A History of Jamaican Rum in 4 Cocktails

photo by Matt Hoffman via Unsplash

photo by Matt Hoffman via Unsplash

Iconic drinks inspired by a turbulent island nation’s history

The Caribbean island of Jamaica has a fascinating history. This is an island that has endured war, natural disasters, overcome slavery and suffered additional turmoil to become its own sovereign nation. The rum industry of the island has waxed and waned over time and different libations have been created that are unique to the island nation. Fresh water sources, limestone aquifers, and the country’s time tested production techniques (such as the use of dunder pits) have helped the islands’ distilleries create rums with their own unique identity and presence that continues to inspire cocktail creators around the globe today.  Here is a brief history of the island and some of the drinks that have been created and continue to influence cocktail culture in modern times.

European Conquest and the importance of Punch

Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering the island in 1494, and Spanish settlers soon colonized the northern coastal regions and began cultivating crops such as sugar cane, although this was done with the help of slave labor from Africa. Roughly 100 years later, British Privateers led by men such as the notorious Henry Morgan began attacking Spanish ships and settlements. Incensed by a Papal Bull declaring, “All lands in the new world were the property of the kingdoms of Castile and Portugal,” British forces and their allies battled against Spain and in 1655 conquered Jamaica’s Capital and took control of the island. It took 15 more years before British forces defeated Spain and with the signing of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, Jamaica officially became a British Colony.  The treaty opened the gates for British settlers who colonized the island far beyond the scope of their Spanish predecessors. Still using slave labor and indentured servants, they built large estates to grow crops and livestock for the islands’ needs and exportation. They maintained this practice until August 28th, 1833 when Britain abolished slavery in its country and colonies. All of these events set the stage for large-scale rum production on the island and the eventual creation of some historic libations.

It is believed that rum production on the island began with the Spanish colonies, but grew with each sugarcane estate that was constructed and had a family still installed.  During this time, clean water sources around settlements were scarce, leading plantations’ inhabitants to consume distilled spirits and fruit juices to stay hydrated. One of the earliest of these drinks that is still popular in the Caribbean and Americas was what is now referred to as Jamaican Rum Punch. They are many variations of this cocktail depending on the cultural influence, but here is an example that is my own personal recipe:

Jamaican Rum Punch

  • 32 oz/960 ml Appleton Reserve Jamaican Rum 

  • 8 oz/240 ml Lime juice

  • 8 oz/240 ml Grenadine

  • 8 oz/240ml Pineapple Juice

  • 16 oz/480 ml Orange juice

  • Garnish: sliced lime, pineapple, or oranges

Pour ingredients in a Punch Bowl. Chill for a minimum of two hours (aging the punch improves the flavor), however do not put ice directly in the punch! Instead, add ice to the glass, pour and serve.

Serves: 10-12

Grog is Born

photo by Paul Senft

photo by Paul Senft

During the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660), the British Navy began using Jamaican rum as a replacement for the sailors’ brandy rations. Blended to 54.5 % ABV, this “Navy Proof” rum became a favored spirit of the sailors. By the 1700s, this rum ration began creating disciplinary problems with the sailors that required a creative solution: According to author A. James Pack in the book Nelson’s Blood The Story of Naval Rum, on August 21st, 1740 Vice Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon issued Captain’s Order No. 349. This stated that all rum provisions must be mixed with water, with the added notices that the “purchase of sugar and limes” would be permitted. This adaptation of the original ration was named “Grog” in honor of Vice Admiral Vernon. With the cry of “Up Spirits!” the ship’s purser would deliver the ration twice a day and served it to the sailors. The practice was ended July 31st, 1970. Today, variants of grog cocktails are popular with the nautical communities, and of course, tiki bars. Here is an example of a modern Jamaican grog recipe:


  • 2 oz/60 ml Navy Strength Rum (such as Hamilton)

  • 1-4 tsp unrefined dark cane sugar to taste

  • ½ lime squeezed into glass and another half to garnish

  • Ice

Add lime juice and sugar into a mixing glass and stir until sugar is dissolved.  Add rum and one cube of ice to mixture. Stir until the cube is half dissolved. Strain into a mug or glass and garnish with lime.

The Tiki Effect 

As years passed and European sugar beet became a dominant crop to produce sugar, the Jamaican sugar industry began to fade and the plantation estates either closed or moved to other crops.  Many of the island rum distilleries consolidated or closed in the 20th century as demand for sugar and rum both waned.  Then an unlikely thing happened in post-Prohibition United States: Donn Beach, Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, as well as other cocktail creators began using Jamaican Rums in their “tiki style” cocktails, solidifying Jamaican rums’ placement in bars across North America. One of the most popular drinks of that age was the Mai Tai, which began its existence using the now extinct Wray & Nephew 17-year old Rum. To this day, the Mai Tai is used to weigh and measure modern tiki establishments who all have their own spin on this classic. Here is a modern variant of the Mai Tai recipe using sugarcane spirits to build flavors—an agricole rhum and a highly estered Jamaican rum:

photo by Johan Trasch via Unsplash

photo by Johan Trasch via Unsplash

Mai Tai 

Add all ingredients except the garnish to cocktail shaker.  Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with mint and lime half.


On July 19th, 1962, the Parliament of the United Kingdom acknowledged the desire of the Jamaican people and passed the Jamaica Independence Act, granting the island the right to self-government from the British Empire. On August 6th, 1962, the Jamaican flag was raised and the first Jamaica Independence Festival was held. Since that date, Jamaica has gone through many changes and has become one of the top tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Rum production in Jamaica has stabilized, and now four companies remain (as of press time): J. Wray/Appleton, Hampden Estate, Worthy Park, and Monymusk/National Rums of Jamaica

While writing this article, I had the opportunity to discuss the history of the island with International rum ambassador Ian Burrell. He shared a recipe he created for J Wray and Nephew in 1996:

The Reggae Rum Punch 

created by Ian A V Burrell 

  • 2oz/60ml Wray and Nephew Overproof

  • 3oz/90 ml pineapple juice

  • 3oz/90 ml orange juice

  • 1oz/30 ml lime juice, 

  • 1 oz/30 ml strawberry syrup or grenadine

Pour ingredients and shake with plenty of ice. Pour unstrained into a tall glass.

In the past century Jamaican Rum Punch, Grog, and Mai Tai recipes have become staples in bars and cocktail books demonstrating the enduring legacy that these rums continue to have on the cocktail world. All three drinks have inspired cocktail creators to construct variants that have become an entertaining flavor exploration worthy of placement on their establishments menus. Today, Jamaican rum producers are releasing new products that are inspiring bartenders to capture history in a glass and write a new exciting chapter in Jamaica’s rum history.