The History Of Rum Raisin Ice Cream Actually Began In Italy

Maybe you associate raisins with your grandparents — but even today, it's not uncommon to spy hard-packed rum raisin ice cream in a retro parlor. The flavor is as sophisticated and nostalgic as it is divisive. Still, if you write off rum raisin as another tragedy of the '80s, you should know that folks have been enjoying the flavor for much longer than that (and they can't all be wrong).

The idea to combine boozy raisins with dessert came from sweet-toothed foodies in the Italian region of Sicily who were soaking Málaga raisins in rum and combining them with vanilla gelato. Rather than rum raisin, the treat was initially called "Málaga gelato." Toting a high concentration of natural sugar, the raisins are used to produce the sweet wines for which Málaga, Spain is world famous. In fact, when the Sicilians were first soaking their Málaga raisins, they weren't using rum at all. Their go-to was Marsala wine, which has an uncanny rum-like flavor profile. Indeed, Málaga raisins have been traded as a luxurious prized food item in Europe since the 1700s, and authentic Málaga muscatel raisins (pasas de Málaga) are designated by an official DOP seal.

A nostalgic treat with European roots

It's unclear exactly when the boozy dessert officially arrived in the U.S. A 1932 advertisement in the Daily Ardmoreite newspaper out of Oklahoma read, "Extra Special. Rum Raisin Ice Cream. Entirely New." Of course, Americans ditched gelato in favor of vanilla ice cream, and the interplay of the deep cinnamon, dark rum, and vanilla made this old-fashioned classic a timeless treat. Some recipes call for a vanilla ice cream base that's rippled with cinnamon or brown sugar. It all works. The important part is the chilled, booze-soaked raisins, which pop in the mouth for an interesting texture.

Some sources credit its lasting impression to Häagen-Dazs, which first released a pint of the flavor in the early '80s. Nearly half a century later, rum raisin remains part of the ice cream company's active repertoire. And it's not just the ice cream that deserves your consideration the next time you find yourself in the frozen aisle; those aforementioned Málaga raisins are worth a second look, too. Still, not all rum raisin ice cream today is made exclusively (or even partially) with real Málaga raisins. It's often regular dark or golden raisins. But back in the 1930s, these rum-soaked beauties were the star of the show that gave rum raisin ice cream a lasting place in the unofficial flavor hall of fame.