Let's Get Romantic About Rum

I need something to take my mind off of the bewildering playcalling of last night's final two minutes. I don't understand how a team with two elite rushers on the field attempts four straight passes with only five yards to go.

I feel sick just writing that.

I need to go into a happy place. A place filled with booze and adventure, with unsavory characters whose aesthetically-driven aliases are still mentioned in stories today. That place is not Scotland. Nor is it Kentucky. It's not France and it's not Guadalajara.

That romantic, swashbuckling venue is the Caribbean Sea circa the late 17th century – an oceanic theater of pillaging, plundering, treasure, and rum. If you think rum can be summarized with sweet pineapple juice drinks for Spring Break, then think again. For all of you history geeks out there who love delving deep into Scottish single malt lore, that story is a gigantic snorefest when told against this sugarcane chronicle. 

Since David OG and I are headed to Barbados in a month's time, I thought it only appropriate to get myself into the tropical mindset. I reached into my bookshelf at home, grabbed the overlooked and underrated Drink by Iain Gately, and flipped to page 142 – Chapter 12: Rum.

Let's go over a few rum basics before we start telling stories. Rum came about in the 1600's when the Caribbean sugar trade began refining its product for the European market. When you refine sugar into perfect little white crystals, that brown sludge leftover is called molasses. At first, no one knew what to do with this sweet slop. According to Gately, it was considered worthless "and was fed to hogs, or dumped on the land as fertilizer." They weren't eating pancakes or crépes in the Caribbean at that time, I guess. 

Gately goes on:

However, it was soon found that with the addition of water, molasses fermented readily. While the resulting brew had few aficionados, further experimentation revealed that it was an ideal raw material for distillation, and rum was born. The first mention of the potation is contained in a description of Barbados, dating to 1651: "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor."

Kill-Devil! That's what they called it! Because it would kill the Devil himself! What a name. As far as history can tell us, rum distillation begins with Barbados – an island full of trees that was chanced upon by an English ship in 1607. By 1650, the entire island had been deforested and dotted with numerous sugar plantations. Slaves were shipped in to harvest the sugar cane and rum was used to lift their spirits after a hard day's labor (a very unromantic part of this story).

By the time the 18th century hit, the skill of Barbados' rum distillers had evidently picked up. Much like today's popular culture that embraces the fashion of foreigners, the British immediately took a shine to the substance. The historian John Oldmixon wrote in 1708, "it has lately supplied the place of Brandy in punch," and was "much better than the malt spirits and sad liquors sold by our distillers." (Oldmixon would fit right in selling wine at K&L). Gately continues to quote Oldmixon as favoring rum even to French Cognac, as it was "certainly more wholesome, at least, in the sugar islands; where it has been observed that (those who) drink of brandy freely do not live long, whereas the Rum-drinkers hold it to a good old age."

So rum makes it back to England, becomes a hit, gets turned into punch, and impresses the drinking culture to an extent that they prefer it to Scotch and Cognac. Wow! Not only that, but apparently the Cognac drinkers are a bunch of unhealthy cranks, while the rum drinkers are youthful and vigorous. Hmmmm.....

England has rum fever, but what was happening meanwhile back in the Caribbean? PIRATES!

The swashbuckling history of the West Indies is broken up between two distinct waves: the 1660s and the 1710s. While we are all familiar his cartoonish image adorning the occasional bottle of spiced rum, Sir Henry Morgan was the "best known and most successful example of (piracy in) the first period," according to Gately. He writes:

Strictly speaking he was not a pirate but a privateer, licensed by King Charles II to fight Spaniards on his behalf and to pay himself from their treasure. Morgan established a base at Port Royal in Jamaica and launched a series of lucrative raids, notable for their brutality, against Spanish posessions in Cuba and Columbia. In 1670, he outdid himself by sacking Panama and burning it to the ground, just after peace had been declared between Spain and England. He was arrested and sent back to England...where he was acquitted of piracy, knighted, and returned to Jamaica as its deputy governor.

Wow! Basically, sail around the Caribbean, take free shots at anything ruled by the Spanish, loot the booty, and drink as much rum as you can! What a life! Unfortunately, the position of government office didn't fare well for Captain Morgan. He went out like Jim Morrison, drinking incessantly until his body couldn't bear anymore. He died in 1688 from mass consumption of rum and was buried in Port Royal, which was subsequently destroyed by a gigantic earthquake, taking the corpse of Sir Morgan deep down into Davy Jones' Locker.

The second wave of piracy took effect in 1713 and featured a new breed of dread pirate – that scallywag Captain Blackbeard. Blackbeard is to Captain Morgan, as the Police are to the Skatalites. You see, the whole peace treaty between Spain and England didn't work too well for the Caribbean pirates. Pillaging and plundering for treasure was in their blood, even if it wasn't being done semi-legally in the name of the homeland. No government agreement was going to stop these able seamen from living out their romantic dreams of conquest. These second-wave pirates were more organized, however. They had ethics! "They operated in loose confederations and regulated affairs between themselves according to written articles, which were, for the age, models of democracy. They wrote the right to rum into such agreements" Gately concludes.

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seiz'd, and may use them at Pleasure – from the Articles of Captain Roberts.

Edward Teach isn't a name that strikes fear into the hearts of men, but as Blackbeard he was known as the "embodiment of impregnable wickedness, of reckless daring, a nightmarish villain so lacking in any human kindness that no crime was above him." And he liked to get drunk a lot. On rum. All day long. He also adorned a large black beard (hence the name) that he would decorate with scarlet ribbons and illuminate with burning matches behind his ears (I would think he would end up burning his precious beard off that way, but maybe he knew a clever way to prevent that). Did I mention he liked to drink rum? Gately cites one of Blackbeard's journal entries as evidence of his thirst:

Such a Day, Rum all out – Our Company somewhat sober: – A damn'd Confusion amongst us! – Rogues a plotting: – great talk of Separation. So I look'd sharp for a Prize: – such a day took one, with a great deal of Liquor on board, so kept the Company hot, damn'd hot, then all Things went well again.

We can all relate. When the party runs out of booze, the party's over. 

Here's where the story gets interesting. Did anyone else know that Blackbeard operated out of the Carolinas? I'm sorry, but when I think of piracy, Raleigh-Durham doesn't come to mind. Nevertheless, Gately writes:

For a while, Blackbeard operated out of the Carolinas with the complicity of the colonial authorities, until a warrant for his capture, together with a handsome reward, was issued in Virginia by its governor. He and his crew were cornered in Okercok Inlet by a superior force, and the pirate died defiant: "Blackbeard took a Glass of Liquor, and drank...with these words: "Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you." He then stood his ground and fought, "with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by shot." He was beheaded after death, and his skull continued in service as a receptacle for alcohol. It was converted into a very large punch bowl, called The Infant, "which was used until 1903 as a drinking vessel a the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. According to one account it bore a silver rim on which was engraved 'Deth to Spotswoode'"

Hold on a minute. Are you telling me that, up until 1903, you could go to a bar in South Carolina and drink a glass of punch out of Blackbeard's freakin' skull?! THAT'S INSANE! No wonder everyone loves the pre-Prohibition era cocktails! It wasn't just about great ingredients, it was about panache!  

In any case, these are just a few of the stories you'll find in Iain Gately's book, solely in the chapter about rum, which goes on for another twenty pages or so. It's really fascinating stuff. Besides being utterly delicious, sippable, mixable, and versatile in many a cocktail, rum also has a tremendously exciting history – full of romance and intrigue. I'm sorry, but I'm far more interested in reading about Henry Morgan and Blackbeard than I am Johnnie Walker and his trek across Scotland. Look at the historic parallels as well. Was Blackbeard merely the Manual Noriega of his time? There's a lot to think about.

I'm going to pour myself a glass of rum and keep reading. Mount Gay Extra Old, please! Barbados, ho!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll