Despite its simple name, rum's history and mystique is deep and convoluted. No other
beverage—perhaps no other substance—played as significant a role in the beginnings of the
American nation. Forget the little dispute we had with the British over that tiny tax on tea; it
was the trade in rum, decades before, that turned us into very bad colonists. Our founders
reached for rum before any other beverage; they drank it in such industrial quantities that it is
a wonder they were able to do any founding at all. Rum came to act as a metaphor for all
strong drink, hence, the Prohibition-era term “rum runner,” or the preacher's pervasive
“demon rum.” Supplanted in cocktail lounges and bars by whiskies and later by “white”
goods like vodka in more recent times, rum, perhaps the most versatile spirit, is now on a
Rum is a spirit, and has a spirit, all to itself. Rum's heart is sugar cane. Most rum is
distilled from molasses, a thick, syrupy derivative of the sugar-refining process. Some rum
varieties are distilled from pressed cane juice, as is still the case for rhum agricole from the
French-speaking islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique (the ideal topping for the rich yeast
cakes the French call baba au rhum). Every Caribbean nation—and indeed countries as diverse
as Austria and the Philippines—has at least one brand of signature rum. The British have their
own ways with the drink; an upscale university club style, naturally, as well as the diluted
grog they dispensed to or withheld from their sailors for centuries as a motivational tool.
Connoisseurs will blind-taste various rums straight, but it is as a mixer that rum really shines.
It has a way of bringing out the best in its drink partners, all the while adding its own
character to the mix.
Rum does indeed lend itself to experiment; my Bartender's Black Book lists just short of a
thousand rum-based cocktails, from the Beacon Hill Blizzard to the Yard of Flannel.
Yet there is no need, entertaining at home, to be too esoteric with rum; a straightforward rum
punch is easy to make. Just extrapolate the math for larger quantities.
Add the rum and juices into a cocktail shaker, add ice, then sugar, bitters and grenadine.
Shake, and pour into individual chilled glasses, including ice.
Jamaica rum --- 1.5 oz.
Lemon juice --- 1 oz.
Orange juice --- 1 oz.
Sugar --- 1 tsp.
Aromatic bitters --- dash
Grenadine --- dash
Of course, during the winter season, though chilled punches may well promote holiday cheer,
your guests may require warm-me-ups. Rum serves this purpose just as well. For a Hot
Toddy, fill your Old Fashioned glass or mug one-third full with rum, then top off with hot
water, adding a teaspoon of sugar. Garnish with a lemon wedge and cloves. Hot Buttered
Rum calls for the same liquid proportions, with a pat of unsalted butter and again a teaspoon
And then there is Eggnog, which, depending on your point of view, is insidious because it is
insipid (in the case of the supermarket variety), or because it is laced with bourbon, brandy,
cognac, dark rum, or all of the above. A good dose of dark rum will improve the commercial
eggnog variety, but since you owe your guests authenticity, here's the real thing. Don't
stint on the fattening ingredients; it's a once a year project.
In a large bowl with a whisk or using an electric mixer, whip the egg yolks, adding the sugar
in a stream, until the mixture is a pale yellow and forms into ribbons. Add the milk, the
cream and the alcohol. Chill several hours or overnight. Whip the egg whites to a soft peak
stage; fold them into the yolk and sugar mixture. Chill again. Garnish with fresh grated
nutmeg before serving. Folklore—perhaps some science—dictates that a rest of several days in
the refrigerator, with an occasional gentle stir, will optimize your eggnog. If you have
concern over using raw eggs because of salmonella issues, use a whole-egg recipe that calls
for initial cooking, bearing in mind that fresh organic eggs, with good intact shells, almost
never see this problem.
12 large eggs, separated
1.5 cups sugar
1 quart milk
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart alcohol (at least half of which is dark rum)
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
It would be fun to imagine our founding fathers cozying up to the fire with their toddies and
buttered rums in hand, or even doing some manly swigging right out of the rum cask, but the
history of rum has a dark side; the dark word is “sugar.” Christopher Columbus himself
brought the first sugar cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage of 1493. Raising, tending,
harvesting and processing sugar cane, then as now, is back-breaking work. Before Caribbean
sugar, slavery was known, but sporadically practiced. Sugar, more than any other agricultural
staple, turned slavery into a true international industry. Given the nature of the work and the
merciless climate, slaves from Africa were consumed like so much fodder: worked to death
and replaced. While the Portuguese, Spanish and French were responsible for promulgating
this brutal trade, the English-speakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were the people who
turned it into a true commercial science.
The formula went like this: Britain would trade manufactured goods like rum and iron for
slaves from Africa, sell or trade the slaves in the Caribbean, and ship raw materials,
especially molasses that would later be made into rum, either to the American colonies or
back to Britain, yielding enormous profits at every juncture. The slaves who toiled in the
sugar fields had but a single consolation: escape into the very root of their misery, the rum
itself. Such blunt wisdom was not lost on the masters of the game. The elixir did double
genocidal duty, in fact; rum functioned as the native-American “fire water” long before
grain-based whiskey came to be widely produced.
By 1690, New England had its own nascent rum industry. Despite Yankee initiative, the
demand for rum was so strong on these shores that in 1728 more than two million gallons of
finished rum were being imported into the country. Enterprising Americans soon strove to
right the imbalance, turning to the French Caribbean islands for their molasses which they
would in turn manufacture into rum to trade for slaves in Africa. The British were quick to
react, enacting the Molasses Act in 1733, banning this trade. The Americans ignored the act,
but the Sugar Act 30 years later in 1763 brought British military force into the picture. By the
time we had that “Tea Party” in 1773, the die had long since been cast. The men who tossed
that tea into Boston harbor doubtless required stronger fortification in order to dare the deed
(besides, they were boycotting tea). Cruel rum galvanized our national and commercial focus.
Free-flowing rum fueled our sense of the moment, when it was brilliant, yet sustained us
through our bleakest days.
But let us not fail to enjoy rum today simply because there is suffering in its history. There is
suffering in all food and beverage history. Rum has taken its own path. With the demise of
Caribbean slavery, a real industry and true modern culture of rum arose. You can get
excellent conversational mileage on any Caribbean island if you bring up the subject of “the
best” rum, but in no other place will you encounter as much attitudinal volatility as in
Jamaica. Forget tourist Jamaica, where they'll mix you anything (even if it's Hawaiian and
requires a paper umbrella); in the real Jamaica, rum, straight and strong, is an integral part of
everyday life. Even non-drinking Jamaicans use the beverage as a medicinal rub for wounds
and to ward off colds. Jamaicans drink their rums—which may at times be distilled
illegally—with the same determination with which they spice their food. The Jamaican who
professes to want to do nothing but “drink rum all day” is embracing an activity that is more
complex than it may first appear.
Look to the largest Caribbean island—Cuba—and you'll find the culture that elevated rum into
a sophisticated drink. Don Facunado Bacardi, legend has it at least, was the first to develop
light, softer rums using modern continuous distillation processes. Prohibition in the United
States made Havana the cocktail capital of the hemisphere, while the American boycott of
Cuba thirty years later only froze that tradition as if in a time capsule. Ignore, for a moment,
the insistent image of rusting automobiles on Castro-era streets; you can still get a
damned-fine Daiquiri or Mojito in Havana. These two cocktails have similar ingredients, yet
an entirely different mouth feel.
Shake with ice and strain into a glass. Garnish with lime. Use a blender and include the ice
for a Frozen Daiquiri.
2 ounces gold rum
juice of half a lime (2 ounces)
1 teaspoon sugar
In a highball glass, muddle the mint leaves with the lime juice and sugar. Fill glass with ice.
Add rum, and top with soda water.
2 ounces light rum
juice of half a lime (2 ounces)
1 teaspoon sugar
“There's nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion,” wrote Lord
Byron. The implication is that rum and true religion may not be as diametrically opposed as
many of us would tend to believe. You get solace, stimulation, and complexity from both, to
be sure. Rum, however, seems to go better with freshly squeezed lime juice.