Pre-bourbon era, the South was sippin’ on a sweeter spirit: rum. Charleston’s history is surprisingly potent with ties to the sugarcane-based concoction. It was one of the most prevalent spirits available when the settlement of Charles Towne was established in 1670 thanks to reciprocal trade between the colony and the West Indies Islands, primarily Barbados. In fact, much of Charleston’s culture derived from Barbados’ influence from the design of the Charleston single house to the Gullah language which some sources trace back to the island’s Bajan dialect.
“Rum was perhaps the most common spirit in early Charleston,” says historian Dr. Nic Butler. “Sailors and slaves and tradesmen and everyone drank it. Affluent men preferred to drink fancier stuff, like French brandy and French wines, which were harder to get in British America, in order to display their status. Gin was cheap and plentiful in eighteenth-century England, but in colonial South Carolina it was less plentiful and more expensive than West Indian rum.”
Just prior to Charleston’s establishment, sugarcane was a trending crop throughout the known world. This didn’t go unnoticed by the English settlers in the West Indies. The Portuguese in not-so-distant Brazil were making a killing with the trade and sale of sugarcane. Barbadians were hoping to get in on the sugar rush and began experimenting with growing the crop. After roughly a decade, sugarcane production was booming on Barbados. Growers were successfully processing the plant into sugar and rumbullion (rum), aka “kill-divil.”
The birth of rum came with the harsh reality of enslaved African labor. Business was good, and demand was high. The African to English ratio in Barbados at the time was around 1 to 30. To support their exponential sugarcane growth over the course of a decade, the English decided to bring in more slave labor. By 1660, ten years before Charleston was established, the number of Africans on the island had jumped from less than 1,000 to approximately 27,000. As the population expanded, Barbadians found themselves in need of more mainland resources, lumber in particular, to build houses and barrels and for firewood to boil cane juice into sugar and rum. A group of eight Barbadian investors appealed to King Charles II. Carolina, followed by Charles Towne, was born.
“As a port town, we had regular commercial intercourse with the English/British islands of Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica, and others,” says Butler. Most of South Carolina’s outgoing exports were wood products. They made the staves, or wooden planks, that were shipped off with a future of becoming a barrel. And often, those staves would be shaped into a barrel on the islands and sent right back to us slap full of rum.
In those early years, colonists weren’t crafting cocktails as we know them today. Rum mixtures were motivated by necessity more than flavor. This was before germ theory existed, and colonists were digging water wells dangerously close to their outhouses, or “necessities” as they were called. They didn’t have a complete grasp of the cause, but they knew the untreated well water made them sick. They also learned that adding alcohol to the water prevented illness. As unappetizing as it may sound to our modern palates, this rum and water combo was the earliest version of rum punch. “The phrase ‘rum punch’ appears in many colonial-era sources, but it wasn’t the sort of cocktail we think of today,” says Butler. “The concept of mixing spirits and juices to form a punch or cocktail appears to be a nineteenth-century phenomenon. That sort of mixed punch was definitely a treat for the wealthy, and consumed on special occasions.”
Even more unpleasant, this “punch” of rum and water was devoid of ice — a far cry from the refreshing summer rum cocktails we enjoy today. But this early unpleasantry paved the way for tastier punches mixed with fruit juices. Then, in the early nineteenth century, ice finally made its way to Charleston. Butler writes on the subject in his blog, Charleston Time Machine, “On April 7th, 1817, the Charleston City Gazette noted the recent arrival of a brig from Boston (sixteen days passage), carrying ‘200 tons [of] ice, for the Ice House lately established in this city.’ From that moment in the spring of 1817 until the first shots of the American Civil War in April 1861, Charlestonians enjoyed a continuous supply of Yankee ice to cool our southern summers.” Ice bred a new level of cocktail creativity and led to many of our favorite modern rum mixtures from Planter’s Punch to Piña Coladas.