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[I eventually received two copies of this missing document. The first was in the NY State library while the second was collected by Alfred Fromm, who was a California wine merchant that eventually went to work for Seagram. Seagram bough Fromm & Sichel in 1962 (after a 1954 partnership) and brought to market a Christian Brothers vermouth, among many projects, to compete with Tribuno. So a California wine & brandy’s guys copy made it all the way to Waterloo.
In the oral history on Fromm, there is an interesting anecdote on page 19 of the building of Christian Brothers famous Vulcan plated pot still of which, a few are still in service at O’Neill vintners.
On page 20, Fromm paraphrases a New York bank: “We will loan on whiskey, but we don’t loan on brandy; we don’t know it. These Commerce Reports were very significant because they provided data for banks to operate. How could could you secure a loan to import rum when the bank did not “know it”?]
A paper that was at the top of my book bounties list has finally come home to the rum community. This document was frequently cited by Kervegant and may have formed the cornerstone of many people’s rum knowledge for a considerable period of time after it was written. I thought this document may have influenced Peter Valaer, the IRS chemist, but it may have been the other way around. Valaer wrote Foreign and Domestic Rum, also in 1937, which is easily one of the most important documents on rum.
The first thing you notice is the document is a pageant of adulteration and the industry is in rough shape from the perspective of our contemporary standards of quality with the exception of a few bright spots like Haiti.
The document starts with Barbados and the first thing you see is that their pot still rum fetches three times as much as column. Those pot stills are also mentioned as having rectifying columns, but you have to take all the production descriptions in the document with a grain of salt. The author wrote a lot of letters for information, but likely never traveled anywhere. At the same time, I bet all the information is gathered from letters and not so much regurgitated from classic texts. So how widely were the ferments of Barbados seeing vegetable roots, coconut shells, and “other substances”?; I doubt widely. However, I bet they were ladden with “sauces” composed of “Sherry, Madeira, or other wines, sometimes spirits of niter, bitter almonds, and raisins or other fruits.” I also bet a lot of that tasted pretty good for the price.
“In British Guiana some of the rum producers have a unique custom of placing chunks of raw meat in the casks to assist in aging, to absorb certain impurities and to add a certain distinctive character.”
Valaer used the exact same quote, but we get zero additional background on the technique that has captivated a lot of imaginations. Present day impeccable DDL is probably horrified by this bit of old history they have outgrown, but I say own it and give us any background that may exist in the archives. Many years ago, I pinned the raw meat saga to The Micro-Organism of Faulty Rum of 1898. A few scientists thought they were finding bacteria growing in full strength rum (impossible!), but they may have merely been observing bits of tissue from the meat under the microscope. What other spirits category has such fun history?; especially when most of the rum from Guyana of that era was not much to write about.
“The Cuban rums are so dissimilar in character to the New England type as to constitute almost a different kind of beverage spirits, although each has its origin in the distillation of fermented molasses. And this is “rum”s curse, an ocean of so-called rum shares a name with the real deal. In recent years, there was a heritage campaign romancing this era of Cuban rums and spending quite a bit of money, but they appeared to gloss over a lot of adulteration.
The description of Martinique’s Tafia habitant is quite exciting. Its made from a boiled syrup as opposed to fresh juice and see dunder. “Many connoisseurs in Martinique prefer aged grappe blanche, but the common vieux rhum of local commerce is tafia habitant aged in oak, which has been charred by a fire of pine shavings or straw and pine tar.” Now I want both!
Haiti, to me, is the brightest spot of the entire document. “Haiti has never been a large producer of rum. Commencing with French colonial days, however, Haiti has produced a small quantity of high quality rum.”
“The distillers in Haiti are mainly small units and are not equipped to secure the volume of output which is necessary to obtain a profit through the sale of the cheaper varieties of rum. Thus, unlike the producers in other West Indian countries who have found that the low-grade market offers the best possibilities, the Haitian producers have had to confine their activities to the limited higher quality fields.”
The low-grade market employs people and that would be beneficial to Haiti so they were certainly “confined”. Dealt an uphill economic battle, Haiti has persevered and contributed to rum an unblemished record of quality, integrity, and culture. We see a snapshot of Haiti’s confrontation with the so-called rum: “some rum is made from molasses, and is thus produced more cheaply than that made from cane sirup. The majority of the distillers have been actively endeavoring to make illegal the production of rum from molasses.”
America also steps in to rob Haiti with colonial tactics. “A few years ago a large American-controlled sugar company began distilling rum in Haiti and is now able to produce a larger quantity than any of the Haitian companies can produce. This company has done most of the exporting.”
The Jamaica section is predictable and every things appears to be pot still in 1937.
We see the birth of rum in the Philipines in the 1930’s, but nothing exciting is mentioned.
Rum is also born in Puerto Rico in the 1930’s and Raphael Arroyo does not enter the scene until the end of the decade. Many Puerto Rican rums were graded up with the real deal from Jamaica or Martinique while others were highly adulterated. There is a production note that “the mash is allowed to stand for 4 to 7 days before distillation. It is claimed that this process gives rum a relatively light flavor, rather low in congeneric substances.” The author probably does not know how to interpret what he is told and is simply an information gatherer. Arroyo went to war with the fake agers and we see a description of their practices in PR.
I was extremely excited for the section on American rum, but it did not provide much new information. Years ago, I was able to attribute the remarkable heavy character of New England rum at Boston’s Felton & Son’s to the Harvard educated chemist Harris Eastman Sawyer. Felton & Son’s may have gotten special permission to amass large stocks of aged rum over the course of prohibition because Sawyer also worked as a referee for analytical techniques with the IRS spirits labs and was very close with those in power. The big prize was securing the right to use nicotine as a last minute denaturant thus claiming the heavy rum was being produced for the tobacco industry.
What we get a glimpse of is what other American distillers produced a fairly heavy rum and where they were. We don’t however get any clues about whether dunder was used, pot stills, or even the possibility of a three chambered still. Not many research papers exist on the production practices of New England rum near the turn of the century because of the specter of “demon rum” well before prohibition ever took place. Valaer’s paper provides many analytical numbers for the mythic 20 year old Felton rum unleashed at the end of prohibition.
Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin islands has always confused me. They had a 19th century stellar reputation for Santa Cruz rum and then in 1934 we see the U.S. Government facilitating a planned community centered around rum production. This was pure cane juice rum aged in oak so presumably of a high quality. The juice was used fresh with most being seeded by pure culture while some allowed spontaneous fermentation with 8 day ferments. They had both pot and column stills. There appeared to be no essences or adulteration. The column still was a 28 foot continuous column and operated at 135-150° which implies quality and character.
So what happened to this era? Did the physical foot print of tourism displace sugar cane? Hugh Barty-King tells us “There had been a time when sugar cane covered the hillsides of St. Croix, but in 1982 ruined sugar mills were tourist attractions. Molasses for rum making had to be imported.”
As many islands like Barbados are successful recovering a percentage of their cane growing, can St. Croix restart any of it?