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Excerpt: Driven Mad by 'Demon Rum'

Despite the fact that rum has been widely important to the history of the U.S., it has been demonized by ignorance and hypocrisy.
 
 
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The great days of Prohibition allowed the New England states to return to their historical roots -- as rum smugglers.

And just as the movers and shakers of the new American republic came to prominence, wealth, and influence as a result of their smuggling and rum trading with the connivance of ineffective enforcement, so too did the new dynasty of the later republic -- the Kennedys -- owe their origins to the trade.

Rum and slavery, Abolition and Prohibition, all shared similar roots in the American mind-set. James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, banned slaves and rum -- and ended up with both. But the same New England Protestant fervor that cried down slavery also cried down the "demon rum." It was not always a well-advised demand.

Abraham Lincoln declared in 1840, when he was an Illinois legislator:

Prohibition will work great injury on the cause of temperance. It is a species of intemperance within itself, for it goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime of out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes at the very principle upon which our government was founded.

Lincoln's good sense was ignored. Rarely has a democracy taken such a nannying attitude to its citizens as the United States, filling its prisons with perpetrators of victimless crimes, whether in the name of a war on drugs, homosexuality, prostitution, or, for so many years, the war against the Demon Rum. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Republican clergymen castigated the Democrats as "the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," shorthand for Southerners and Irish.

Insanity can be infectious. Much of Canada was afflicted, but mercifully for only a short period before seeing the folly of the project. Discussions of Prohibition in the United States often overlook the Canadian experience, which began by allowing localities to declare themselves dry and moved on to a Prohibition referendum in 1898, which was won by 51 percent of the vote. Quebec exceptionalism saved the day, however. Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier had counted the votes as well, and he noted that Quebec, one of his major support bases, had voted by 81 percent against this crazy Anglo-Protestant idea. He realized that a federally enforced prohibition would precipitate much unease among his French-speaking voters, and so he did not try to implement it.

In the end, the matter was left to the provinces, some of which tried prohibition, while others made liquor a government monopoly. In the Maritime Provinces, such as Nova Scotia, rum had its strongest hold, and they returned large majorities for Prohibition. Nova Scotia mandated Prohibition everywhere except Halifax, which is where most of its people lived, but then it extended it to cover the entire province.

Newfoundland, independent at the time, voted for Prohibition in 1915, but had the good sense to repeal it in 1924, just in time to benefit from the Americans' mistake -- Newfoundland made the rum-running ships for the trade down the coast. It would compete with the French islanders from St. Pierre and Miquelon in smuggling rum -- and whiskey, gin, and anything else potable -- down the New England coast.

But the cunning Frenchies, vestiges of the eighteenth-century rum wars, were quicker off the mark, because they had begun by supplying Newfoundland when it introduced Prohibition in 1915. The rum that the Newfoundlanders imported was, according to Warner Allen, "portentous," and the sometime thriller writer and wine expert used his literary skills to describe it: "Neat, it was the most awe-inspiring liquor I ever tasted. Its smell was terrific, compounded of tar, and leather, and strange sea scents, and if ever there was a drink strong enough to float a handspike, it was the contraband rum of St. Johns, Newfoundland."

The paradox is that most Americans were drinking whiskey, rather than rum, as the American temperance movement lurched on toward Prohibition. But rum had become exalted as the demon spirit. Its rhyming, rhotic, and alliterative qualities allowed it to be used and abused as the epitome of evil, a sort of Platonic idea of mother's ruin, and to be paired with anything with which the preacher disapproved.

Just as the South's absence from the debate during the Civil War allowed prohibition to take over in the navy, it could be said that the nullification of the power of the beer-drinking German-American lobby during the First World War allowed the prohibitionists to get away with a surprise victory with the Eighteenth Amendment. As with any law with which a significant part of the population strongly disagrees, Prohibition turned the United States into an alcoholic vacuum sucking in booze from wherever it would come -- towed on cables under border lakes and rivers, taken over the ice on trucks, flown in on dubious biplanes, and shipped in from the Rum Rows where the ships from Cuba and the Bahamas in the South and Newfoundland in the North, lined up just outside territorial waters to sell to the fast motor launches from the shore.

The traditional expertise that had fought the excisemen since colonial times was now recalled into play. In North and South Carolina, people used molasses to make moonshine rum. But generally they used anything that would ferment, and refined sugar was often added to the mash. This was not an age for connoisseurs. People wanted ethanol without worrying too much about taste or congeners, and aging was too much of a luxury with Prohibition agents on the prowl.

The risks of the trade were low, and the profits high. Five thousand cases of liquor loaded for $125,000 at Nassau would double in value when sold at Rum Row. On the beach, the price doubled again to $500,000, and by the time the cargo had been cut with water and sold in New York, it was worth $2,000,000. Bill McCoy, "Bartender to the whole nation" -- boasted of his exploits with his fleet of eight ships plying to Rum Row off Long Island where, beyond the twelve-mile limit, they serviced the fast rum boats that came out on a cash-and-carry basis. Of course the rum-runners had to face the risk of revenue cutters, but it seems that the law officers performed their duties with the same lack of assiduity as their New England predecessors had done during colonial times.

While much of the rum-runners' stock-in-trade was whiskey, gin, and Champagne, there was a lot of rum, not only to meet the historical Northeastern tastes but also for companies like Bacardi to meet the new upmarket taste for rum that American tourists had acquired in Cuba. New England rum had never been a drink for gourmets, and its patrons were always more interested in the alcohol than the flavor.

Alcoholic Amnesia

It's easy to see why this important part of American heritage is now all but forgotten except by historians. Quite apart from the perennial American amnesia about history, Prohibition helped erase the importance of alcohol in general and rum in particular to the country's development. Anything alcoholic became so thoroughly disreputable that to say that a founding father took the occasional drink is on a par with suggesting that George W. Bush sniffed cocaine: it may be true, but it is not polite to talk about it.

As the Prohibition and Temperance movements grew in strength, patriotic prints of the first president and his officers were bowdlerized. The Currier and Ives print of Washington's farewell toast to his officers that was published in 1848 showed a glass in his hand and a decanter on the table. By 1867, the glass had disappeared, leaving him with his hand on his chest in Nelsonian mode, and the decanter had been converted to a hat! Successive biographers of Patrick Henry turned him from a former tavern keeper to an occasional tavern visitor, before dropping the tavern entirely from his life story.

We enter the hypocritical version of American idolatry, which overlooked its idols' feet of clay while primly ignoring their rum-soaked livers entirely. This dry spirit ran deep and long. Ezra Pound had to make his way to Europe when he was fired from Wabash College. His landladies had reported him for having a woman in his rooms overnight, and his protestations that she slept on the floor were not believed. The college elders showed scant sympathy, since not only did he smoke, but he took rum in his tea as well. Even so, the very land their college was built on was allegedly purchased from the Indians for fifty pieces of silver and a hogshead of rum.

At the end of Prohibition, several companies tried to revive the centuries-old tradition of New England rum. One valiant effort was Pilgrim rum, whose efforts to evoke Yankee history did not work out in the marketplace. The taste for rum, already declining under the assault of whiskey, never really recovered from Prohibition, and just like their forebears, Americans who did drink the stuff preferred Caribbean imports, not least Bacardi, whose generic spirit and commercial power drove out many of its competitors …

Boston had some unusual casualties from the old rum connection, and none more so than the Great Boston Molasses flood which ominously opened the new era of drought. On January 15, 1918, a 58-feet-high tank built by the Purity Distilling Company split open and disgorged its 2.3 million gallons -- 14,000 tons -- of molasses. Like some glutinous volcanic lava flow, it gurgled across the North End of the city in a flood 5 feet deep that ran at 35 miles an hour, taking over twenty people in its path to the stickiest of sticky ends.

The final vote for the last state necessary to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment was due to take place the following day and in anticipation, Purity had sold the operation to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which claimed that a dynamite charge had crashed open the tank, but the courts ruled otherwise and ordered $1 million in compensation. The suspicious may have wondered at the coincidence of impending Prohibition and its significance for all the molasses, which could either be distilled or used with baked beans. It would take an awful lot of beans to use up that much molasses.

More to the point, despite attempts to revive New England rum afterward, Prohibition effectively put an end to the centuries-old tradition. That ominous flood of molasses was almost a murky-brown epitaph to the old days that had given birth to the nation, even if its spirit did live on in the Kennedy dynasty and its Cuban connections. And the ghost of the tradition survives on New England taste buds -- for example, Mount Gay rum from Barbados still has one of its best American markets in the Boston area. Bostonians claim that you can still smell the molasses in the vicinity of the disaster, but it is at best as ephemeral as the aroma of rum in the city's bars, a ghost of its former self.

Modern Rum: Matured but No Longer Piratical
Indeed, after Prohibition, rum became so passé that even preachers stopped inveighing against it. The post-Prohibition era was a brave new age in which white spirits like gin, white rum from Bacardi, and later vodka were the basis for the cocktails. "Brown spirits" went into something of a depression, except for high-end whiskies and Cognac. Rum was not in a position to compete on quality or branding, since, apart from some Cuban and French Antillean rums, it suffered from its previous plebeian popularity.

It was only toward the end of the century, as the niche market for single malt scotches, VSOP Cognac, and even aged tequilas took off, that rum-makers really began to appreciate the importance of branding. As vodka -- 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water -- showed, the difference between $10 a bottle and $80 a bottle was the bottle and the label. Bacardi epitomized that marketing, with its rootless spirit made from any sugarcane, anywhere.

But this posed a problem for the more traditional rum-makers in the Caribbean. To age rum means tying up capital for five or more years. You pay for expensive spirit and the expensively hand-coopered barrels, and you have to pay to warehouse them and give them tender loving care, knowing that each year 10 percent of your stock evaporates through the wood. The business entails money for marketing and brand-building, for distribution and advertising.

While the Caribbean had once been the cockpit of empires, it was now an embarrassing backwater for many of the former imperial powers. First coal and then oil had replaced sugar as the most lucrative carbon-based commodity and foundation of empire. A combination of Napoleon's sugar beet, European protectionism, and high American tariff walls designed to protect Archer Daniel Midland's high-fructose corn syrup made sugar a drug on the world market.

Even Cuba, faced with Gorbachev's fight against alcoholism, lost first its Soviet rum exports, then its sugar markets. Many islands, once the sugary equivalent of oil-gushing Gulf states, gave up sugar plantations entirely. Golf courses were more lucrative and tourism more dependable than sugar mills. The imperial powers had some vestigial sense of responsibility for the islands they had populated with kidnapped Africans and reduced to backbreaking monoculture -- but not too much.

The British government, influenced as ever by the Treasury, could see that these islands were now loss-making assets and happily encouraged independence. The French, still dreaming of glory, incorporated their islands as integral parts of France. When the Europeans got together at the Lomé Convention to try to help their former colonies in the developing world with trade preferences, uneasy compromises were made. Martinique and Guadeloupe were officially part of France, so their rums were guaranteed preferential access, and to protect them while extending a helping hand to the former colonies, the European Union agreed a quota system for rum entering the Continent from former colonies.

It tied the Caribbean rum producers to what looked like a secure arrangement that would, however, do little to encourage them to take the necessary steps toward the product development, branding, and marketing that they needed. And whatever they did was in the face of a near-monopoly from Bacardi -- not just on the rum market, but with the very concept of rum in the biggest markets.

In the ultimate show of ingratitude, almost in a fit of absentmindedness, the European Union agreed with the United States during trade talks at the World Trade Organization in Singapore 1997 to end the quotas and protective tariffs for spirits, throwing the market open. It was a sweetener for a deal that gave the European Union better access to the U.S. technology market. The beleaguered rum producers of the Caribbean suddenly found themselves facing open competition from countries where sugar production was subsidized and where unions were unknown. For example, the fuel that was going into Brazilian cars could theoretically now be exported as cheap rum. Caribbean rum was providing thousands of jobs in the region -- and $260 million a year in foreign exchange.

Some of the producers, such as Appleton in Jamaica and Mount Gay in Barbados, went into alliance with some of the handful of major global spirits companies and began to emphasize quality and age in order to develop a premium market. And Bacardi also developed its "aged" or Anejo products. But many small distilleries on the various islands were not in a position to fight trade rules and Bacardi.

It took four years of conscience-tugging at the European Union to produce a $70 million aid package to help the Caribbean rum distillers develop production techniques and market their product. With tourism surging in the islands, exposure to the local product should help marketing, but as we have seen, chain hotels are often tied to major international companies such as Bacardi for what they offer to their visitors.

With all the barriers against them, the genuine Caribbean rum producers are surviving. Whether they will thrive remains to be seen …

Whether it was the blood of slaves or of Nelson, rum soaks into the pages of battlefields from Haiti to Yorktown, from the Somme to Gallipoli, from Trafalgar to Jutland, liquid history as well as liquid sunshine. Still, even if rum may not shape our history so directly now, in these stressful times a therapeutic response to history is to hang loose and savor yet another tot of the global spirit that still has its warm heart in the Caribbean.

"Life Needs the Caribbean," claimed the post-September 11 travel ads trying to coax timorous Americans over the border. And what is the Caribbean without rum -- the only common essential factor apart from sunshine in that richly multicultural region whose current poly-lingualism reflects its historical role as a great power battleground.

Reprinted with permission from Rum: The Spirit of 1776 by Ian Williams; Nation Books; 2005 .

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, the Nation and Salon.