Like any activity involving drunk people no-one can say for sure how the term came about. Theories range from Romani slang to Dutch drinking glasses to the Latin for sugar, however the most likely (and most fun) explanation is as a contraction of the words Rumbullion or Rumbustion. These are both slang words for an uproar, a stramash and tie in nicely to our image of early rum drinkers. In other times rum was known as killdevil, which would be a far cooler name to see on a bottle I can't help but think.
Unfortunately a large part of rum's ubiquity in the Caribbean is based on slavery, between the 16th and 19th centuries trading ships would pick up slaves in Africa, sell or trade them in the Caribbean to work on the sugar plantations and take molasses and rum home to sell.
Rum grew more popular after Britain occupied Jamaica in 1655 and the local rum replaced French brandy as the sailor's main drink. Spirits were served as on long sea journeys fresh water and beer would soon spoil. Initially sailors were given a pint of rum a day, over time this was diluted with water and the traditional lime juice (to prevent scurvy) and became a drink known as grog, giving us the feeling you get the morning after too many rums (groggy).
Rum is made by fermenting molasses or sugarcane juice and then distilling the product, this is then aged in barrels (usually oak) to improve the flavour. Different distilleries use different types of still, different blending techniques to create the vast array of rums you find today.
Styles & age statements
At a basic level you can divide up rum according to which colonial power ran the country of production so you have:
- British (darker, heavier and fuller flavoured)
- Spanish (light, smooth and floral)
- French (pungent, grassy)
As I discuss individual rums I'll go into more detail about how it's distilled, aged, blended and so on but this is a rough guide to how your rum gets to you.