Both are dark in color, rich in flavor, and wildly popular on any bar shelf. Whiskey's notes are more reminiscent of the barrels it's aged in, while rum is distinctly sweeter with a spicy kick. The differences between whiskey vs. rum run much deeper, though, beginning all the way with their origination... 

whiskey vs rum history and main differences

Any comparison of whiskey vs. rum can lead to a stanch debate over everything from flavor to finish. These two liquors are similar in many regards. Both are dark in color, rich in flavor, and wildly popular on any bar shelf. Whiskey's notes are more reminiscent of the barrels it's aged in, while rum is distinctly sweeter with a spicy kick. The differences between whiskey vs. rum run much deeper, though, beginning all the way with their origination. Here's a brief history of whiskey and rum, so you'll know just where these liquors really came from.

Ingredients in Whiskey vs. Rum

The primary difference between whiskey and rum is in the ingredients. Naturally, these ingredients play a key role in the history and origins of these products.

Whiskey comes from fermented grains. Whiskey makers use a grain mash that may include wheat, rye, barley, or corn. These grains may also be malted, depending on the particular recipe. Thus, you can find either grain or malt whiskey. The grains ferment in oak barrels. The finished drink has an alcohol content between 40% and 60%.

Rum is made from sugar cane byproducts. Rum typically comes from fermented molasses, but it can also be made from honey or sugar cane juice. Producers typically use oak casks to age rum. Dark rums are often made in charred oak barrels, which give the drink a stronger flavor. Rum typically has an alcohol content of 40%.

The History of Whiskey in Europe

It's believed that whiskey was first developed in Irish monasteries during the late middle ages. The earliest written account of whiskey making is found in Scottish records from 1494. Scotch and Canadian versions of the drink typically use the spelling "whisky" without an 'e.' Irish and American variations prefer to use the 'e' to distinguish their whiskey from competitors. 

It's impossible to accurately trace the history of whiskey because much of it has been made illegally. In Ireland in 1779, just 20 distilleries produced the "Parliament whiskey" deemed legal under the crown. Meanwhile, an estimated 800 stills operated illegally in County Donegal alone. Scotland saw a similar situation, with illegal whisky production running particularly rampant in the Highlands.

Demand for commercial whisky didn't boom until the mid-to-late 18th century. Glasgow, in particular, clamored for the drink. In the city's crowded, unhygienic conditions, drunkenness became a welcome escape from the trials of everyday life. However, the drink being touted as whisky at that time was far from the refined beverage we find today. In 1872, the North British Daily Mail's editor analyzed 30 whiskys from around Glasgow. Each was found to contain toxic additives like turpentine, sulfuric acid, and methylated spirits.

Whisky producers later refined their production methods and began to put forth more reliable and thoughtfully prepared liquors. A Select Committee of the House of Commons convened in 1890 to address just what constitutes whisky. They concluded in 1909 that whisky made in Scotland was known as Scotch, while that made in Ireland retained its distinction as Irish whiskey. 

The History of Whiskey in America

Whisky came to America with Irish and Scottish immigrants and took on a life of its own in the states. Whiskey production in the states began around the early 18th century and centered primarily in Kentucky, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. American whiskey is distilled to 80% ABV (alcohol by volume) and typically dilutes to around 50% alcohol.

While you can find many types of whiskey in the United States, bourbon is a particular specialty of America — so much so that Congress recognized bourbon as "a distinctive product of the U.S.A. in 1964. Tennessee whiskey and straight rye are other American flavors, though they haven't yet earned the same distinction.

The History of Rum in the Caribbean

In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the Caribbean. In the warm, tropical climate, the sugar cane flourished and a thriving new industry was born. To make sugar, refineries must boil cane syrup. The sugar crystallizes at the top while the dark gooey substance known as molasses drains out the bottom. For every two pounds of sugar produced, refineries were left with a pound of molasses that seemed to serve no purpose.

Around the 1600s, slaves working the sugar cane plantations discovered that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. This alcohol was later distilled into rum. Rum was originally referred to as "kill-devil" or "rumbullion." Once word of this drink spread, that once-troublesome byproduct of molasses became a valuable commodity in its own right.

The History of Rum in America

Rum played a central role in the slave industry during the colonial era. Slaves were delivered to the West Indies sugar plantations from Africa, where they were traded for molasses. That molasses was then shipped to New England for rum production. 

In the Americas, rum filled a very particular need. New Englanders were facing a shortage of beer and found that the New World didn't produce many crops that were favorable for liquor production. Importing molasses for rum was cheaper than importing brandy, as the trade routes were shorter. Rum also provided a higher alcohol content. By the mid-1700s, there were over 100 rum distilleries in New England, most of which centered around Boston, Salem, and Newport. At the time of the American Revolution, colonists consumed about 3.7 gallons of rum per head each year.

The profitability of molasses drew the attention of England. This led to the 1733 Molasses Act aimed at limiting the colonies' access to molasses. In response, molasses smuggling increased. In 1764, the Sugar Act followed, which lowered the tax on molasses but encouraged the British Navy to pursue smugglers and seize their findings. The increasingly tight regulations on colonial merchants were contributing factors to the American Revolution.

Both rum and whiskey have intriguing roles in global history, as well as that of the United States. These liquors have thrived over the centuries, giving way to a wide variety of thoughtfully crafted products. If you're craving dark liquor with a bold taste, both of these options will fit the bill.

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