July 3, 2022

Forget the Caribbean: Was rum invented in India?

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By DAVID WONDRICH From Daily Beast

Newly discovered evidence suggests that rum production predates the Caribbean by at least 1,000 years and may have actually started in South East Asia.

When rum was invented it was already at least a thousand years old.

I’d better explain. For every cultural phenomenon, be it Russian formalism, country line dancing or the production of a distilled spirit from the juice of the sugar cane or the byproducts of its refining (that is, making rum), there is a both a history and a History.

The latter, with the capital H, is the story that we know and can more or less agree upon; the one with a firm beginning, a cast of characters and a clear narrative arc. All its paperwork is in order, with actual documents of one sort or another holding up every corner.

The former, plain old history, is what really happened, whether we know it or not. Sometimes the official story seems to tack pretty closely with it; we’ve got documents that tell us, for instance, what happened pretty much every minute during the Battle of Waterloo. Other times they seem to pull in different directions and all we can see of the real story from our vantage point are hints and glimpses, shining occasionally out of an almost undocumented murk. If there’s a narrative in there, an orderly course of events, we can’t find it. But every once in a while, we’re able to uncover another documentary foundation point, deep in that murk, and use it to winch the arc of History in a new direction, a little bit closer to what was really going on.

Which brings us to rum. The start line for the spirit’s History has traditionally been drawn on the Caribbean island of Barbados in 1645, give or take a year, with English colonists responsible for its invention. A few modern historians take a somewhat wider view. Frederick H. Smith, in his groundbreaking 2005 study Caribbean Rum, observes that cane distillation was recorded in Martinique in 1640, and that it may have been brought to both that island and Barbados by Dutch colonists fleeing the Portuguese reconquest of northern Brazil, occupied by the Dutch since 1630. The Dutch may have started the practice there or picked it up from the Portuguese colonists.

The French historian Alain Huetz de Lemps reaches a little deeper into the murk in his comprehensive 1997 Histoire du rhum to add that, even if direct documentary or archeological evidence is lacking, it is nonetheless “quite possible that the Portuguese or the Spanish had practiced [sugar cane] distillation since the sixteenth century in their Atlantic island holdings (Madeira, the Canaries) or their American colonies.”

THE OTHER RUM

We’ll get back to these theories. First, however, I’d like to reach yet further into that murk, and further by quite a bit, and highlight a few documents that have not been generally included in the History of rum. They come not from the Caribbean, or the New World at all, but from Asia. In the absence of a comprehensive history of distillation in that vast, and vastly diverse, continent, they are widely scattered and lacking in context, but that does not mean they should be left out of the History of rum, as thus far most have been.

The first is a section of the Ain-i-Akbari, the “Constitution of Akbar,” a work (in Persian) compiled around 1590 by Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak, Grand Vizier to Akbar, the Moghul Emperor of India, whose realm, encompassing northern India, parts of Afghanistan and the eastern parts of Iran, held a fifth of the world’s population. In a survey of all the useful plants to be found in that empire, Abu’l Fazl includes a section on sugar cane.  After briefly discussing the types of cane and their cultivation, he adds (in H. Blochmann’s 1873 translation) that “sugarcane is also used for the preparation of intoxicating liquor.”

First, he explains, the cane is pounded together with acacia bark (here, I believe, as preservative) and then the juice is fermented for a week or longer. Sometimes unrefined sugar is added, or other aromatics, or even pieces of meat. Then the liquid is strained and sometimes drunk as is. However, as Abu’l Fazl adds, “it is mostly employed for the preparation of arrack.”

Like “salsa,” “arrack,” also written as “rack,” is one of those words that, though they have perfectly clear equivalents in English, are rarely translated, thus making the things they designate sound exotic. In this case, the word means simply “distilled spirit” and is applied to local spirits from the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to the Indonesian archipelago, encompassing a variety of liquors as different from each other as mezcal and Cherry Heering. In India alone, in the 1500s, it could be made from, among other things, palm sap, cashew fruit, mahua-tree leaves or, as in this case, sugar cane.

Abu’l Fazl then goes on to describe precisely how this cane arrack is made, detailing—and quite accurately—the three different kinds of still used (to modern students of the history of distillation these are known as the “Gandharan,” for which see below, the “Mongolian” and the “Chinese”) and adding that “some distil the arrack twice, when it is called Duátasha, or twice burned; it is very strong.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to context for this rum (because if this isn’t rum, by the modern definition, nothing is), the Vizier gives us nothing: neither where it is made nor how it is consumed and by whom.

IMAGE:

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LYNE LUCIEN/THE DAILY BEAST

For more on this story go to; https://www.thedailybeast.com/forget-the-caribbean-was-rum-invented-in-india

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