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 have actually started in South East Asia

When rum was invented it was already at least a thousand years old.

I’d better explain. For every cultural phenomenon, be it Russian formalism, country line dancing or the production of a distilled spirit from the juice of the sugar cane or the byproducts of its refining (that is, making rum), there is a both a history and a History.

The latter, with the capital H, is the story that we know and can more or less agree upon; the one with a firm beginning, a cast of characters and a clear narrative arc. All its paperwork is in order, with actual documents of one sort or another holding up every corner.

The former, plain old history, is what really happened, whether we know it or not. Sometimes the official story seems to tack pretty closely with it; we’ve got documents that tell us, for instance, what happened pretty much every minute during the Battle of Waterloo. Other times they seem to pull in different directions and all we can see of the real story from our vantage point are hints and glimpses, shining occasionally out of an almost undocumented murk. If there’s a narrative in there, an orderly course of events, we can’t find it. But every once in a while, we’re able to uncover another documentary foundation point, deep in that murk, and use it to winch the arc of History in a new direction, a little bit closer to what was really going on.

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.

The French historian Alain Huetz de Lemps reaches a little deeper into the murk in his comprehensive 1997 Histoire du rhum to add that, even if direct documentary or archeological evidence is lacking, it is nonetheless “quite possible that the Portuguese or the Spanish had practiced [sugar cane] distillation since the sixteenth century in their Atlantic island holdings (Madeira, the Canaries) or their American colonies.”


We’ll get back to these theories. First, however, I’d like to reach 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.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to context for this rum (because if this isn’t rum, by the modern definition, nothing is), the Vizier gives us nothing: neither where it is made nor how it is consumed and by whom.

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.

It wasn’t just the Moghuls, though, as another document fished out of the murk, the Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi, or History of Firuz Shah, shows. Written by the historian Zia ud-Din Barani in the mid-1300s, more than two centuries before the Moghul conquest, the book describes an incident in 1302, when Alauddin Khalji, the ruthless and powerful leader of the Delhi Sultanate, tried to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol in that city. It didn’t work, of course; the spirits sellers simply (in Irfan Habib’s 2011 translation of the passage) “set up bhattîs (stills) within their houses, and put in them wine made of granulated sugar (qand) and distilled it (chakânîdand, literally, ‘made it trickle down drop by drop’), and consumed it and secretly sold it at high prices.” The usual smuggling, price gouging and criminality followed. Eventually, the Sultan relented and allowed private distillation and consumption.

Yet even this isn’t the first documented appearance of rum in India (and for those who say this Delhi spirit can’t be rum because it’s made from actual sugar, rather than molasses or sugar cane juice, I will note that many modern micro-distilled American spirits labeled and sold as rum are also made of granulated sugar of various states of refinement, and that some of them even taste like rum). Our next lassoed document predates Islam in the region.

In 630 and 631 AD, Xuanzang, a Chinese Buddhist monk, traveled in Gandhara, the ancient Northern Indian kingdom centered on modern Kandahar, and Kashmir. There, he found a mix of Buddhists and Hindus. Among the latter, the Kshatriyas, the military caste, drank “wines from the vine and the sugar cane.” The Brahmins, priests and teachers who were forbidden alcohol, drank “syrup of grapes and of sugar cane.” The Vaisyas, the merchants and farmers, however drank “a strong distilled spirit.” This spirit is not explicitly identified, at least not in Thomas Watters’ 1904 translation of Xuanzang’s book. But it is no leap at all to assume that, even if some was made from grapes, at least some of it was made from sugar cane. People distil what is available.

Beyond this, a thousand years before the appearance of rum in the Caribbean, documentation fails. That doesn’t mean that the prehistory of the spirit can’t be pushed still further back, at least conjecturally. In J. H. Galloway’s 1989 history of the sugar cane industry, the standard academic work on the topic, he concludes that Northern India, while not the original home of the cane, was the place where people first learned to process it; to boil down the juice until the sugar crystallizes and separate the crystals from the molasses. It was there—in Gandhara, in fact—that in 326 BC Alexander the Great’s army famously found reeds there that (as Nearchos, one of his officers, put it) “produce honey without there being honey bees.”

But sugar-making wasn’t the only industrial process for which Gandhara was an early center. A series of archeological excavations conducted from the 1930s into the 1960s at various sites in the old kingdom produced a great deal of evidence that, as Raymond Allchin argued in the journal South Asian Archeology in 1979, “distillation was known and used for the strengthening of alcohol in north India, at least, since the 5th century BC.”

This evidence, found at sites such as Taxila, Shaikhan Dheri, Sirkap, Rang Mahal and a number more besides, is in the form of clay fragments of pot stills: heating pots, still-heads with outlet spouts, connecting pipes, large condenser pots that the connecting pipes feed into, and water basins to cool the condenser pots (the same kind of still was still being used in the subcontinent in the nineteenth century, as several travelers’ accounts and even photographs demonstrate). What’s more, such is the volume of evidence that it cannot be dismissed as showing mere scientific experimentation, but rather a fully-developed industry, with dedicated distilleries where ranks of stills were worked in the back and (as finds of stacks and stacks of drinking cups show) customers were served in the front.

The question of what precisely the Gandharans were distilling still stands. Someday, it will be possible to answer that by DNA-testing residues scraped from some of those fragmentary stills; right now, though, Afghanistan and Pakistan are not the best places to conduct archeological research into the history of beverage alcohol. It is easy to posit, however, that since sugar cane was what the Gandharans had, it would have certainly been one of the things that they distilled, either in the form of raw juice, or diluted molasses or raw sugar.

Some evidence to support that supposition can be found in Vedic literature; in Sanskrit sacred texts from the first millennium BC. Various terms found there have been taken to refer to distillation, although none of them definitively in and of itself. Taken in concert with the archeological evidence, however, they are persuasive. Among the drinks mentioned in the undated Matsyasukta Tantra, for instance are one called gaudi (elsewhere it appears as karikana or maireya), distilled (apparently) from molasses, cheese curds and hemp, and one from sugar cane juice, plums and curds. If these were indeed distilled, they would have to be classified as rums—weird ones, to be sure (and in the case of the former quite intoxicating), but not much weirder than some of the flavored rums on the market today. (I’m looking at you, Bacardi Dragon Berry.)

Despite the painstaking and conservative construction of Allchin’s argument and the similar, equally persuasive, argument Joseph Needham and his associates offered in Volume V of his epic Science and Civilization in China(1974), historians of spirits have not yet generally assimilated this evidence. Instead, they prefer to stick with the traditional, shopworn theory of a European/Mediterranean origin for the practice, even trying to explain the new evidence away by arguing that distillation must have been brought to India by Alexander and his Greeks (in fact, the opposite is far more likely). This position is no longer tenable. Distilling, as far as can be proven, began in India, and so did rum.


The big question that remains is that of the connection, if any, between sugar cane distillation in India and sugar cane distillation in the Caribbean and South America. It’s not an easy one to answer.

The first modern Europeans to establish direct trade routes with India were the Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama and his men, in 1498. At their landfall in Calicut, on India’s southwest coast, they were greeted with, among other things, lengths of sugar cane. They must have encountered arrack as well—the region, which specialized in palm arrack, was one of the centers of Indian distilling. Alas, the only eyewitness account of the journey is not interested in such trivia as what they ate and drank.

By 1508, at least, Portuguese merchants in India were already trading in the palm spirit, and in quantity—between 1510 and 1515, for instance, Francisco Corbinel, a trader in the main Portuguese outpost of Goa, shipped 2,426 large jars of it, while in 1512 the Nazareth, a Portuguese freighter that traded in the region, was being provisioned with it.

Among the things de Gama’s men had learned was that in Bengal, which they had yet to reach, “there is plenty of sugar.” By the late 1510s, independent Portuguese traders began sniffing around the region (as a part of the powerful Moghul empire, it was in no danger of being colonized by them). Unfortunately, the sources I have available don’t discuss their reaction to the strong arrack made there. Complicating things is the fact that in the 1500s Europeans did not generally identify spirits by their base materials. What we would call brandy, rum and whiskey were all aqua vitae, aqua ardens, or aqua fortis, or the Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch or other vernacular equivalents of those Latin terms—“water of life,” “burning water” or “strong water”—or, in Asia, just plain “arrack.” Only in the mid-1600s did the Bangla cane arrack get its own, fixed identity, when English traders dubbed it “Bengal arrack” and were willing to pay a 33-percent premium for it over the generally weaker palm arrack, or “Goa arrack.”

Before that, however, unless circumstances required further specificity, arrack was arrack. It was also what the Portuguese drank in India when they couldn’t get any wine, which was Portugal’s leading export by far and a powerful status symbol among overseas Portuguese and a major point of connection to their homeland. (Those who could get, or afford, no wine would steep raisins in locally-purchased arrack in an attempt to produce something at least remotely familiar.) We can assume that in the 1510s, when Portuguese traders and soldiers of fortune, working independently from the colonial government in Goa, began settling on the Bengal coast, they had to rely even more on the local arrack than the Goan colonists, being farther removed from their homeland and working outside the official colonial system and its supply chain.

By the end of the 1500s, when there were some 7,500 Portuguese and part-Portuguese (the soldiers of fortune had behaved as such men do) living in Bengal, some, at least, must have been conversant with how the local arrack was made—that kind of knowledge, after all, tends to follow trade. If you’re going to buy and sell something, you’re going to learn what you can about it, if only to make sure you don’t get ripped off. And some of those men must have gone to the New World: in the late 1500s, Portugal began exploring ways of binding its Asian and American possessions closer together. In 1588, the Portuguese king even issued a decree that Indian cotton weavers should be lured to Brazil to establish their industry there, although it is unclear to what degree this scheme was carried out. Meanwhile, Portuguese fleets returning from India frequently took advantage of favorable winds to call in at Brazil to replenish their supplies.

Unfortunately, the history of distillation in Brazil is one of the places where the murk is at its deepest, and if there is evidence that the Indian experience with making cane spirits influenced American practice, it is well hidden. The earliest clearly documented reference to distillation in Brazil dates only to 1611, when distilling equipment was listed in the inventory of the effects of the late widow Maria Jorge, of São Paulo.

The raw materials for rum were never in short supply there: large-scale engenhos—water-powered sugar mills—were up and running as early as the 1520s, and indeed sugar was Brazil’s greatest export. Despite many modern claims that distilling was practiced at these establishments since the beginning, the actual historical record is remarkably uncooperative. Their surviving documents and descriptions make no mention of still houses, distilling or spirits, nor (as far as I can determine) has whatever archeology that has been conducted on their ruins yielded anything of the sort. There is, for example, no mention of distilling in the detailed sixteenth-century records of the large engenho Sergipe in Bahia, one of the most productive in Brazil. The only sugar cane beverages mentioned by European travelers to Brazil during the 1500s appear to be fermented only or even non-alcoholic.

That may not be the end of the story, though. Government records, accounts penned by gentlemen travelers and excavations of industrial facilities might not be the places to look for traces of rum making in Brazil. After all, it was official Portuguese policy to stifle any competition to the business of exporting wine to the colonies, so one can hardly expect to find still houses as part of the early engenhos. There would be no official market for such an enterprise’s product. The colonists who could afford it drank wine from the home country; those who couldn’t—well, let’s just say they tend to leave few footprints in the historical record. At the bottom rungs of Portuguese society in Brazil were a shadowy passel of cane-growers, miners, soldiers, sailors, small artisans and what-have you. Some of these people would have also been in India: during the late 1500s, as Brazilian sugar revenues rose, the Portuguese shifted their resources there from India and Asia, and that would have included people with experience in the tropics. Below this group were the mass of enslaved West Africans who, from the 1550s, did all the actual hard work, along with the surviving indigenous peoples.

In 1610, François Pyrard de Laval, a French traveler on his way back to Europe from India, stopped off in Bahia, Brazil’s easternmost province. There, he found people making “wine from sugar cane, which is cheap, and which is only for slaves and natives of the place.” Elsewhere in his book, however, he applies the same term, vin or “wine,” to the “arac” of Goa. In fact, to go with the lack of differentiation between spirits, until the 1600s many European languages did not differentiate between fermented and distilled drinks, using “wine” for both.

At the end of the 1500s, distilled spirits had become a familiar product in West Africa, at least if we can believe the accounts of Dierick Ruiters and Pieter van den Broecke, Dutch sailors who both visited the region in the first decade of the 1600s. It is easy to construct a hypothesis that, at some point in the last half of the 1500s, there was a technology exchange between individuals on the lower rungs of Portuguese society, familiar with cane distillation from their experience in India, and enslaved Africans, in desperate straits and seeking any source of escape. The stills used would not be expensive copper alembics, the kinds of things that any archeologist can identify, but improved devices, perhaps on the Chinese or Mongolian model, as described by Abu’l Fazl: a large pot on a low fire with a small pot propped up inside it (with or without a tube draining out the side of the larger pot) and a third pot of cold water sealing the top, causing alcohol to condense on the bottom of it and drip into the small pot. Such operations leave behind very little that is identifiable.

By 1611, when Maria Jorge departed this world, leaving her still behind, this cane distilling must have begun climbing up the ladder of Portuguese colonial society; it might have been a guilty pleasure, but the spirit thus made was undeniably strong and very cheap. In 1622 to 1623, there is a record of the management of engenho Sergipe officially issuing the stuff to its enslaved workers, no matter what the colonial powers-that-be had to say. By 1650, only a couple of years after rum is first found in Barbados, Brazilian traders were beginning to sell huge amounts of cane spirit in Africa in open defiance of the motherland.

There are other ways sugar-cane distilling could have spread from the Old World to the New. The Spanish tried making sugar on the large island of Hispaniola (the modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) in the early 1500s, using African slaves who, as Bartolomé de las Casas recalled in 1561, had shortened their lives by their high consumption of “beverages they make from the sweet juice of the cane and drink.” Is it possible that these were distilled? Of course.

It is also possible that cane distillation came to America via the Jesuits, who had explored Bengal and had many holdings in Brazil and Spanish America. In 1988, John and Christian Daniels posited that in the late 1500s the Jesuits brought the efficient vertical-roller cane mill, another key part of the colonial American sugar cane industry, there from China. There is for that a similar mix of a great deal of circumstantial evidence and a lack of direct, documentary proof.

The Dutch, too, might have had a role beyond their likely one of spreading distilling know-how to Barbados and Martinique: in their own Asian colony of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) Chinese distillers under their direction were already adding molasses or other sugar byproducts to the rice- and palm wine-spirit they were making. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch tended to shift resources and personnel between hemispheres as needed.  

Ultimately, however, we may never know precisely what happened; how—or even if—a traditional Asian spirit of great antiquity gained a small footstep in a new land and then blew it out of all proportion. But that’s what the New World did: scraps and remnants of Old-World cultural practice were dropped here, found fertile soil, and grew into cornerstones of a rough-and-ready new civilization. If it took Asians, Africans, Europeans and Native Americans to make rum, the spirit of the Americas, then that seems just about right, since it took all those groups to make the Americas as we know them, both North and South.

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