The Most Venerable Distillers

Old distillation names in America, 1800s vintage at least: Felton; Chapin & Trull; Lawrence; French. You know them, right? Old Kentucky or Pennsylvania names for fine bourbon and rye. Except that they’re not. They were distillers of New England rum, formerly a product of international renown but also some ill-fame, as will appear below.

Rum precedes whiskey in the affections of American spirit-drinkers. Its first production dates to the mid-1600s, not that long after it first appeared in the Caribbean. The industry really got going in the next two centuries, supplying local wants but also fetching an international sale, from England to Crimea to West Africa.

Rum production continued in New England until Prohibition but it levelled off from about 1880. This account in 1914 by Frederic Felton explains the history, and credit it we must coming as it does from New England’s “Rum Central” of yore. He states that changing tastes had a lot to do with the decline of the industry, it was down to about eight members by the start of WW I, from an early peak of about 60. Of course, consolidation meant increased production by survivors, of which Felton was probably the leading name, but the writing was on the wall, indeed the tone is in Felton’s account.

Most producers were located in Boston. The owner of Lawrence Distillery, in Medford (just outside Boston, the Medford Paul Revere raced through) closed it some years earlier, in 1905. You can read a summing up here via a press account of that year ultimately from Springfield, MA.

Medford Rum, and soon New England rum, which from a quality standpoint stood on a par with Scots malt, Cognac, and Kentucky Bourbon, was to be no more – until that is the restoration of distilling in New England, where some 30 small distilleries now ply their trade, some in the rum line.

A son of Springfield noted:

 

The idea of the Lawrences has been evidently for nearly a generation merely to supply the existing demand, without opening up new markets and extending the sales through widespread advertising. Rum in Medford began in 1735. Its manufacture was then (and for many years after) held in high esteem. The Rev. Charles Brooks in his history of Medford, relates what is indeed common knowledge concerning those times:

“It was not uncommon in the first century of the growth of Medford for private families to have a still, by running which they supplied themselves with alcohol for medicinal purposes, sold small quantities to their neighbors and made for use different kinds of cordials. It was considered a breach of hospitality not to offer a visitor some kind of spirituous liquor, and if the bottle was empty when the clergyman made his call many words of apology were deemed necessary.”

In New England we have long since passed the period when an apology was due the visiting clergyman if the rum bottle was empty.

 

Medford, and Massachusetts in general, were early centres of Temperance campaigning. Pace Felton, this probably contributed as much, or more, to the industry’s consignment to Coventry. (Some production did start up after 1933 but that withered in time).

The story ends by saluting the modern era of sobriety and “bids a cheerful farewell to Medford rum”. (The past is a foreign country, sometimes).

What was the real reason rum got such a … rum reputation in its homeland of production?

By the Victorian era, even local writers of Boston’s and the state’s industrial and economic history could not conceal a sordid side to the early rum trade: rum was sent to Africa, mostly from Boston, to trade for slaves then transported to the Caribbean. There, molasses from the plantations was sent to New England to make more rum. This is the triangular trade many have written of for over 100 years. Historians argue what effect it had on the early Colonial economy as a whole, but there seems no doubt an ignoble history existed. I think it played a role in the decline of the industry at a time when, say, Kentucky whiskey was growing fast in sales and reputation.

Prohibitionist agitation was important, too. Unlike the relative frontier of Kentucky and Tennessee, an old state such as Massachussets had plenty of pulpits, editors, presses, and physicians to mobilize against “King Alcohol”. The industry was on the defensive from the 1840s in a way it never was in Kentucky.

It all took its toll.

From a purely gastronomic standpoint, the rum as made in the later 1800s seemed a world-class product. Medford rum in particular was a by-word for highest quality in spirits. What was the Yankee rum like? The spirit originally sent to the Gold Coast was probably a homespun article not so different perhaps from today’s overproof rum from Jamaica and other islands. But as Felton notes, by the late 1800s rum had become a carefully made and aged product.

Old ads suggest it was double-distilled in a pot still, often on a “fire” (wood fuel) and aged in barrel for years. It was probably like some of the Caribbean rum of today that has a good pot still element, Demerara for example, or Gosling from Bermuda, and aged many years to a refined smootheness and character.

New England rum was not blended in its classic era – it was all “straight” – although the press story above implies that some newer producers did make blended rum, which it considered a lesser product.

This short article in Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Circular of 1888 states that if New England distillers had advertised with “one half the persistency and business tact” of the Kentucky distillers they would have enjoyed much greater success, given that is the quality of their product. The author continued to lyricise New England rum, stating it made a fine cocktail to precede dinner and was superior to whiskey.

The industry never achieved the eminence which those who make fine whiskey and brandy bask in today. The rum-makers of New England were more a lion in winter, hunkering down, facing their forseeable demise with fortitude.

But rum has come back to New England. The blogger, Foodie Pilgrim, gives a good overview from a couple of years ago.

Does some of it taste like double-distilled, molasses-based, aged rum from Felton & Son or Chapin, Trull did? What do you think?

 

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