Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

rum, sometimes spelled rhum, is the generic term for alcohol distilled from fermented sugarcane, either in the form of cane juice or cane-based molasses. Once Europeans began cultivating sugar in their colonies in the 1400s, it was inevitable that rum would be invented. Sugar had previously been imported to Europe from the Arab world, where distilling was used primarily to refine medicines and perfume, since drinking alcohol is prohibited to Muslims. In Western Europe, where there were no such restrictions, distilling was a common skill, and there was a brisk trade in brandy and other liquors known under the collective name of aqua vitae, or “strong waters.” It was common knowledge that most sweet liquids could be fermented and distilled, so it is surprising that the Europeans did not make rum for over a hundred years after sugarcane first became available to them.