Healthy rum, dangerous water...
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.
As 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.
23 September 2012
A tax on thin air...
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.
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 distllers would pay taxes on something they couldn't use, and unscrupulous stillmen 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 exciseman 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)
17 September 2012
A magnificent anti-rum poem from the 1820's
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."
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.
04 September 2012
The Black Tot rum call remains a mystery...
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.
Most 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 queation once and for all.
Mr. Franklin advises a man of god regarding rum...
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.
15 August 2012
The first Caribbean cocktail?
The earliest named rum drink we know of in the Spanish Caribbean is the Draquecito or "Little Dragon," a mixture of rum, sugar, mint, and lime. The drink was said to be named after either Sir Francis Drake or one of his Captains, Richard Drake. (At least one rum company has claimed that this drink was named by Sir Francis instead of after him, which is extremely farfetched.)
Why anyone in the Spanish colonies would name a drink after someone who pillaged Spanish ships is an excellent question. Though the pun on Sir Francis Drake's name (Drake and Draque) is most often cited, it may be that the bad rum that was most common in those colonies made one's mouth burn like a dragon's.
The earliest citation I have seen for the Draquecito is from the work of Cuban poet and novelist Ramón de Palma, who referred to the Draquecito in an 1838 book; the main character drank one of the cocktails daily as a preventive medicine. At some point around 1860, the name of the drink changed from Draquecito to mojito - but why, exactly? The usual answer I have seen is that the draquecito was made with aguardinte or garapo, while the mojito was made with rum. At this time aguardiente was a generic term for strong liquor, while garapo was literally a drink of unfermented cane juice but was apparently also Cuban slang for cheap unaged rum. Thus it appears that if you made this drink with bad rum it was called a Draquecito, but if you made it with something you didn't mind serving to guests it was a mojito. By that name it became a favorite with Hemingway and his crowd, and went on around the world.
06 August 2012
The Minneapolis Mystery Solved!
It has only been a few weeks since I published the picture of the enigmatic spiced rum bottles from the 1940's, and we have an answer already! I heard from Eileen Loucraft, who stated that a relative named Nelson Loucraft had a sugar cane plantation in Cuba in the 1940's. Nelson had family in Minnesota, and apparently they started the Loucraft Corporation to import that rum, which was distributed via Courtesy Club. Nelson Loucraft died in the 1940's and there is no record of what flavorings were in those bottles, so unless new information comes to light, details about the earliest commercially exported Caribbean spiced rum will still remain a mystery.
19 July 2012
Rum in Japan, by more than one name...
I was enjoying a meal in a small Japanese restauarant yesterday evening and decided to try shochu, the Japanese distilled liquor, rather than sake. I observed that along with shochu made from yams, barley, sweet potatoes, and other raw materials, there were some made with sugar cane and muscovado sugar. The one made from muscovado sugar had a pleasant light peppery taste, while the one made from cane resembled a typical cachaca. This is the label from the Jougo, made from muscovado sugar.
The experience piqued my interest and I started researching Japanese rum, which has a longer history than I expected. Sugar grows well on the Ryuku and Ogasawara islands, which are about a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo, and the plant has been cultivated there since sometime before 1860. Rice-based alcohols were traditional in the region, but by the 1920's mixes of sugar and rice were used to make a distinctive drink called Kokuto. By 1940 true rums were made, albeit in small qualtities, and distilling continues today. Even when these drinks are made primarily or entirely with sugar or molasses, most are classified as shochu for tax reasons; foreign drinks like rum have a much higher rate than traditional alcohols like shochu. Only certain islands may claim this exemption, so Jougo, which is made from in the Ryuku Islands, is classified as a shochu despite being made almost completely from cane juice, while Ogasawara, a molasses rum from a nearby island chain, is sold as rum and is much more expensive.
Thanks to everyone who showed up at my recent events - I enjoyed meeting many of you at Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, at the meeting of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, and at the various other places where Bay Area fans of rum history congregate.
16 July 2012
The pageantry of rum at sea...
The British navy created an elaborate ceremony for serving rum aboard ships, an occasion presided over by the Rum Bosun to the sound of music that was played at no other occasion. (I have tried to find a recording of this tune so I could include it with this post, but no luck yet.) Special measuring cups were used so that sailors would know that they received the precise amount specified by law, and those cups have become collector's items. The friendly folks at The Pirate's Lair have put pictures of some of these online, and with their permission I share these:
The Pirate's Lair site even has information about how to detect counterfeit grog cups, the existence of which I hadn't suspected until I read the article. As I mentioned in the book, rum has spawned religious ceremonies in several parts of the world, but the most majestic ritual may have been the purely secular one that evolved around the British Navy's grog rations.
06 July 2012
Images of Ecuadorian rum...
Anywhere sugar is grown, rum is made, though in many cases it is all consumed locally and documentation is hard to find. Some sugar is grown in coastal Ecuador, and the friendly people at Cristal rum company sent me a few examples of labels and old pictures of rum production.
The white rum was branded as "Aguardiente Superior," and the slogan translates to "For the Toast that Lasts." I don't know the date, but from the fashions I would guess this to be from the 1960's. Here is a picture of the bottling line, featuring someone who looks eerily like a young Peter Lorre filling the bottles:
...And here is the cane crushing equipment, which looks unchanged from that used in the Victorian era:
Cristal claims an interesting heritge for their product, namely that the Incas who inhabited Ecuador made a type of beer from local sweet grasses, and the regional taste in alcohol reflects that heritage. I have never seen documentation for any traditional Andean alcoholic beverages except those like chicha made from corn, but would be interested in learning more.
05 July 2012
The Haitian mystery bottle solved!
While I was in Washington DC to talk about rum for the Culinary Historians of Washington, I met a charming lady from Haiti named Anne-Gaelle Laplanche who had seen this site and was able to answer the question about the mysterious bottle of Haitian rum. I had been fooled by the eccentric spelling of Haitian creole French - the word that had been spelled "Celebride" is actually a compound word of "Sele" and "Bride," which together mean "Saddle and Bridle." This drink, also spelled Selebride, is a white rum made in the Cap Haitien region called Kleren that is made by moonshiners, and this label wih no distiller's name is typical. To make Selebride, the Kleren is spiced with local herbs - the resulting drink is supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. Apparently there are many different types of Haitian moonshine - others are called tranpe or tafia. I hope to elaborate on the differences in a future post, as well as provide a link to Anne-Gaelle's new blog on Haitian cuisine and culture.
The trip to the East Coast was quite a success - there were good crowds at all four events, one of which was followed by an impromptu rum sampling in a sunny garden. Many thanks to all who came out. I had already planned a visit to the Carolinas this fall, and may be stopping through Virginia again for more fun in early November. If you have a sugestion for a venue, feel free to contact me!
27 June 2012
Bundaberg, and a wonderful rum poem from 19th Century Australia
As long-established distillers are sold and resold by multinational companies, the histories of the people and events behind the brands are lost. It seems strange that someone would pay for a famous name and then allow the reasons for that fame to be forgotten, especially as an archive is inexpensive to maintain and can be the foundation for a museum that can attract tourists, but it happens all to often. Therefore it is worth cheering the owners of Bundaberg Rum, who are cooperating with Australian rum enthusiasts who recently established a Bundaberg history page.
Their site is at bundabergrumshowcase.com.au, and they are looking for stories, historical notes, and memorabilia. If anybody out there can give them a hand, please be generous with your information - we all benefit. In their honor, I would like to refer you to a wonderful poem called "Rum and Water" by the nineteenth century poet Thomas Edward Spencer.
Stifling was the air, and heavy; blowflies buzzed and held a levee,
And the mid-day sun shone hot upon the plains of Bungaroo,
As Tobias Mathew Carey, a devout bush missionary,
Urged his broken-winded horse towards the township of Warhoo.
He was visiting the stations and delivering orations
About everlasting torture and the land of Kingdom Come,
And astounding all his hearers, both the rouseabouts and shearers,
When descanting on the horrors that result from drinking rum.
The tale of the wandering missionary and the drunken bushman arguing about what has hurt more people, rum or water, is too long for me to reproduce here, but trust me, it is worth reading.
26 June 2012
Another Mystery Bottle from Haiti...
A reader from Florida sent a picture of this bottle, which is labeled in French "Celebration du Cap." It appears to be an old Barbancourt bottle that has been relabeled, a common practice a few decades ago when many small distileries couldn't afford to buy stocks of new bottles.
As you can see, the label has been professionally but crudely printed. Given the "Celebration of the Cape" wording, my guess is that this was a special bottling for some festival or other event. Has anybody out there seen anything like it, and do you know how old this might be? Please let me know, and I will post any information I receive.
I will be posting only sporadically for the next week or so, as I have speaking engagements in New York and Washington. My lecture on rum for the Culinary Historians of Washington received excellent preview coverage in the Washington Post, so we are hoping for a good crowd. If any readers of this site show up at that event, please come and introduce yourself - I like meeting people who care about food, drink, history, and anthropology.
19 June 2012
And more on temperance songs, with recording!
The overwrought style of most early temperance songs is laughable nowadays, but some had interesting lyrics and catchy tunes. They were pop songs, designed to appeal to Victorian sentiments. The Hutchinson Family were rock stars of their day, and this ticket from an 1843 concert at the Howard Street Tabernacle in Boston gives you a sense of how the Rolling Stones might have been marketed if they had come along 130 years early.
Their lyrics are pretty good - consider this sample from "King Alcohol":
"King Alcohol is very sly, a demon from the first, He'll make you drink until you're dry, then drink because you thirst."
It would be interesting to know how this group sounded, but they flourished long before the era of recording equipment. There are later versions of their songs, but even the first recordings may not sound anything like the original because by the time Edison cylinders were available, tastes had changed. As an example of this, you might listen to the earliest recording of another temperance favorite, "Father's A Drunkard and Mother Is Dead." The earliest recording I have been able to find is from 1929, and it was performed by Walter Coon as a singsong country blues. You can listen to it here.
Not only was this tune written for a woman's voice rather than a man's, a look at the original sheet music shows that the tune was completely different. Here is a modern recording in something closer to the original style:
This is a very raw recording by the Foss Household Temperance Band (Elizabeth Rose-Marini on vocals, Professor Simon Spalding on octar, Richard Foss on mandolin). We played this take only a few hours after looking at the sheet music for the first time, so the rendition is far from perfect. Even so, you can hear that the tune is more ornate than the better-known version, and Ms. Rose-Marini sounds much more like a starving orphan girl than Mr. Coon. It's the sound of another era, earnest and naive and dedicated to ending the evil reign of demon rum. If you'd like to see the lyrics so you can sing along, they are in an older post on this site.
13 June 2012
Cold Water versus Hot Liquor
From the 1700's to the late nineteenth century, rum was seen as a healthful beverage, and when the Temperance movement launched their campaign against strong drink they were out of the cultural mainstream. A measure of this is seen in the language of the Temperance Battle Hymn, published in 1889:
"Stand up for the cold water fight, Against doctor and lawyer and priest,
Stand up and do battle for right, Against foes from the west or the east."
Doctors, lawyers, and priests were indeed the foe - lawyers because they prosecuted those who vandalized saloons, priests because Catholics used wine as a sacrament, but the matter of doctors is more complicated. Some doctors did regard rum as good by itself to "calm the nerves," but many more used alcohol as a base for medicines. The chemistry of the time had no better way of extracting the essence of some herbs or as a base for compounds, and popular remedies such as Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound were 18% alcohol, or 36 proof. Those who eschewed alcohol in all forms did have other options, but those often contained mercury, opium, strychnine, and other virulent poisons. A sensible person might decide that they would get at least as much relief from a glass of rum with lime and sugar, and much more enjoyment from the experience.
12 June 2012
Rum's Hawaiian Cousin
The natives of Hawaii made alcohol from the leaves and roots of the ti plant - not the same plant that was used to make the drink famed in India and China, but one indigenous to the islands. The knowledge of distilling arrived with the Europeans, along with the containers to boil large amounts of liquid - the pots used by whalers to render whale blubber into oil.
As you can see, these pots have one flat side, a design that allowed them both to fit easily into a ship's hold and to sit close to each other over a fire. The whalers were only in the islands for a few months a year, and the rest of the time the Hawaiians used them to make rum from the sugar that had been introduced by Europeans. To the Hawaiians, the two pots close together looked like someone's backside, and the pots were given the name "okolehao," which is usually translated as "Iron Buttocks." A liquor made from a mix of distilled ti leaves with sugar became known by the same name, and is still made by a small commecial distillery on the island of Maui. It is recognizably a rum with flowery overtones, and well worth trying if you are in the Islands. It is no longer made in the old style, with the whalepots attached to crude copper tubes to create alembic ctills, but it's still a taste of another time and place.
11 June 2012
The evils of grog...
I enjoy the florid writing style of the Victorian era, which is never so vivid as when a writer was denouncing other people's moral failings. Consider this example from the article ‘Our Social Position: Baneful Effects of Sly-grog Selling’ (1857), which is about the illegal taverns in Australia:
"Sly-grog shops are positively the curse of the country, and to these dens of infamy and shame can many a single hearted youth trace the ruin of his character, and his initiation into every species of evil and immorality. At these places will be found congregated the known thieves and blackguards of a district; there they inveigle the unthinking, induce the habit of rum-drinking, and at last lead them from one illegal act to another, until the scholar becomes as proficient as the master in the practice of robbery and stealing the property of others."
Modern writing is usually more dispassionate and factual, but rarely as fun to read.
06 June 2012
Knowledge of geography optional...
I have another example of how historical research can lead you down all sorts of unexpected avenues. In my first post about the mysterious initials on First World War rum jugs, I mentioned the supposition that they stood for Special Red Demerara. As far as I can tell, this theory was first proposed in an article in a Toronto's National Post that was published on March 17, 2000. On a second reading of the original story, something about the quote caught my attention.
"It was a potent weapon of the First World War, and for Canadian soldiers entrenched on the Western Front it arrived each week in gallon jars marked with the letters S.R.D.-Special Red Demerara, 86-proof Jamaican rum."
Demerara rum comes from Guyana, not Jamaica, so the author seems to have a rather hazy idea of geography. Another aspect of the article also seemed suspect; if this rum was made in such vast qualtities that it could supply an entire army, why hadn't I come across any other reference to it? I decided to contact Demerara Distillers of Guyana to find out whether such any rum from the region was ever designated "Special Red," Mr. Ian Lye responded to my inquiry, and said that as far as the home office could determine, no rum has been made under that marque. Their research continues, and if they do find any record of such a brand, I will report it here.
There is a rum from Demerara that does have those S.R.D. initials, the Special Reserve Demerara, but that very fine beverage is produced in tiny qualtities and would better fit an officer's table than that of a common serviceman. I would raise a haughty eyebrow at the shoddy standards of journalism had I not been a member of the profession myself for many years - I have been caught in an error once or twice too, and have compassion for anyone who tries to give historical context while on a deadline.
01 June 2012
In honor of Boston rum...
The theme of today's post is Boston, where Felton & Sons made rum for centuries in this building:
Felton and Sons sold the building to the Mr. Boston company, which continued making rum there until the 1980's. While doing so they distributed tens of thousands of copies of the Mr. Boston's Bar Guide, and those little red books are part of many amateur bartenders' collection.
The city of Boston is being celebrated because my book just received a wonderful review in the Boston Globe. I am grateful for the attention the book has been getting, and thank everyone who has reviewed it in newspapers, their blog posts, and on Amazon. I don't have a big advertising budget, and even if I did, I could not replicate the honest actions of people who just write about what they like. I am sure that most authors feel the same way that I do, but unlike many of them I have a place to say it. Thank you.
31 May 2012
A reader named Joe sent this picture of a pair of rum bottles that raise some interesting questions. They are dated 1943 and contained Cuban rum "flavored with aromatics."
They were imported by the Loucraft Corporation and bottled by Distillers Sales Company, and have the Courtesy Club trademark. Courtesy Club was primarily a whiskey distributor - this is their only association with rum that I have found. What I find most interesting are the words "flavored with aromatics" on the label. That implies that this was a spiced rum, and according to most sources, the first branded spiced rum to be marketed outside the Caribbean was Captain Morgan, which started production in 1944.
Whatever was in these bottles, they were a product of interesting times. The ships that carried them dodged U-boats to voyage from the sunny islands to the midwestern plains, the crew risking their lives to deliver a cargo of spirits. They sailed in the wakes of 18th Century pirates, Confederate blockade runners, and 20th Century bootleggers, and who can say whether they followed the traditions of merchantmen before them and tapped just a few bottles for the crew's mess?
If you know anything about these bottles and the liquid they once contained, please send an email - Joe and I are both very curious to know more of the story.
29 May 2012
Rum, Whiskey, Indians, and Commerce
I'm going to make up for a few days away from my computer with a longish post that may not fully explain a tangled subject, but might shine a light on the more interesting loops in the knots. To start, the text of a grievance sent by Iroquois Chief Scarrooyady to the Governor of Pennsylvania on October 3, 1753:
"Your Traders now bring scarce anything but Rum and Flour; they bring little powder and lead, or other valuable goods. The Rum ruins us. We beg you would prevent its coming such quantities by regulating the Traders. We never understood the Trade was to be for Whiskey and Flour. We desire it may be forbidden, and none sold in the Indian Country; but if the Indians will have any they may go among the inhabitants and deal with them for it. When these Whiskey Traders come, They bring thirty or forty kegs and put them down before us and make us drink, and get all the skins that should go to pay the debts we have contracted for goods bought of the Fair Traders; by this means we not only ruin ourselves but them too. These wicked Whiskey Sellers, when they have once got the Indians in liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs. In short, if this practice be continued, we must be inevitably ruined."
The first thing to note is that the chief refers to rum and whiskey interchangeably throughout the letter; to him they were essentially the same thing - raw alcohols that had been minimally improved by aging. This is an example of the problem with tracing the rum trade on the frontier, since traders might take one distilled alcohol on one journey, a different one on the next outing, and not record the difference. The participants on both sides of the trade were indiscriminate and vague about their terminology.
Second, modern people who learn about the trade with the natives often focus on the fact that an intoxicating liquor was the medium of exchange with a people who were unused to its effects. This ignores a pivotal fact: that alcohol was the principal barter item between the colonists too. As I detail in the book (you do have a copy, don't you?) the colonies were chronically short of coinage, and rum was the common currency for all kinds of transactions. The Europeans who traded with the Iroquois may have taken advantage of the fact that the natives were poor bargainers when intoxicated, but this was probably an unintended by-product of their economic system.
I don't have a good picture of actual Iroquois of this period, but you may enjoy this circus poster from the 1890's.
I presume that this image answers your questions.
28 May 2012
The perils of a full cargo...
Sailors aboard a shipload of rum might be delighted by the opportunities to tap one of the kegs in the hold, but they had to keep in mind one of the dangers inherent in a cargo of flammable liquid.
This painting depicts the last minutes of the Kent, a cargo ship that was on its maiden voyage in 1825 when she caught fire and sank. As a later report put it, " By the roll of the vessel, a cask of spirits had been displaced; and, as the men were about to fix it in its former position, a heavy sea struck the ship, and precipitated a candle from the hands of one of them. This, falling on a small portion of the spirits, which had escaped from the cask, produced an instant conflagration, which defied every effort to stay its progress." The ship had been on the way from London to India, but had only made it to a point near the coast of France before burning and sinking. Eighty-one people were killed despite the presence of a nearby ship that picked up the survivors, and captains around the world demanded greater scrutiny of rum cargoes to make sure none had leaked. There can be no accurate accounting of how often this kind of accident happened, since most ships that suffered such an accident must have left no survivors to tell the tale.
24 May 2012
An awful thing to do with good rum..
I have been known to experiment with rum in my own kitchen and enjoy the theatricality of flaming dishes, but there is such a thing as going too far. One might surmise that this recipe from the 1950's for baked beans flamed with rum is an example of style over substance.
Baked Beans Au Glow-Glow
• 4 c Canned Baked Beans
• 1/4 c Molasses
• 1/4 c Ketchup
• 1 tb Yellow Table Mustard
• 4 slices Bacon (cut in half)
• 1/2 c Dark Rum
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
Combine ingredients, except bacon and rum, in large casserole.
Cover beans with bacon slices and bake until the bacon is done -- 2 hours.
Warm rum in small sauce pan, ignite and spoon over the hot beans.
Note that the beans are covered with strips of bacon, which the flaming rum is poured over, so you can fill your home with the delightful smell of flaming bacon fat. Note also that this dish was concocted before the invention of the modern smoke alarm, which may be one of many reasons for its fall from favor. The source for this is "Fashionable Food, Seven Decades of Food Fads" by Sylvia Lovegren, and if you wish to visit the chamber of horrors that is cooking in the 50's and 60's, this book is a great place to start. Sylvia credits the recipe to John J. Poister, a food and travel columnist for the New Yorker and other magazines, who certainly should have known better. I'll add a cup of dark rum to a pot of my chili, but this is beyond reason.
Meanwhile, the reviews for the book keep coming in - one just appeared in AllStarCask, a rum blog that I was unaware of before. I keep learning about more people around the world who share an interest in not only drinking good rum, but writing about it. Civilization may not fall after all.
23 May 2012
Rum delivers your mail...
Though rum was used as a de facto currency in Australia, Colonial America, and other places, I haven't found any examples of coinage or paper currency that actually feature rum barrels. The case is different with stamps, as you can see from these examples. First, a distillery from the Netherlands Antilles, date unknown:
From Cuba in 1982, a barrel of rum:
And a stamp that wasn't issued by a government, but nevertheless will get your mail delivered if you are fortunate enough to live in Hawaii. A local delivery company issues beautiful stamps commemorating Hawaiiana, like this one:
Know of any other stamps or currency that feature rum or distilleries? I'd like to see them.
22 May 2012
More on the military rum jug...
After I posted the entry on the Canadian military rum jug, I realized I had another picture that showed one very much like it. This picture of two Scottish soldiers in a bombed-out landscape probably dates from 1916, and is entitled "Sorry, it is empty."
There is a look of longing and sadness on the poor fellow on the left, watching his comrade drain the last dregs from the rum jug. Soldiers in the armies of the modern world have it much better in every other way - air-conditioned tents in desert heat, modern water-shedding clothing in damp climate, more nutritious and better-preserved food - but they are denied the official rations of liquor that comforted their grandfathers in the fields of Flanders and France. (Photo from the archive of the National Libarary of Scotland, public domain.)
On another topic, "Rum: A Global History" is starting to get reviews. One of the first is from the Swedish drinks blog A Mountain of Crushed Ice, which reprinted the recipe for Martha Washington's Rum Punch. I have been enjoying this blog for some time and am honored to be featured there. If you have seen other reviews of the book that I might have missed, please let me know.
20 May 2012
The mysterious initials on the jug...
Soldiers in the British and Canadian military during the First World War were always delighted when they saw this jug, even though they were unsure of the meaning of the initials on the side.
The contents were definitely rum, and depending on who you talked to, the three letters stood for Special Red Demerara, Service Rum Distribution, or other names of the type beloved by bureaucrats. The soldiers naturally came up with their own acronyms: Seldom Reaches Destination and Soon Runs Dry were both popular. The jugs were delivered to the battlefields in the thousands and can still be found in antique shops in France and Belgium.
Thanks to Wolf for sending this tidbit. Do you know an interesting facet of rum history, have questions about a traditional tipple, or have a clear picture of an unusual or mysterious rum-related artifact? Send it to me using the link at the bottom of this page, and I will be happy to research it or feature it here.
17 May 2012