t a daiquiri but a Ti Punch (which is, essentially, a daiquiri made with rhum agricole.)

Rum produced from pure sugar cane juice rather than molasses is also common in the former Portuguese colony of Brazil. You may know the Brazilian style of rum, cachaça, from the Caipirinha cocktail. This rum traces its origins to the 16th century, when Portugal switched its sugar production from the Madeira Islands in the Atlantic to Brazil, bringing slaves to work the plantations.

As has been discussed often on Molotov cocktail (here and here), the English Navy gave their sailors a daily rum ration: an early version of a cocktail, called “Grog.” Before the daily rum ration, British sailors were given French brandy. Rum rationing didn’t become commonplace until 1655 when the British defeated the Spanish in Jamaica and took over the island, along with its sugar plantations. Having cemented a hold over a large, sugar-producing island in the Greater Antilles, the British now had a reliable source of rum. This geopolitical event marks the historical shift from French brandy to Jamaican rum in the British Navy’s daily ration. Jamaica remained a British possession until it achieved its independence in the 1960s, and the style of rum produced there resembles that of other producers who share a British colonial past.

BarbadosJamaica, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, and other former colonial interests play host to some of the most famous British or Navy style rums, which despite having a central distillery are typically mixtures of rum from numerous colonial territories. Another former colonial holding of Great Britain, the United States, was also once known for its rum. New England rum was at one point so profligate that it was used as currency in colonial America. While it is being revitalized today, its legacy was largely lost when Prohibition ended rum production in the United States. Rums with a British history are usually pot-stilled, like Scotch, and aged for several years. They have a rich flavor and tend to be on the darker side. Black strap rum, of which Bermuda’s Gosling’s Black Seal is the most well known, uses a dark molasses that has been triple boiled to extract as many sugar crystals as possible.

Many of the colonies in the Caribbean were Spanish at one point or another, so most of the rum produced there is in the Spanish style, which is sometimes defined by its similarity to brandy since the Spanish colonists brought their brandy-making equipment with them to the New World. It’s therefore unsurprising that Spanish-style rum is the most common in the American market. In addition to being the most well represented style geographically, Spanish-style rum has also been popularized in large part to the marketing efforts of the Bacardi Corporation.

Originally a Cuban wholesaling business founded by a Spanish immigrant in the 1830s, Bacardi’s history is intimately tied to Cuba’s, and in turn with the evolution of American strategic interests in the Caribbean (the actual distillery opened in 1862). Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French secured for the United States the vast interconnected Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio river system. In so doing, Jefferson also provided future American farmers access to a world market for their agricultural products. New Orleans, which sits atop the mouth of the Mississippi River, was central to this strategy.

Any enemy who could capture New Orleans could cut off the U.S. interior’s trade from the rest of the world. That is precisely what the British did in the War of 1812. General Andrew Jackson famously defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 and, coincidentally, shipped the body of defeated British Major General Edward Pakenham back to England in a cask of rum.

The United States quickly realized after the War of 1812 that American shipping could still be threatened in the Yucatan straits or the passage through the Florida Keys, both of which are accessible via Cuba. If the British were to seize Cuba from the crumbling Spanish Empire, they could easily interdict American shipping with their superior naval strength. This fear, along with substantial American business interests on the island, fed into the American decision to become involved in the Cuban War for Independence and ultimately, to occupy Cuba with American troops in 1898.

The Bacardi family was instrumental in branding the island and its rum as an attractive destination for American business and tourism during and after the American occupation. Emilio Bacardi was even appointed mayor of Santiago during the occupation by U.S. General Leonard Wood. The Bacardis are credited with producing the first widely distributed, refined white rum, created by filtering aged rum through charcoal to remove its color. Living in exile from Cuba, the family continues to play an active financial role in opposition to Fidel Castro both inside the United States and within Cuba.

A geopolitical shift like rapprochement between Cuba and the United States could shake up the rum industry in more ways than one. Good quality rum like Havana Club is still produced on the island and would easily find a market in America if legal barriers were lifted. However, stunted by the American embargo the brand has grown up into a two-headed oddity, with a Puerto Rican version of the rum (owned by Bacardi) sold in the US states. This version of Havana Club shares only a name with its Cuban cousin. The Pernod Ricard Company, in partnership with the Cuban government, owns the Havana Club brand in Cuba and world markets, and intends to market Havana Club under the name Havanista in the states if the embargo is ultimately lifted. Whatever the case, the state of the Cuban economy means that the country would certainly benefit from virtually any kind of investment. Given the prominent role still played by rum and sugar production on many Caribbean islands, the rum industry seems like a good place to start.

*Thanks to Robert A. Burr of Rob’s Rum Guide (@RobsRumGuide) for contributing a few edits to this piece post-publication.


Frank Swigonski is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.


Photo credit: Mark Rowland