A magnificent anti-rum poem from the 1820’s

Originally posted 04 September 2012

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.

The Black Tot rum call remains a mystery…

Originally posted 29 August 2012

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.

BlacktotdayMost 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 question once and for all.

Mr. Franklin advises a man of god regarding rum…

Originally posted 15 August 2012

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.


The first Caribbean cocktail?

Originally posted 06 August 2012

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.)

DrakeWhy 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.

The Minneapolis Mystery Solved!

Originally posted 19 July 2012

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.

Rum in Japan, by more than one name…

Originally posted 16 July 2012

I was enjoying a meal in a small Japanese restaurant 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.

Jougo1The 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 quantities, 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.

The pageantry of rum at sea…

Originally posted 06 July 2012

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.

Images of Ecuadorian rum…

Originally posted 05 July 2012

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 heritage 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.

The Haitian mystery bottle solved!

Originally posted 27 June 2012

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 Haitian 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 suggestion for a venue, feel free to contact me!


Bundaberg, and a wonderful rum poem from 19th Century Australia

Originally posted 26 June 2012

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 too 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.

BundabergOldTheir 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 Waterby 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.