Venerable, not Venerated, rum Distillers

Felton & Son. Chapin & Trull. Lawrence. French. Each was a venerable distiller of New England rum, a product formerly of international renown but also some ill-fame, as will appear below.

Rum precedes whiskey in the affections of North American spirit-drinkers. Its first production in the American Colonies dates from the mid-1600s, after its emergence in the Caribbean. The industry thrived for the next two centuries, with domestic New England production supplying local and more distant wants. Shipments went as far as Newfoundland, Britain, Crimea, and fatefully, West Africa.

Rum was made in New England until Prohibition (1920) but production had levelled off from about 1880. This account in 1914 by Frederic Felton explains the history, and credit it we must as it came from America’s “Rum Central” of the day. He indicated that changing tastes had a lot to do with the decline of the industry, which was down to about eight producers at the start of WW I, from a peak of some 60. Industry consolidation meant greater individual production by survivors, of which Felton was a leading example. But the writing was on the wall, as the tone of his account conveys.

Most producers were in Boston. The owner of Lawrence Distillery, in Medford just outside Boston, where Paul Revere had raced through, closed it in 1905. You can read a wistful summing up, in a press account of that year.

The story explained:

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.

Soon all New England rum, from a quality standpoint on a par with Scottish malt, Cognac, and Kentucky Bourbon, would be no more.

Medford and Massachusetts in general were also early centres of the Temperance campaign. This probably contributed as much or more to the industry’s pre-Prohibition retreat than changing tastes. Unlike more recently settled Kentucky and Tennessee, old Massachussets had well-organized pulpits, editors, presses, and physicians to militate against “King Alcohol”.

The industry was on the defensive morally from the 1840s in a way it never was in Kentucky due to rum’s unsavoury social past. By the Victorian period, the sordid nature of the early, international rum trade had to be acknowledged: rum was sent to Africa, mostly from Boston, to trade for slaves transported to the Caribbean, whence molasses was shipped to make more rum. This powered the New England economy, especially to buy goods from England.

A frank picture of the disreputable and even vicious trade is provided by an account reprinted in the New York Tribune in 1897, which states that Massachusetts had a peak of 63 distilleries in 1750. Historians argue today viz. the actual effects on the Colonial economy, but there can be no doubt of the ignoble human toll it exacted.

The infamous triangular trade had long endured but slowly diminished from its 1750 peak. It has been considered that the passage in Westminster of the 1764 Sugar Act, which taxed with tight enforcement provisions cheaper molasses from non-British islands (French and other), had the long-term effect of rendering the New England rum trade uneconomic. Part of this result was to transfer the colonial slave trade to British merchants.

On a moral level, the dark social history probably contributed to the decline of New England rum when, say, post-Civil War, Kentucky bourbon was rising in sales and reputation. The ethical basis of the Temperance cause was consistent certainly with the idea that a drink whose history lay in human trafficking had no place in civilized society.

New England rum was not blended in its classic period – it was all “straight” – although the 1905 news story implies some producers by then did make blends, which it considered lesser in quality. One wonders if the onset of blended rum further contributed to its market decline.

Still another potential factor: 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 praised New England rum, holding that it made a fine cocktail and was even superior to whiskey.

It all took its toll.

From a gastronomic standpoint, the rum at its best in the late 1800s was of world-class quality. “Medford” in particular was a by-word for choice rum. What was the Yankee rum like? The spirit originally sent to the Gold Coast was probably homespun, not so different perhaps from today’s overproof from Jamaica. But as Felton noted, by the late 1800s New England rum was a carefully made and aged product.

Old advertisements suggest it was double-distilled in a pot still, often on a “fire” (using wood fuel) and aged in barrels for years. It was probably like some well-aged Caribbean rum today that has a good pot still character, Demerara for example, or Gosling of Bermuda.

The American rum industry, whatever the exact reasons(s), never achieved the respect, not to mention eminence, internationally accorded makers of fine whiskey and brandy. The rum of New England ended as a lion in winter, hunkered down, facing its foreseeable demise with stoic acceptance.

There were still old stocks of rum available, now considered a luxury item, when Prohibition ended. Some was served at a tony rum tasting held in 1941 by the New York Wine and Food Society. See details here for S. S. Pierce’s 20-year-old rum. It was expressed as an alternative to Cognac, running out in New York due to the war in Europe. (The grand scale of that tasting, evident from the carefully-printed 16-page program complete with historical introduction, is astonishing).

Some new rum was made in New England post-Prohibition in the 1930s, including for the Felton’s label, but it withered in time.

Yet, rum has come back to the region. The blogger Foodie Pilgrim gives a good overview, from a couple of years back. With the restoration of (craft) distilling in New England, some 30 small distillers now ply their trade, some in rum.

Does any taste like the double-distilled, molasses-based, well-aged rum of Felton & Sons, or Chapin, Trull? I don’t know, we never will unless a rare bottle of the latter still exists and can be tasted.

Note re images: both are extracted from the sources identified and linked in the text. Used for educational and historical purposes.  All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.