Every spirit has an ethos shaped by its history. Scotch is clothed in an earthy mystique—heather, peat, and bog, hard old Scotsmen and the pale northern sky. Gin remains redolent of Britain in the 18th century, seeped in grim, poverty, and collective depression. And rum, ah rum. This ‘hot, hellish and terrible liquor,’ as it was described in the 1650s, retains an aura of rebellion—pirates, navy men, and slaves, lawless seas and haunted islands. ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,’ Robert Louis Stevenson chants in the tale of Treasure Island. ‘Drink and the devil have done for the rest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.’ Over 100 years later little has changed in the mythology surrounding rum and we find Johnny Depp stumbling drunkenly across the deck of a ship, clutching a bottle in full piratical frenzy.
Although the myths that collect around any object are wildly imaginative, straying from historical fact, in the case of rum there is considerable truth to the stories. Rum was first produced as a byproduct of sugar refining, an industry that in turn was born out of sweat, blood, and slavery. When European explorers discovered that sugar cane, recalcitrant in their northern homeland, thrived in the Caribbean, they began cultivating it on a large-scale. The challenge with sugar, however, is that it cannot simply be harvested and shipped to consumers. First it must be laboriously extracted from the cane, pressed, boiled, and crystalized before it is ready for export. To make matters worse, there is only a brief period for this work to take place before the canes would over-ripen and become useless. How could these explorers cash in on the European sweet tooth without working themselves to death? Why of course the solution was to import thousands of African slaves to do the dirty, dangerous work.
The sugar refining process left these proto-industrial farmers with a prodigious amount of sweet, apparently useless brown sludge. When in doubt, distill. It was the European mantra and it worked a treat with molasses. The resulting liquor was not for the faint of heart—clear liquid fire that knocked a man sideways in no time. It was not for the connoisseur of spirits. But then there weren’t many connoisseurs in the 18th century Caribbean. Instead there was an abundance of disgruntled sailors sick to death of the warm, spoiled beer that had been their only salve against brutish life aboard a British navy ship. They took to rum like fishes. And so did the masses of slaves whose miserable exile and forced labor put them in yet greater need of an anesthetic.
This rough young rum was considered suitable only for these poor souls who had little choice in the matter of alcoholic preference. With its rise in popularity, however, distillers began storing reserves of rum in barrels where it absorbed the aromas of wood and the savorous remnants of previous contents. The resulting liquor was mellow and nuanced, a delightful improvement on raw young rum. The market boomed, especially in the young United States where its continued association with a lawless frontier cemented the liquor’s reputation as a rebel’s drink.
I am not sure when the custom of adding spices, hot water, and butter began, but most historians argue that it was an old world concoction. The Europeans had a predilection for adding dairy and spices to their spirits (like posset, eggnog, and some versions of wassail) and they gave rum a similar treatment. The resulting hot buttered beverage is still supped today; a testament to the eternal truth that everything really is better with butter.
So here’s a drink for all the rebels out there—heat, spice, and slosh of kill-devil beaten up all soft and silky with a good dab of butter.
Hot Buttered Rum
1 long strand of orange peel
a squeeze of lemon
a few whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 small spoonful of butter, or to taste
1 tablespoon brown sugar or honey
a good measure of rum, (size of the ‘measure’ depending on how rebellious you feel)
1. Stud the orange peel with the cloves and place in a mug along with the cinnamon stick and sugar.
2. Add the rum and top off with hot water.
3. Add the butter, beat until silky, and serve.