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SugarcaneSaccharum officinale (molasses, rum)
Wine distillateVitis vinifera (brandy)
RyeSecale (whiskey)
CornZea mays (bourbon)
AgaveAgave tequilana (tequila, mescal)


While monastic Europe of the early Middle Ages was divided warring religious factions following the decline of the Roman empire China had entered the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Through this period China was the largest and wealthiest empire in the world with a population that tripled over the period 630-755 CE to over 50 million people. The capital Changan (now Xi’an) was the largest city in the world housing about two million people. The arts flourished and there was open trade with the rest of the world, inland along the Silk Road and by sea to India, Korea, and Japan.

Popularisation of distillation

By about 1000 CE Europe’s most enlightened cities were in Arab Andalusian southern Spain, cities like Cordoba and Toledo. Here there were the most up-to-date civic amenities including about seventy public libraries in Cordoba one of which contained more books than any other European library.(S p. 93) These centres had taken up the beacon of learning by housing key texts from the great Greek, Indian, and Persian scholarly traditions. One small part of this Arab contribution to science and technology was the popularisation of the process of distillation.

The process

Distillation involves vaporising a liquid and then recondensing it so that volatile constituents can be separated out. Distillation apparatus has been found in northern Mesopotamia dating back to about 4000 BCE when it was probably used in perfumery.(S p. 94) Ancient Greeks and Romans used distillation but so far as we know it was the Arabs who first applied the process to wine, thus concentrating the alcohol.

New drinks based on distillation in this way became available during the Age of Discovery that was launched from the Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal. As new colonies and trading centres were established across the world distilled alcohol was a concentrated drink that could be relatively easily transported by ship.

Arab distillation was regarded as a product of alchemy and used medicinally. Arab disapproval of alcoholic drinks meant that it was only when Christians became acquainted with the process that production would go into overdrive.

Middle Ages

Since yeasts cannot live in an alcohol concentration greater than about 15% there was a limit to the level of alcohol that could be achieved by fermentation. Universities and medical schools were becoming established in Europe in the late 13th century and distilled wines, known as ‘aqua vitae’, were recommended as medicines, either imbibed or applied externally. By the fifteenth century, however, spirits had become recreational drinks especially in northern Europe where wine was expensive and the spirit had a warming effect and experimentation yielded positive results.

Whiskey (the word derived from the Gaelic uisge beatha) was made by distilling Beer becoming especially popular in Ireland. In Germany distilled or ‘burnt’ wine was called Branntwein which became, in English, brandywine which was subsequently abbreviated to brandy.

Age of Exploration

The period of experimentation with distilled drinks coincided with the time when European powers were opening up new world’s sea trading routes across the Atlantic to the Americas and round Africa to the East. Portugal had settled the Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Azores, and Canaries offshore from their trading ports on the west coast of Africa. sugar plantations were developed and in the 1440s trading in black slaves began and by 1500 Madeira was the world’s largest sugar exporter. With the opening up of the Americas by Columbus the slave trade increased dramatically as, on his second voyage in 1493 had taken sugarcane from the Canaries. Plantations were soon established on the Caribbean islands and Brazil. As indigenous people quickly succumbed to Old World diseases slavery increased as, over the course of the subsequent 400 years about 11 million African slaves would be taken to the Americas.

The Atlantic trading cycle

The Portuguese way of doing business would be later emulated by the Dutch, French, and British. Fortunes were made and economies bolstered as ships left Europe laden with goods for Africa including textiles, household goods, metals and – by far the most desirable – alcoholic drinks. In Africa these goods would be unloaded and slaves taken aboard for the trip to the Americas where they would be bought to work the sugar plantations. In the Americas raw and processed sugar would be loaded for the last leg back to Europe and the cycle would be repeated.

Hefty profits would be creamed off at each stage of this trading cycle in a formula that would result in the transference of economic and political power from cities of southern Europe and Mediterranean to those of Atlantic northwest Europe: from the old Mediterranean trading hegemony of city-states like Venice, and Genoa, Cairo, Alexandria, Rome, Athens, and Marseilles … to the Atlantic seaboard cities of Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Lisbon. Commerce, and especially the trade in spirits, was transferring the locus of power and beginning to define the modern era as a move from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.

The spirit currency

Portuguese wines had been popular with African traders but by 1510 it was brandy that was most in demand. It was concentrated and therefore efficient to transport, it did not spoil and it carried social kudos. Many of the workers engaged in the Atlantic trade, like the slave guards, were paid in brandy.

Another substantial step was taken when a distilled drink was created from the waste products of sugar production – and that was rum.

The uninhabited Caribbean island of Barbados was settled by the English in 1627. At first they experimented with tobacco plantations which had proved highly profitable in the American colony of Virginia – but without success. Sugar was an obvious alternative so it was introduced from Brazil and slaves set to work in the plantations. Within a decade Barbados had commandeered the sugar trade ‘making its sugar barons among the richest men in the New World’ (S., pp. 106-107).

Without reducing the output of sugar, by-products of the processing, called molasses, were fermented and distilled to produce what was, at first, called cane brandy. Over time it was referred to by the English slang ‘Rumbullion’, meaning a fight or commotion, and then reduced to ‘rum’. Rum became associated with hard work, both as a form of payment for toil and as a way of blotting out its pain. Soon it was also a regular part of life aboard ship. From 1655 the English Royal Navy in the Caribbean replaced the sailor’s traditional ration of a gallon of beer with a half pint of rum. With inebriation a problem Admiral Edward Vernon (nicknamed ‘Old Grogram’) promoted its dilution and together with the addition of sugar and lemon or lime juice (made compulsory in 1795) in a concoction that became known as ‘Grog’. Grog would prove itself during the long eighteenth century sea voyages that led eventually to British rule over the waves: it was also the reason why the British were called ‘limeys’.

Rum was used to buy the slaves that were needed to produce the sugar that was needed to both sell and produce more rum – and it replaced brandy as the spirit of choice.

The New World

The English settlement in America (named Virginia in honour of the virgin Queen Elizabeth I) was deliberately chosen to lie within the latitudes 34-38oN which were those of the Mediterranean and therefore expected to have a similar climate. In principle this meant that Britain could produce for itself all those goods, like wines and fruits, that it was currently importing from southern Europe. The first permanent settlement was in 1607 at Jamestown and the reality did not meet expectations as the colonists struggled with the land and its indigenous people. In 1620 the second English colony made up of puritan separatists who had been set ashore further north at Cape Code from their ship the Mayflower. The cereals they knew from home proved difficult to grow and vines too so they were bereft of both beer and wine. Eventually it was decided to grow tobacco which would help pay for the importation of wine, brandy, and the malted barley that could be used to make their own beer. By about 1650 rum had been accepted as stronger and cheaper and soon raw molasses were being distilled into rum by enterprising men in New England’s major townships. To protect its brandy industry France had banned the production of rum so French sugar plantations would sell the molasses to the New England rum distillers. The British taxation of rum and molasses would be a major contributing factor the American War of Independence.

The taxation and control of spirits would become matters of substantial economic and political consequence.

The pioneering spirit

In America, as the mainly Scottish-Irish settlers moved steadily inland and westward they reverted to the fermentation of cereals to produce whiskey since molasses was largely available through coastal traders. As it became more difficult to access, grain became more abundant. Whiskey was now the currency used to pay for rural labour and life’s basic needs of sugar, salt, gunpowder, and shot. Further west and corn was used more and more in distillation in preference to the usual rye, the product coming mainly from Bourbon County and therefore known by the same name.

Still in debt from the Revolutionary War the US treasury saw a whiskey tax as a means of raising much-needed revenue resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Both the tax and the rebellion failed but it was the first protest in America over taxation following the War of Independence.

George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon just prior to his death in 1799 could boast five highly productive whiskey stills while Thomas Jefferson resisted ‘the poison of whiskey’, engaging in a hopeless campaign to introduce wine.

Meanwhile in Australia large profits were being made by those controlling the rum trade. In Australia this was the military New South Wales Corps and the influential John Macarthur. When Governor Bligh tackled their authority the ‘rum rebellion’ of 1808 that ensued demonstrated who held power as he was himself jailed until the arrival of Macquarie with his own military troops.

Indigenous people

Part of the European ceremonial culture of alcohol since at least Plato had been for a man to ‘hold his drink’, to be aware of its potential disastrous consequences and to keep these under control. This was not part of the tradition for African slaves and indigenous people.

Certainly in the Americas the lust of the native Indians for the escape of alcohol was used as a means of subjugation. In Australia this deliberate policy was not so evident but access to alcohol had the same ultimate effect of devastating the indigenous Aboriginal population. Disorder, brutality, and violence. Alcohol was consumed simply to get drunk. In trading and negotiation a ready supply of alcohol was a quick way for the European to gain an advantage.
The French used brandy to disarm fur trappers, the English used rum.

South America has been the source of a number of spirit drinks. Pulque was a drink made by fermenting the sugary water that collects in the hollowed-out stems of agave plants. Mescal was made from mashed mescal heads. Mexico the Spanish distilled mescal from the mildly alcoholic fermented drink derived by the Aztecs from the juice of agave plants. Even by the 1620s Mexicans were cooking the fleshy leaf bases of Agave tequilana to convert starches to sugar which could be fermented in large vats to create the strongly alcoholic tequila, named from the town where much of it is made – Tequile in the state of Jalisco.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The first global drink

’Unlike beer, which was usually produced and consumed locally, and wine, which was usually made and traded within a specific region, rum was the result of the convergence of materials, people, and technologies from around the world, and the product of several intersecting historical forces. Sugar, which originated in Polynesia, had been introduced to Europe by the Arabs, taken to the Americas by Columbus, and cultivated by slaves from Africa. Rum distilled from its waste products was consumed both by European colonists and by their slaves in the New World. It was a drink that owed its existence to the buccaneering enterprise of the Age of Exploration; but it would not have existed without the cruelty of the slave trade, from which Europeans deliberately averted their gaze for so long. Rum was the liquid embodiment of both the triumph and the oppression of the first era of globalization’S. p. 111

Sadly firearms, infectious diseases, and distilled drinks proved a powerful combination of tools in the subjugation of the New World by the Old World.

Caffeine, cocaine, alcohol.

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