Rum is a beverage that seems to have had its origins on the 17th century Caribbean sugarcane plantations and by the 18th century its popularity had spread throughout world.
Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane byproducts such as molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation; it is then usually aged in oak barrels.
The origin of the word “rum” is generally unclear. In an 1824 essay about the word’s origin, Samuel Morewood suggested the word ‘rum’ might be from the British slang term for “the best”, as in “having a rum time.”
“As spirits, extracted from molasses, could not well be ranked under the name whiskey, brandy, or arrack, it would be called rum, to denote its excellence or superior quality.” (Samuel Morewood, 1824)
Captain James Cook and the crews of the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery first made landfall on Kauaʻi in 1778. It is believed that in the holds of both ships were barrels of rum.
According to Kamakau, “The first taste that Kamehameha and his people had of rum was at Kailua in 1791 or perhaps a little earlier, brought in by Captain Maxwell. Kamehameha went out to the ship with (John) Young and (Isaac) Davis when it was sighted off Keāhole Point and there they all drank rum. …. Then nothing would do but Ka-lani-moku must get some of this sparkling water, and he was the first chief to buy rum.”
Shortly thereafter, while in Waikīkī, after having tasted the “dancing water,” Kamehameha I gained the apparent honor of having spread the making of rum from Oʻahu to Hawaiʻi island. (Kanahele)
After he saw a foreigner make rum in Honolulu, he set up his own still. Spurred by his own appetite for rum, he soon made rum drinking common among chiefs and chiefesses as well as commoners. (Kanahele)
Many of the subsequent royalty and chiefs also drank alcoholic beverages (several overindulged.)
Within a decade or so, Island residents were producing liquor on a commercial basis. “It was while Kamehameha was on Oahu that rum was first distilled in the Hawaiian group,” wrote Kamakau.
“In 1809 rum was being distilled by the well-known foreigner, Oliver Holmes, at Kewalo, and later he and David Laho-loa distilled rum at Makaho.” Several small distilleries were in operation by the 1820s.
Although both Hawaiians and foreign residents had been drinking hard liquor – either bought from visiting ships or distilled locally – for many years, no mention of bars or saloons occurs in the historical record.
The early missionaries were not teetotalers – their departure from Boston Harbor was delayed because “on the passengers examining their stores, they found a short supply of that article at day light Capt. Blanchard went up to Boston at 11 am (October 24, 1819). Captain Blanchard returned from town with a supply of bread & spirits for the missionaries.” (James Hunnewell Log)
“(I)t was ascertained that our soft bread and crackers and all the ardent spirits were left behind. Consequently, a boat was sent off for Boston that night, which did not return until the next day towards night.” (Lucia Ruggles Holman Journal)
Once they arrived, Sybil Bingham noted in her diary, “(Anthony Allen) set upon the table decanters and glasses with wine and brandy to refresh us”. They ended dinner “with wine and melons”. (June 24, 1820, Sybil Bingham)
By November 1822, Honolulu had seventeen grog shops operated by foreigners. Drinking places were one of the earliest types of retail business established in the Islands.
Whalers – primarily American vessels – began arriving in Hawai’i in the early 19th century; they were hunting whales primarily for the whale oil for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; they usually stopped as they crossed the Pacific twice a year to restock provisions, replenish their crews and transship their whale oil cargoes.
For Hawaiian ports, especially Honolulu and Lāhaina, the whaling fleet was the crux of the economy for 20-years or more. More than 100-ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824. Over the next two decades, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846, 736-whaling ships arrived in Hawai’i.
With these ships and sailors came more rum; it became one of the sought-after items the Hawaiians traded for with the Westerners.
“For some years after the arrival of missionaries at the islands it was not uncommon in going to the enclosure of the king, or some other place of resort, to find after a previous night’s revelry, exhausted cases of ardent spirits standing exposed and the emptied bottles strewn about in confusion amidst the disgusting bodies of men, women and children lying promiscuously in the deep sleep of drunkenness.” (Dibble)
Fort Kekuanohu along Honolulu Harbor served as a jail for breaches of etiquette by sailors on liberty – disorderly sailors could find themselves lodged in the Fort pending redemption at $30 a head.
In 1874, a legislative act was passed that allowed distillation of rum on sugar plantations. According to a report in ‘The Friend,’ “the only planter in the Legislature voted three times against the passage of the Act.”
The first export of Hawaiian rum was made on May 15, 1875 – the product of Heʻeia Plantation.
The post WW II years saw new rum concoctions. Reportedly, Harry Yee invented the Blue Hawaii cocktail and dropped in a tiny Japanese parasol and Vic Bergeron created the Mai Tai and opened Trader Vic’s, America’s first theme restaurant that featured the art, decor and food of Polynesia.