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Rum in Charleston, Past and Present

an empty bottle on a table

With its subtropical climate and colorful streetscapes reminiscent of islands like Barbados, many visitors to Charleston make the assumption that Charleston has long been a rum-producing city. Those visitors are often disappointed to hear that, despite appearances, their assumption is incorrect. Sugar cane failed to take root as a major crop in South Carolina the way it did in Louisiana and more southerly, temperate colonies. With the cane-derived liquor readily available at competitive prices from our trading partners in the West Indies, a market for homegrown rum never really emerged during Charleston’s first century. What did take root in Charleston was a distinct thirst for the tropical liquor. Early records show large quantities being consumed both in taverns and townhomes within the city limits, and out at farther-flung Lowcountry plantations. 

In years following the American Revolution, rum became a scarce commodity as the British government halted trade between its rum-producing colonies and the newly independent America. The need for ready access to one of our favorite liquors ushered in a short rum distilling renaissance in Charleston, with a total of seven distilleries popping up on the peninsula by the mid 1790s. This period of local rum-production was relatively short-lived, however, and cheaper domestic liquors (like whiskey) soon supplanted rum as Charleston’s booze of choice. 

Fast-forward some two hundred years, and Charleston’s interest in locally-made rum has been sparked yet again. Firefly distilling, known best for their Sweet Tea Vodka, produces a locally-distributed line of Sea Island Rums all distilled at their facilities in Awendaw, SC. On the northern end of the Charleston peninsula, Striped Pig Distillery crafts its Striped Rum with molasses brought in from Savannah, while Red Harbor Rum makes a colonial-style rum, aged in oak barrels on the peninsula. Add in  the relocation of Pusser’s Rum headquarters – the award-winning rum of the British Royal Navy –  to North Charleston in 2013, and you have a recipe for a dynamic local rum scene. 

So what are our favorite places to swig some nautical spirits? You’ll have to tune in to our Holy City Happy Hour on Facebook Live this Friday to find out – or check our YouTube channel to view the recording if you miss our live discussion! Better yet, sign up for our Pubs, Taverns, and Taprooms tour to get a real taste of Charleston’s rums and rum cocktails, while accompanied by a licensed Charleston guide to soak you in all the boozy history your heart desires!