Etymology of the Word Rum by Darnell Davis (1885)

A fun snippet from the files is this 1885 look at the etymology of the word rum. Judging by titles of his other works, the author, the honorable Darnell Davis, was quite the character, but so far I haven’t figured out if he was any kind of colonialist racist or not. Google has no full view of his essays, but I’ve yet to consult other resources (too busy at the foundry).

Davis’ work comes a whole 200 years after the birth of the word, rum, at a time that was pretty much the birth of modern rum with any stylistic identity (beginning of chemical and then later biological control).

Most enthusiasts today believe there are few works on the subject, but rum it turns out, has the most well documented history of any spirit category. This blog has become sort of a monument to and repository of that technical history.

Categorizing rum is all the rage, and lately in discussions, I’ve been promoting the top most categories of fine rum and commodity rum (which we will eventually sub categorize). This backs away from cliches like sipping and mixing as well as industrial and artisan. It is no revolution in rum categorization, but the words are semantically powerful and have been very valuable to understanding wine. Wine, we will repeatedly see, is where we should look when figuring out how to categorize and market rum.

My big point is that fine rums exist, and they are certainly out there on the market, but the category does not yet exist. We cannot have fine rums sorted from all the commodity junk until the complete history of rum comes out. We just went from thinking Jamaican rum was shrouded in mystery to finding out it has the most documented history of any spirit complete with time stamps, intimate anecdotes, and first names galore.

Fine wines tell a story, and that is largely their whole point, but we cannot read it unless we clearly know how they were produced. Things we don’t quite understand like the contribution of cane varieties cannot be pulled apart until the other variable are isolated by disclosure. We still have no wide acknowledgement of Schizosaccharomyces Pombe as a rum yeast. Giant holes exist in rum knowledge that would change any categorization system so I think a lot of people are getting ahead of themselves.

Fine rums cannot tell their story until we know more about them starting with their technical history and evolution. This has nothing to do with banishing caramel coloring or the arbitrary numbers attached to a solera system. Dwelling there will just set rum back. The future of fine rum literature will probably resemble Andrew Jefford’s writing on wine, but it is nowhere near there at the moment.

Darnell Davis’ 1885 etymology of rum is another step in telling the history of rum that will get us closer to the category of fine rum. Pulling these papers out is less about helping to produce better rum (like some of my efforts for new distillers) and more about helping to read rum. We need a continuous story from the birth of the word to the bottles we are currently enjoying.

Spirits get shaped by countless influences from the cultural to the philosophical to the scientific. Wars shape spirits and so do unique government programs like the various experiment stations or the infamous Rum Pilot Plant. The fine category begins with chemical and biological control to sculpt a spirit into an ideal and then the philosophical is free to take over.

Fine wine, we must remember, was born in the lab. The American winners of the Judgement of Paris were all lab technicians turned winemakers. This allowed them to follow the progressive process of incremental improvement for their wine. These producers, particularly Warren Winiarski, were deeply involved in the philosophical end of wine construction, but they also had the technical foundation to execute all their ideas.

Let’s quote Winiarski because it is wildly relevant:

That was also there. All of those things. We didn’t talk about the major ingredient, the accumulation of scientific information and things that people did at Davis. Maynard Amerine’s work with grapes and where they grow best –that bulletin of the Agriculture Experiment Station at the University of California that I used as a Bible, reading it in a devotional way. Every day you read a little bit of this, at night you read a little bit of that, getting intimately immersed in the contents. You read another chapter and tried to figure out what these must analyses could mean and what their significance was. The existence of such a rich body of knowledge was certainly another major ingredient. And I think the other thing was the people, among whom I count myself, whose taste and aspirations were formed elsewhere and who brought in the ability to actually accomplish the coming together of these several elements.

Maynard Amerine and the culture of that UC Davis era have always been a guide for the work at the Bostonapothecary. A Winiarski or a Grgich of the rum world will not come along until we assemble and digest all the literature. Also, notice that Winiarski et al. were studying texts meant for commodity wine production. These fine wine makers literally sat in (old school non degree sat in) the back of the class to learn anything that might help them produce fine wines. What are the differences between fine and commodity? Philosophy, scale, and compromise.

A big problem the new distilling movement has is a shoddy notion of philosophical ideals and absolutely zero chemical and biological control. With few exceptions, they have all pretty much only gotten as far as: “look mom, I made rum”. And of course it is not rum, which is a concept that pops up in the literature time and again, best reinforced by Arroyo. Not all things made from sugar cane products are rum and if they’re not rum, they are in the commodity category. The commodity category has things that aren’t fit to be called rum as well as things fit to be called rum, but not fit to be called fine. Right now we are seeing some of the most expensive commodity distillates ever produced hitting the market from the new distilling scene.

Skimmings communicate in a far greater degree than molasses the characteristic stamp to rum. A spirit made of pure molasses and water would scarcely be rum; and instances are familiar of molasses having been removed from one place and distilled at another, which, with different skimmings, have produced an entirely different rum. -J.S., 1871

Ideas evolved a bit and rum, according to Arroyo, starts with a rum yeast, and what is special about that yeast is that it takes advantage of precursors in the substrate to produce extraordinary congeners, of low frequency of occurrence, and of universal harmonic value, all the while limiting congeners like fusel oil which overshadow when in excess. Yet we’ve only learned all that recently by rediscovering literature that had been lost for decades.

Just like the chemical and biological aspects of rum production have a history, so too does the philosophical and that heritage goes back much further than anyone had recently thought. Just the other day, a paper turns up from 1871 with an author (J.S. also quoted above) describing the idea of forcing versus intercepting flavour. Though it is proto-philosophy, the concept sit parallel to the idea of wines of effort versus wines of terroir.

Only with recently revealed technical history could we read more of the story of the fine rums of Cape Verde because much of their unique character has to do with their sugar cane juice not being centrifuged and defecated like the rhums of Martinique.

Don’t forget that many of the fine rums of the last ten years from independent bottlers such as Plantation were not very conscientious nor produced with much enlightened philosophy. They were found art, accidentally over aged, and accidentally ending up extraordinary after missing their modest targets. Their architects weren’t part of contemporary culinary with their own twitter accounts, but were often government employees and at the most generous, many could be called outsider artists (brilliant and conscientious, but within a tiny bubble). The faceless nature and the way so many producers imploded is a big part of the intrigue for the sleeping relics they left behind. But on distilling day for the 1986 Barbados rum bottled by Plantation, if you said fine or asked about forcing or intercepting flavour, the Barbados boys would say: ‘the fuck you talk’n about?’ It was distilled like a brick house, but with commodity ambitions as the basis for some anonymous blend somewhere.

Anyhow, read Darnell Davis and marvel at his tracing the etymologies of rum and his tales of digging through the libraries of Europe to do it.

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