Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Forget the Caribbean: Was Rum Invented in India?

      Newly discovered evidence suggests that rum production predates the Caribbean by at least 1,000 years and may began in South East Asia.  Dave Wondrich’s article says that rum may have conceived years before the Caribbean even got its first sugarcane.

     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.

     This doesn’t really surprise me, considering that sugarcane had its beginning in different locations in Southeast Asia.  Sugarcane originated in tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations with S. barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea. Originally, people chewed sugarcane raw to extract its sweetness.

     Reaching 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."  The geography part, at least, is easy: although cane was grown in various parts of the Indian subcontinent, its historical heartland was a broad swath of territory running along the Himalayas from Kandahar, in what is now Afghanistan, all the way through Lahore and Delhi and Calcutta to the Bay of Bengal. By the 1500s, the industry was centered in the province of Bengal-modern Bangladesh.  As for its consumption, we know one thing: its use need not have been confined to the empire's non-Muslim subjects. The Moghuls were imperfect Muslims in this respect, and alcohol was frequently consumed at all levels of Moghul society, right up to the very Emperors themselves, all of whom were topers, and some of them to notorious excess.

     This is only a short synopsis of the article, that if you are interested in can be read in its entirety at