Rum Lights The Holidays

Rum Lights the Holidays

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 comeback.

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.

Jamaica rum --- 1.5 oz.
Lemon juice --- 1 oz.
Orange juice --- 1 oz.
Sugar --- 1 tsp.
Aromatic bitters --- dash
Grenadine --- dash
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.

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 of sugar.

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.

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
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.

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.

2 ounces gold rum
juice of half a lime (2 ounces)
1 teaspoon sugar
Shake with ice and strain into a glass. Garnish with lime. Use a blender and include the ice for a Frozen Daiquiri.

2 ounces light rum
juice of half a lime (2 ounces)
1 teaspoon sugar
mint leaves
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.

“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.

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Rum is one of my favorite beverages. I like it even more than Diet Coke. I prefer it neat, preferably Barbancourt Haitian 15 Year Old Rum. Rum is Yum!

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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