In the mid-seventeenth Century, Captain Henry Morgan was an English privateer who became famous for leading an outfit of pirates on ransacks throughout the Spanish Caribbean, amassing, in the process, a fortune that in 2008 Forbes estimated to be worth $13 million. Today, he is the face of Captain Morgan rum, staring out from one in three bottles of rum sold in America.
Pirates and the Caribbean; plundering and palm trees—and coconuts, and paper umbrellas, and tiki torches. For decades, rum for the American drinker, at its best, has conjured images of the tropics. At its worst, it has probably conjured something else, or little at all—unpleasant mornings and throbbing afterthoughts of rum and cokes, or any of a number of neon, saccharine tropical juices.
But rum is far more than sugar-laden debauchery. Though its origins are in the Caribbean, rum’s history is deeply entwined with the development of the colonial world. In North America in particular, it has a legitimate claim to being the United States’ original drink, enjoying widespread popularity long before whiskey. On the cusp of the American Revolution, Americans downed millions of drams of rum a year, much of it produced by distilleries located within the Thirteen Colonies.
Rum production in America ceased shortly after the Revolution, replaced by that of whiskey. For the next 200 years, it remained (with a few exceptions) an afterthought in America’s liquor cabinet. In the last decade, however, amid a wide boom in craft spirits, rum—like whiskey, gin, and tequila—has taken on a new dimension of connoisseurship. In response to this trend, or as its provocateur, innovative small-batch distillers in the U.S. created a plethora of sophisticated new rums, suitable for mixing in complex drinks or sipping on their own. Today, over one hundred distilleries are producing rum in the United States, up from close to none just five years ago, said Bill Owens, the president of the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization for the craft distilling industry.
One of these distilleries is located far down an industrial stretch of Conover Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, a few blocks from the waterfront and the IKEA ferry dock, in a Dutch-style, red-brick warehouse.
© 2014 Bryce T Bauer