Originally posted 15 May 2013
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.