Bangkok Rum Cocktail Week lit up my appetite for Tiki cocktails once again and my curiosity around sugarcane (a raw ingredient used for the production of rum) came front of mind.
Sugarcane belongs to the grass family and it has over 30 different varieties. It is a perennial grass that originates from South Asia and Melanesia however these days it is cultivated in over 90 countries. The biggest producers of sugarcane are Brazil, China, Thailand, India, Pakistan, and Mexico.
Sugarcane dates back to the 6th and 4th century BC, as seen in Sanskrit and Pali texts. Muslim and Arab merchants began to trade sugar from India, which was considered a luxury spice. By the 18th century, sugarcane was introduced to the Caribbean, South America, and islands around the Indian Ocean and Pacific Islands.
Sugar colonies were of such high importance that France gave a part of Canada to Britain in return for islands they had previously lost such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Lucia, during the “Seven Year War”. In a similar way, the Dutch kept Suriname (a small republic in South America) instead of claiming the return of the New Netherlands (today’s New York).
During colonial times, sugarcane was cultivated for sugar production. Sugar quickly became one of the commodities sold in the “triangle trade” of New World raw materials, together with tobacco and cotton. The other "commodities" were European manufactured goods such as copper and clothes to name a few and African slaves.
Sugarcane plantations needed a lot of labor to be kept productive, forcing many people to leave their homes and move overseas. As nations developed and slavery was abolished jobs were offered to other nationalities such as the Chinese and Indians. Each one of the nations brought their traditions with them and adapted to new living conditions. In some islands and countries, the migrants made up between 10 to 50 percent of the population.
Today, these ethnic communities together with the rest of the world celebrate sugarcane in its liquid gold form called “Rum, Ron or Rhum”.
Sugar cane has not only been used for sugar production. It has been used in several different ways: bagasse, paper production, ethanol, culinary, and alcohol production. More to come in our next article!