Caldwell’s Newburyport Rum may or may not have been the best of the so-called Boston rums, but it lasted the longest. Except for a hiatus during Prohibition, the stuff was made along the Newburyport waterfront for 171 years.
Rum was a booming business in colonial Massachusetts, mostly along the North Shore. Ships from the West Indies arrived with barrels of molasses destined for distilleries in Boston, Ipswich, Salem, Medford and Newburyport. Rum was also made in Newport, R.I.
Rum had been invented in the West Indies in the 17th century, where sugarcane was plentiful. It was cheap, popular and easy to make. Practically anything made from sugarcane or its byproducts could be called rum.
By 1770, the colonies were importing 6 million gallons of molasses a year, and there were 51 rum distilleries in Massachusetts alone.
By 1790, there were 70 rum distilleries in Newburyport, when Caldwell’s Newburyport Rum got its start.
Caldwell’s Newburyport Rum
Caldwell’s Newburyport Rum was barrel aged, which gave it a butterscotch aroma. It was sold in thick glass bottles, eventually embossed with a trademark three-masted schooner.
Most of it was consumed locally, but some was exported as part of the triangular transatlantic slave trade. Caldwell’s family and Moses Brown were the two largest rum merchants in Newburyport. The Lawrence family in Medford also made a famous rum prized for its quality.
By the 19th century, New England’s rum business went into decline. The British cut off access to cheap molasses. Once the westward migration got going, the U.S. interior produced a huge source of grain, which was used to make whiskey. Most New England distilleries closed.
Caldwell’s continued making Newburyport rum until Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, Alexander Caldwell’s descendants resumed production in 1934. But the New England rum era was over, and Caldwell’s, the last survivor, closed its Newburyport operation in 1961. The Lawrence family had already shut down in 1905.
In 2008, New England rum started to make a comeback, according to the New York Times. The Newport Distilling began making Thomas Tew Rum that year. Four years later, more than a half dozen rum distilleries had opened in New England.
Photo courtesy Museum of Old Newbury.