I occasionally get questions about the origin of various rum-based cocktails, and while I know the answers to some of these, in many cases there were so many claims to the invention that I didn’t have a definitive answer. Luckily a historian has taken on the task, and he is both an exacting sleuth and a very fine writer. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s book “Potions of the Caribbean” is a marvelous read, the story behind the drinks and their cultural impact interspersed with easy to follow recipes for potions both popular and obscure. The unlikely lives of some of the creators are explored in detail, and as it turns out they were fascinating people; Berry restores the place in history of some otherwise forgotten masters of the craft.
You will want to own this – it was released in spring of 2014 and is headed for classic status. Buy his book, check out his website at beachbumberry.com, and if at all possible go to one of his events, as he is a delightful raconteur.
It is always a delight to find old recipes that are easy to follow, and a rarity to find one that has been annotated by a contemporary who has actually used it. One of the prized examples is from the Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, a plantation owner who made copious notes about her kitchen experiments in South Carolina in 1770. One of her recipes is for rum shrub, a popular hot weather refresher. She starts by transcribing a neighbor’s recipe:
To every Gallon of Rum put one Quart of Juice and two pounds of the best double refined Sugar. Shake the Shrub every day for two Months, and let it settle once more, then draw it off for use. The Vessel should be kept close cork’d during the whole process, and to every hundred of Oranges put twenty-five Lemons. To make your Shrub fine all the Materials should be the best.
In the margin of this recipe, Harriott wrote,
“I think the following receipt better. To one Gallon old rum add 5 pints Juice and 3 1/2 pounds Sugar.”
A modern recreation of this recipe might use a higher proportion of lemons, since the strains of oranges available in 1770 were much less sweet than modern oranges, but it is a tasty drink exactly as described. You can also make shrub using tart berry juices like raspberry, or even strawberry juice, but need to reduce the sugar content to have the right balance between tart and sweet. Start now and those of you in the Northern Hemisphere will have something delightful to serve your guests before the summer heat has entirely vanished.
One of the most popular vintage liquor ads is for Rhum Des Incas, which was bottled by a company in Paris in the 1920’s. Have a look at this lovely piece of art before I mention a few things about it.
Astute viewers may notice just a few things wrong as regards historical accuracy… The Incas didn’t have horses, especially with European-style ornamental bridles like that, and nothing worn by any Inca ever resembled that bizarre pants-suit-toga whatever-it-is with the matching red boots. That goes for the headdress too, though you have to figure that if they had the materials, they probably would have gone for it. Finally, even if the Incas drank rum in the first place, which they didn’t, the stuff in that bottle was made in Martinique, which is a thousand miles, a chain of mountains, and an ocean away from any place the Incas ever settled. On the plus side, it is an arresting and memorable image that probably inspired many people to gallop somewhere on a horse while waving a bottle of spirits. I am amused by the possibility that some lazy student somewhere will find this image on the Internet and use it to illustrate a homework assignment on the Incas… I do not think it would help their grade very much.
I have received several questions from reenactors and museums about how rum was stored and shipped in the early era, and a recent discovery clarified the situation. The people at Finest And Rarest, a broker that deals in very old and unusual spirits, found a unique item – the oldest dated bottle of rum ever found, from the year 1819. Here’s a picture of it:
As you can see, the large, slightly irregular bottle was wrapped in braided sugar cane stalks to insulate the glass from shocks, and the corked top was sealed with wax. The label is leather with a stamp that indicated that this was rum agrichole from Martinique, with the date handwritten. Long distance shipping was usually done in barrels, which were less fragile and made more efficient use of space, but this represents the way that rum was packaged for sale in lower volumes than a cask-full. By the way, the rum inside the sealed bottle was said to still be good, and was sold off in small lots to connoisseurs. I tried to get some, but was just a bit too late – I won’t wait to reply if a similar opportunity comes along again…
The popularity of pirate reenactment, which fosters romantic notions about what were, with rare exceptions, seagoing muggers and thugs, has led to many questions about the types of rum that pirates drank. I get enough of these that I decided to post answers to a few questions. One unusually thoughtful writer asked if pirates drank anyhing like the standardized dark rum that was produced for the Royal Navy. I find this highly unlikely, for several reasons. First, the strength of the naval rum ration wasn’t fully standardized until the Napoleonic War era of the early 1800’s, while most of the famous buccaneers flourished almost a century earlier. Second, naval-quality rum commanded a premium in most places compared to the rotgut made for local consumption and trade, so it is likely that thrifty mariners of ill repute would have bought the cheaper article for crew rations. They may have drunk better rum in port, but this was an individual choice.
It is worth noting that most of the rum consumed during the peak era of Caribbean piracy was probably not carefully aged dark rum, but pale spirits that were aged haphazardly if at all. The chemistry of aging was poorly understood, and though experienced drinkers must have noticed that the rum that sat in the holds for a while was better than companion barrels that were tapped immediately, there was little standardization or quality control before the 1750’s at the earliest. By then Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and Calico Jack Rackham were all long dead, none having had a chance to enjoy a tot of the rum that was to become a symbol of the navy that ended their careers.
A few boutique distilleries blend gunpowder with rum – a combination pioneered by the pirate Blackbeard, who is not otherwise noted a a culinary trendsetter. I have tried Smoke and Oakum from New Zealand – this picture of their bottles shows how they use the iconography of Caribbean piracy for a beverage made just about as far from Jamaica as you can get while still being on the same planet.
The slightly sulfurous reek of the gunpowder mixed with rum is oddly enjoyable – it smells and tastes like something from another era. In my book I mentioned that mixing rum with gunpowder may have happened accidentally because barrels of both were on a ship, and they might be reused for different purposes. I have since found that while this may have happened, it was probably rare and never by accident. Also, the swap can only go one way; using gunpowder barrels for rum is impossible, and using rum barrels for gunpowder is an extremely bad idea. Gunpowder barrels did not hold liquid well – having been made to keep a dry material inside, the staves were not intended to get wet and might have swelled and warped if it was filled with liquid. Some gunpowder barrels were sealed with pine tar, which would change the flavor of beverages stored within, and some were lined with lead, which would have other negative consequences. Gunpowder barrels were also weaker – they were usually made with wooden or rope bands that were put in place wet so they shrank and held the barrel together, instead of iron hoops. That way there would be no metal on the barrel that might strike a spark.
Rum barrels were much stronger and would have held powder nicely, but a single spark struck from the metal staves would turn that barrel into a bomb that could imperil all within a wide radius. Rum was also usually shipped in large and unwieldy casks that would have been difficult for a gunner to manipulate in order to refill his magazine. Storing gunpowder in rum barrels probably did happen, but not by preference – it was almost certainly an improvisation by a desperate captain or military commander. The necessity is long past, but the spirit lives on in an interesting niche beverage.
The question I posted about the Australian pistol-shaped rum bottles has been solved! Troy of Bundaberg Showcase followed up on my supposition that VE might be an abbreviation for “vetreria”, the Italian word for glass works, and he found that the maker’s mark matches Vetreria Etruscana of Northern Italy. We still don’t know precisely how the bottles got to Australia, but we know the maker.
In honor of the solution of that question, it’s worth going into another historical fact about rum in Australia – namely, that the stuff was wildly popular in the early years of the colony, and had a reputation nearly as vile as gin when it comes to wrecking people’s lives. Around 1800, the governor of the colony came up with a brilliant solution, which was convincing Australians to drink something less alcoholic like beer. The problem was that beer wasn’t widely available, so the government actually built a brewery at Paramatta and subsidized its operation. Once beer was available, a public relations campaign was instituted to convince people to switch from rum to beer. Though the message was not initially well received, the aim was eventually achieved; I can state from personal experience that Australians now will drink beer without coercion. Though rum was greatly eclipsed in popularity, it is still made there, and made very well. Some classic brands like Inner Circle and Bundaberg have been bought by conglomerates and much of their history lost – as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single rum museum in the country, which is surprising in a place where it was once both popular and a mainstay of the economy.
I am always interested to find historic songs about rum, and I heard one at the Riverside Dickens Festival last weekend. A duo who perform as Bob’s Yer Uncle (note: not the 90’s Canadian rock band with a similar name) sang this cheerful ditty of the dangers of overindulging in grog.
The song is called “Ben Backstay” and if you try to look it up, you are liable to get a much different song, a sad tale of a British sailor who perishes in a shipwreck, breaking the heart of his lady love. That tragic tale has an identical name and rhyming scheme to the one about the meeting of sailor, rum, and shark. This is not an accident; the serious song dates to 1803, and it extolled the bravery of British seamen during the Napoleonic Wars. The comic version, which is sung to a much more jolly tune, probably dates to around 1826, when it appeared in a book called The Universal Songster. This is not a shanty, which is a work song, but a forebitter, a song that is sung at the end of the day just for fun. The fellows in Bob’s Your Uncle seem to be having plenty of fun with it, and it was well received in their shows.
I was reading an account of Australian troops in the Battle of the Somme in World War One in which an officer noted that his men were so fatigued that that when relieved from duty they lay down where they were, sometimes dropping their rifles and collapsing. The officer could tell they were not shamming, because when it was time for distribution of rum rations, only one man from a platoon of fifteen showed up. This was apparently the detail that impressed his superiors – men too tired to get their rum were desperately in need of relief. On another matter involving weaponry and rum, Troy from Bundaberg Showcase in Australia sent this picture of unusual rum liqueur bottles.
These glass pistols were originally filled with Rum Royal Liqueur and were distributed by a company called Frangos, probably in the 1960’s. Troy is looking for any information about exactly where and when these were made and where the liqueur was blended. From the style of the bottle and some markings on the glass I’m guessing the bottles are from Italy – there is a mark that reads “SE. Ve” on the butt of each pistol, and Ve is a likely abbreviation for Vetreria, the Italian word for “Glass works.” Does anybody out there have more information on these? We’d be obliged for the answer.
One has to have a sneaking admiration for the people who invent tourist attractions, for their great creativity if for no other reason. Tourists who visit the British West Indies are told exciting lies about a barren, inhospitable islet named Dead Chest that lies off the coast of Peter Island. Here, they are told, is where Blackbeard cruelly marooned several members of his crew, leaving them with a cutlass and a bottle of rum each. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either the pirates killed each other until only one man was left alive, or they were picked up days later with the rum gone but all of the men alive. The tale goes on that a famous author visited the area later gathering material for a book and worked the story into a song.
The truth is a bit more prosaic. In 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who never visited the Caribbean, wrote Treasure Island and burnished the stereotype of the rum-crazed, profligate pirate : “[W]hen a cruise is done, why, it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.” Stevenson also gave the world the most famous sea chantey that no real pirate ever sang:
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil be done with the rest, Yo ho ho and a bottle or rum!
Dead Chest does have a connection to Treasure Island, though – Stevenson saw the name on a map and thought it sounded interesting, so he used it for his song. As to whether Blackbeard was ever there, it’s unlikely – the man did do a lot of traveling around the Caribbean, but an island with no trees, water, or anything else worth plundering would not be a likely stop for him.