Drinking rum from an onion…

Originally posted 25 November 2012

When I was in North Carolina on my lecture tour earlier this month, I was puzzled by the lack of information about rum distillers in the area prior to the Civil War. I found several references to rum as a generic trade good, but little information about who was making it and in what quantity. Based on nosing through various archives, I think I have the answer: lots of people were making it, each in relatively small quantities, and there were no established regional brands. Branded goods were indeed established in the North and Midwest during this time, but branding, advertising, and commercialization of alcohol lagged in the Old South. Distilling was an everyday skill, with turpentine and wood alcohol made in high volume, and the skill at distilling one could easily be used for the other. Hundreds of small rummeries were fed by the molasses trade with the Caribbean, with the rum sold through wholesale grocers. Most was probably sold by the keg, but bottles like this one were endlessly reused.

OnionBottle-original

This type of flask was called an onion bottle, and this example was dug up on a beach near New Bern. It probably was made in Holland around 1730 – too late to have actually been part of Blackbeard’s cargo, but well within the time-line for many of his fellow buccaneers.

Some of the most beautiful ads ever published……

Originally posted 23 October 2012

You can’t get away from the fact that many early rum advertisements portray slaves, or people who worked in slave-like conditions, as happy with their lives, and that is troubling to modern sensibilities. To which I can only say that we can’t judge people of that era by modern standards, so let us merely admire the graphics of early rum labels for what they are: commercial art of a high order, conveying a tropical mystique and pride in craftsmanship. Negrita has made rum in Martinique since 1857, and their graphics have always been splendid…

Negrita2

Negrita1

I could wallpaper a room with antique rum advertisements and not grow tired of looking at them, so arresting are the images, so vibrant the colors. I have been teaching a class on the history of alcohol in America for UCLA’s Lifelong Learning Extension program, and have been admiring lots of vintage alcohol advertisements of late – a book on the topic may be in the works if I can find a publisher who is interested.

The mystery of South African rum…

Originally posted 20 October 2012

During the British Colonial period rum was evidently made in South Africa, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the industry. One of the most prominent modern rums from the country is Mainstay, which was first bottled in 1954. Their advertising states that their rum is “unique to South Africa, is as special to this country as tequila is to Mexico! It was created in the cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal and originally known as ‘gavine’ or ‘mystery liquor’. As the name implies, cane spirit is distilled from fermented molasses, by the continuous column still method. Mainstay, the resultant spirit, is extremely pure and crystal clear.”

I was served things best described as “mystery liquor” at parties when I was first exploring the consumption of alcohol, and it wasn’t usually a positive experience. Nevertheless, I look forward to trying Mainstay, and to learning more about rum in Southern Africa. Anybody who has information about production in earlier eras is invited to share it…

On another note entirely, I will be in North Carolina, Northern Virginia, and Maryland during the next few weeks on a book tour – if anybody has suggestions for rum bars near New Bern, Alexandria, Springfield, or Baltimore, I’d be delighted to meet readers for a beverage…

Rhapsodizing about rum punch…

Originally posted 10 October 2012

Charles Dickens enjoyed a good cup of rum punch – he wittily shared his own recipe in a letter to his cousin, and his books include many characters who enthusiastically drank it. Dickens also gives us a portrait of someone who took great delight in making it – Wilkins Micawber, the impoverished but optimistic clerk in 1850’s David Copperfield.

Happy Mr Micawber

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

The ecstatic concentration of a great bartender or chef has rarely been so well expressed. Micawber and his creator were both a bit behind the times – punch was beginning to fall out of favor and be replaced by individually mixed cocktails – but in Dickens’ pages we can relive the joy of a good bowl of punch properly made.

The Tagalog initials…

Originally posted 03 October 2012

I have been unable to find much information about the evolution of rum in the Philippines – it was made there for at least a hundred years by small distllers who left no trace save in court records when they were caught evading taxes. The industry giant is now Tanduay Distillers, which was established in 1854 and has become so dominant that the company name is almost the synonym for rum in that country. In the 1950’s a prohibitionist group took advantage of this when some poetic genius among their membership wrote the words “TANDUAY RUM” vertically and constructed a sentence in the Filipino language Tagalog horizontally. Roughly translated, the sentence reads “To drink this is to invite into your family sickness, illness, leprosy, strife, divorce, death and the destruction of your soul.” As a non-Tagalog speaker I can’t vouch for the artfulness of the phrasing, but I am impressed that somebody did it at all.Whether it convinced any Filipino rum drinkers to stop imibing has not been recorded..

Healthy rum, dangerous water…

Originally posted 23 September 2012

Europeans and Americans in the 18th and early 19th century were certain that water, especially cold water, was dangerous to human health. In cities, they were right – before modern sewage systems were invented, most city water was contaminated and had to be boiled to be safe, so cold water was suspect. Nevertheless, the warning of Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, a Frenchman living in Philadelphia, went just a bit overboard:  “During hot weather thirst is so widespread and irresistible in all American cities that several persons die each year from drinking cold pump water when hot. Printed handbills are distributed each summer to warn people of these dangers. Strangers especially are warned either to drink grog or to add a little wine or some other spirituous liquor to their water. People are urged to throw cold water on the faces of those suffering from water drinking, and bleeding is also suggested. Sometimes notices are placed on the pumps with the words: `Death to him who drinks quickly.’ But all these teachings are ignored.” This label from a bottle of “medicinal” rum is from a later period, but still reflects the era when rum was part of every doctor’s medical kit.

MedicalRumLabelAs for whether adding rum to the water actually did make it safer, it probably wasn’t a bad idea – a little alcohol could kill some of those dangerous germs in the water. I will probably be visiting Philadelphia soon on a lecture tour, and will be sure to add rum to all the water I drink there, just in case Saint Méry was right.

A tax on thin air…

Originally posted 17 September 2012

A recurring theme in the history of rum has been the tendency of distillers to evade taxes in any way possible, from hiding their barrels of liquor in caves or cellars to burying it in remote locations. At various times governments have turned to technology for solutions, such as the Distilleries Act promulgated in Jamaica in 1906. This was based on what seems like a sensible idea – putting a meter on every still so that the amount of liquid coming out was measured, and taxing that. So that nobody could cheat, the stills were to be locked so that there was no way of bypassing the meter.

OldStill

Jamaican distillers cried foul, literally. The first products to come from a still as the wort boils (called feints or heads) are stinking, poisonous, and undrinkable, and at the end of the process the still emits another nasty liquid called tails. The meter on the still would measure either of these as alcohol, so distillers would pay taxes on something they couldn’t use, and unscrupulous still-men might be tempted to leave some of these harmful distillates in the liquor. Furthermore, it was proposed that the meter be attached to the still rather than to the end of the condensing coil, so any steam that escaped accidentally would be taxed as rum. The lock would cause another problem, namely that a distiller could not clean or repair his equipment without contacting an excise-man to give him access to it, and in Jamaica in the pre-telephone and automobile days, that could take days. Articles in the Jamaican press fumed at the injustice of this, noting that technically the Governor-General of Jamaica was the official in charge of the whole operation, and there was nothing in the law that specifically allowed him to delegate anybody else to do it. On April 14, 1906 the Jamaica Times fulminated that this section of the law was “sheer nonsense; what could the Governor know about the shape, dimensions, and parts of a locked still?” The Westmoreland Planters Association issued gloomy predictions of the ruin of the economy and lobbied the Legislative Council to oppose it – successfully, as it turned out, since rum was Jamaica’s major export. The revenue men had to continue their games of hide and seek with crafty distillers who did their best to conceal how much they had made and where they were storing it.

The picture here is of a still in St. Thomas – I couldn’t find a photo of a Jamaican still of this vintage. It is a stark and strange looking contraption, isn’t it! (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

A magnificent anti-rum poem from the 1820's

Originally posted 04 September 2012

The people who wrote songs and poetry in praise of rum were ocasionally lyrical, but the vigor of their rhymes never approached that of their foes. Simply put, nobody ever loved rum as much as the prohibitionists hated it. A prime example is a piece composed sometime in 1828 and published in the Hingham Gazette of Massachusetts. The deathless lines are as follows – I’m providing the entire text because it is magnificent:

“O, thou invincible Spirit of Rum! If thou hadst no
name by which to know thee, we could call thee-Devil.”
SHAKESPEARE

Let the devotee extol thee, And thy wond’rous virtues sum,
By the worst of names I’ll call thee, O, thou hydra-monster, Rum !
Pimple-maker, visage-blotter, Health-corruptor, idler’s mate,
Mischief-breeder, vice-promoter, Credit-spoiler, devil-bait ;
Almshouse-builder, pauper-maker, Truth-betrayer, sorrow’s source,
Pocket-emptier, sabbath-breaker, Conscience-stiller, guilt’s resource;
Nerve-enfeebler, system-scatterer, Thirst-increaser, vagrant-thief,
Cough-producer, treacherous flatterer, Mud-bedauber, mock-relief ;
Business-hinderer, spleen-instiller, Woe-begetter, friendship’s bane,
Anger-beater, Bridewell-filler, Debt-involver, toper’s chain ;
‘Summer’s cooler; winter’s warmer, Blood-pollutor, specious snare,
Mud-collector, man’s transformer, Bond-undoer, gambler’s fare ;
Speech-bewrangler, headlong-bringer, Vitals-burner, deadly fire,
Riot-mover, fire-brand singer, Discord-kindler, misery’s sire;
Sinews-robber, worth-depriver, Strength-subduer, hideous foe,
Reason-thwarter, fraud-contriver, Money-waster, nations’ woe ;
Vile seducer joy-dispeller, Peace-disturber, blackguard-guest,
Sloth-implanter, liver-sweller, Brain-distracter, hateful pest ;
Utterance-boggler, stench-emitter, Strong-man-sprawler, fatal drop
Tumult-raiser, venom-spitter. Wrath-inspirer, coward’s prop ;
Pain-inflicter, eyes-inflamer,  Heart-corrupter, folly’s nurse,
Secret-babbler, body-maimer, Thrift-defeater, loathsome curse ;
Wit-destroyer, joy-impairer, Scandal-dealer, foul-mouth’d scourge,
Senses-blunter, youth’s ensnarer, Crime-inventer, ruins verge
Virtue-blaster, base-deceiver, Rage-displayer, sot’s delight
Noise-exciter, stomach-heaver. Falsehood-spreader, scorpion’s bite ;
Quarrel-plotter, rage-discharger, Giant-conqueror, wasteful sway,
Chin-carbuncler, tongue-enlarger, Malice-venter, Death’s broad way ;
Tempest-scatterer, window-smasher,  Death’s forerunner, Hell’s dire brink;
Ravenous murderer, wind-pipe slasher, Drunkard’s lodging, meat and drink,
Let the devotee extol thee, And thy wond’rous virtues sum,
By the worst of names I’ll call thee, O, thou hydra-monster, Rum

If anyone out there would like to chant this over a jazzy beat, I think it has the makings of a classic dance club track – please send me a link to your video and the appropriate royalties for providing the idea.The quote from Shakespeare is obviously erroneous – the original from Othello is about the “spirit of wine,” either meant metaphorically or a reference to brandy. Nevertheless, the poem was immediately popular and was republished around the world – on March 17, 1830 it appeared in a German translatlation by the Bauern Freund newspaper, on a date unknown but before 1834 in London, and on October 6, 1835 by the Sydney Colonist in Australia. The piece was unsigned, so we do not know the name of the vehement but literate author who anticipated beat poetry by a hundred years.

The Black Tot rum call remains a mystery…

Originally posted 29 August 2012

Another Black Tot Day has gone by, the commemoration of the last rum ration served aboard a British naval vessel on July 31, 1970. This picture shows the last serving aboard the HMS Phoebe.

BlacktotdayMost details of that day, and the thousands of days preceding it on which that ration was served, are clear, but one detail is conspicuous by its absence. Multiple period sources refer to the sailors almost Pavlovian response to the sound of the bosun’s pipe tweeting “Up Spirits,” the call to issue rum rations, but nobody agrees what tune was played. I contacted the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth and the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Greenwich and neither could offer a conclusive answer. The Greenwich museum was kind enough to ask a number of old veterans, but they couldn’t agree what tune was played. Music and naval scholars suggested that any of several standard pipe tunes might have been played, but the mass of literature that mentions a specific call named “Up Spirits” makes it clear that one tune was associated with the rum ration no matter what ship a sailor might be on. There is one place that claims an unbroken tradition – the ceremony is still reenacted by old veterans at the Corner House Pub in Easton, near Portland in Dorset, but as far as I can tell nobody has never filmed it. I pleaded with a local who I contacted through the Town Council’s website to record it for posterity, but he explained that he was technologically challenged and couldn’t figure out how to work the camera in his cellphone. The pub where this ceremony is held has no email, though the same councilor volunteered to drop a note through the door asking somebody to film it and upload the video. That provided no response, so the tune and ritual seems to have once again gone unrecorded.

If you’d like to see the whole ceremony, there are several examples on the Pathe Productions website – this company shot thousands of newsreels from the silent era onward, and is digitizing their collection. Unfortunately every instance of the rum ration that I have seen on their site so far is either silent or has an announcer talking over the entire ceremony. The earliest, and my favorite, is this 1916 silent of rum being issued during World War One. If anyone out there finds any period film with sound, I would be obliged for the link – I’d be delighted to solve this question once and for all.

Mr. Franklin advises a man of god regarding rum…

Originally posted 15 August 2012

Benjamin Franklin was far too old for military service in 1776, but this passage from his diary shows that he did his part for the morale of the troops.

“We had for our chaplain a zealous Presbyterian minister, Mr. Beatty, who complained to me that the men did not generally attend his prayers and exhortations. When they enlisted, they were promised, besides pay and provisions, a gill of rum a day, which was punctually serv’d out to them, half in the morning, and the other half in the evening; and I observ’d they were as punctual in attending to receive it; upon which I said to Mr. Beatty, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.” He liked the tho’t, undertook the office, and, with the help of a few hands to measure out the liquor, executed it to satisfaction, and never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended; so that I thought this method preferable to the punishment inflicted by some military laws for non-attendance on divine service.”

Old Ben knew human nature quite well, and his closing words show a commendable desire to soften overly harsh discipline. One can imagine soldiers who were forced to attend those prayers being happy that they had something to look forward to at the end of the service.