Some Rum Before The Next Dance, Señorita?

There are no known pictures of a fandango in Alta California, but this 1848 image of one in Mexico by Iziquio Iriarte is probably as close as we will ever have.

When you think of a place where rum was made and enjoyed in the early 19th Century, the first to come to mind probably isn’t California. Nevertheless it was a popular drink, as reported by multiple observers. Sugar cane was planted in those areas of Southern California with enough water to sustain it, and in 1828 Russian naval officer Kirill Khlebnikov noted that rum made from it was drunk widely but moderately. “Many women of the lower classes readily drink vodka and rum but not a lot. One should generally say of Californios that they are temperate, and drunks are to be seen very rarely.”

Apparently sugar stocks from California didn’t  satisfy the demand, because in 1842 Swedish traveler G.M. Waseurtz noted imported materials in his description of a rancho at Refugio Beach, near Santa Barbara. “His little farm was romantically situated and its produce were cattle, a few vegetables, and very good wine. He had also begun to distill rum from Sandwich Island sugar which Mr. Thompson provided.”

A little sugar is still grown in California near San Diego, but as far as I know nobody is now making rum from it. The fresh cane juice commands such a high price at health food stores and farmer’s markets that it would be madness to make rum from it these days…

Rum, Reminiscence, and Death in Jamaica

Suitable for funerals and other occasions.

Rum killed plenty of people in the Caribbean, either through overwork in a distillery in the punishing heat or overindulgence in the finished product, so it is fitting that the beverage has such a central point in funeral rites in Jamaica. By tradition for nine nights after someone died a celebration of their life began at sundown, with stories about them told in between liberal toasts with white rum. A little was also always poured on the ground as a libation for the spirit, who was presumed to be present on those nights. The celebration peaked with a particularly festive and raucous celebration on the ninth night, featuring flirtatious dancing as a reminder that life goes on. On the tenth night the solemn and sober funeral took place – sober except for the gravediggers, who were paid in rum. I expect that they received their reward after their job was done, because even as simple job as digging a hole and refilling it later can be much more difficult when under the influence.

When it comes to arriving at work with a hangover for nine days straight, modern employers are much less tolerant than those of bygone eras, so these days the celebration is compressed into a single blowout on the night before the funeral. Modern gravediggers in the major cities seem to prefer cash, but those some in the countryside may still take their payment in the country’s most famous export.

Talking With The Dusty Hunter About Rum…

I recently visited someone who is a Dusty Hunter, a person who seeks out forgotten bottles in old liquor stores and mislaid cases of booze in the backs of bars. His apartment has a long rack of bottles of liquor from as much as a hundred years ago, and reading the old but still-bright labels was fascinating. Like all of his fellowship he has tales to tell of his favorite finds – the decades-old bottle of Scotch from a long-vanished distillery that a lazy clerk sold for the barely legible marked price, the case of rum a tavern owner was about to throw away because he figured it couldn’t be good any more.

Unlike some Dusty Hunters, this one doesn’t just collect the bottles – he gets together with other enthusiasts and on special occasions they crack the old bottles to savor and study the styles of other eras. (I approve of this, especially when I’m invited to join in.) Their pickings have gotten slimmer and slimmer because few people are now unaware of the value of the old bottles. If you have the cash to spend you can get these bottles from brokers like Finest and Rarest, which offers ancient, strange, and wonderful liquors like this bottle of 1891 Wray & Nephew Two Daggers rum.

Like your rum aged? Try this one...

Like your rum aged? Try this one…

That bottle will run you a mere 3,750 Euros, if it is still available. I know to my sorrow that the most interesting items sometimes go very quickly, since the one time I bid on an item (a much cheaper item, as rum historians aren’t nearly as well compensated as I might wish), it was already gone. I read their emails with new offerings with a sense or longing – did that Rhum Clement from 1819 still have the flavor of cane that was cut almost two centuries ago? Did the flavor of that Royal Navy rum from 1940 more resemble a modern Pusser’s or Lamb’s, or was it like something else entirely? For now I can only wonder, but I will keep an eye out when shopping in in old stores just in case lightning strikes and favors me with a similar find…

Rum Drinks: Tips On Flips

In my book on the history of rum I included a recipe for making Landlord May’s Flip, a Colonial American drink of dark beer with cream, sugar, and egg stirred with a hot poker while rum is added. When done correctly this makes a rich, creamy hot drink that is similar to an alcoholic marshmallow. Here’s a picture of me doing this at home:

Stirring a jug of Landlord May's Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Stirring a jug of Landlord May’s Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Some people who tried doing this after reading my recipe were successful, some weren’t, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. Then I did a demonstration at an excellent restaurant in Los Angeles called Redbird, which has a beautiful fireplace at one side of the dining room. When I arrived the poker was already in the fireplace, and I didn’t pay attention to it while making sure the other ingredients were ready. When everything was in order I pulled the poker from the fire and started to stir, and immediately recognized that there was a problem. There was a brief spurt of steam but not the sustained bubbling I achieved at home, and it was very difficult to move the poker inside the jug. A look at the poker revealed the problem – it was a very spindly thing made of thin welded rods, and the hooks for moving the logs extended four inches from the shaft. The traditional fire poker I had used had a heavy bulb of metal at the end, and the log hook extended only about an inch. As a result the traditional poker held heat for a long time, and it was easy to move around inside the jug. We couldn’t go out to search for another fire poker at Redbird, so had to make do with putting the cream and alcohol mixture in a saucepan and stirring it vigorously over the flame.

Since then I have looked around and found that almost all modern fire pokers are the simple welded rod type, and it’s very hard to find the traditional style. Ironically, I got rid of my traditional set before I found this out, and I am now scavenging thrift stores for a traditional set. If I’m really lucky I may find a tool designed for the job. Serious flip makers in the Eighteenth Century used a rod with a bulb on the end that had no log hook at all; it was called a loggerhead. Here’s a picture of one: 5FlipTools

I have no great hope of finding one of these in my home in Southern California, but if any of my faithful readers finds one, it would be a great birthday present… hint, hint…

Another tip: Take the beer and cream out of the refrigerator at least half an hour before making the flip, because it doesn’t need to be cold. Beer in Colonial America was drunk at room temperature, and if it’s cold when you start making this, it will speed the rate at which the poker cools down.

I hope that helps… If you have other problems, please feel free to contact me with specifics and I’ll try to help.



Another Rum Recipe I Am Not Going To Try…

In another post on this site I made fun of a recipe from the 1950’s that involved pouring flaming rum over sweetened canned baked beans topped with bacon. After that someone pointed out that I frequently add a little rum to my chili, and questioned whether I should pass judgment on someone else adding rum to a bean dish. I am willing to admit they have a point, but it still sounds awful to me because canned baked beans already contain some sugar and molasses, and that recipe involved adding still more molasses and then the flaming rum, which adds a sweet flavor. We’re way into dessert territory here. Still, if you have a sweet tooth you may want to try it.

I think there will be fewer defenders for this recipe, which is recounted in William Byrd’s “Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina,” published 1829. It involved a chaplain who was traveling to the wilderness of inland North Carolina in March of 1728.

“…it was agreed that our chaplain might safely take a turn to Edenton, to preach the Gospel to the infidels there, and christen their children. He was accompanied thither by Mr. Little, one of the Carolina Commissioners, who, to show his regard for the Church, offered to treat him on the road with a fricassee of rum. They fried half a dozen rashers of very fat bacon in a pint of rum, both which being dished up together, served the company at once both for meat and drink.”

I don't have a picture of Colonial American wilderness cooking, but people complain when I post things without images. I imagine this recipe would be about as tasty as eating whatever this is, as prepared by a bad cook.

I don’t have a picture of Colonial American wilderness cooking, but people complain when I post things without images. My guess is that this recipe would be about as tasty as eating whatever this is, as prepared by a bad cook.

Bacon fried in rum… and look at that recipe again – SIX PIECES of VERY FAT bacon fried in a pint of rum. Or should that be boiled in rum, since there should have been quite enough liquid to submerge the bacon, especially after the bacon fat started melting. What could possibly go wrong, other than a kitchen fire of monumental proportions? Granted, the parson and the Commissioner were at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp during a wet spring, so an accidental fire was not terribly likely. The commissioners had also gone through a food shortage recently, one so severe that one member protected his dog lest it be thrown in the stewpot. After that experience, bacon boiled in rum might be a delicacy. If one of my intrepid readers tries this, please send a review of the experience – I’d be interested to know what it tastes like. Not quite enough to risk this on my stove, but interested nevertheless…


A Tuneful But Inaccurate History Lesson…

The history of alcohol and Native Americans in the Colonial era is bad enough without embellishment, but that didn’t stop a student at Dartmouth College from penning a delightful song that implied that the founder of that institution had traded a barrel of rum for land to build the college. I’ll tell you what really happened in a moment, but first, give a listen to this jolly piece.

In case you missed those lyrics, they are:

Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a very pious man;
He went into the wilderness to teach the In-di-an,
With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,
And five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!
Drink to Eleazar,
And his primitive Alcazar,
Where he mixed drinks for the heathen in the goodness of his soul.

The big chief that met him was the sachem of the Wah-hoo-wahs;
If he was not a big chief, there was never one you saw who was;
He had tobacco by the cord, ten squaws, and more to come,
But he never yet had tasted of New England rum.
Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

Eleazar and the big chief harangued and gesticulated;
They founded Dartmouth College, and the big chief matriculated.
Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

The first two lines of this song are actually accurate: Wheelock was in fact a minister who taught among the Mohegan and other tribes, and one of the schools he founded became Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was noteworthy for educating Native Americans as well as the sons of the colonists, and this was one of the few places where they studied on anything like an equal basis. There is no evidence, however, that Wheelock traded rum for land, lessons, or anything else – he seems to have been sincerely concerned about the effects of the collision of the two cultures. From there the song is fantasy – Wheelock worked among the Mohegans and other tribes, and the land for Dartmouth was granted by the Governor of New Hampshire. (For those puzzled by the references in the first verse, A Gradus ad Parnassum is an instruction book on classical learning, an alcazar another name for a castle.)

The person who wrote that song, Richard Hovey, probably penned it between 1880 and 1885 when he was a student, and went on to compose the school’s theme song, Men Of Dartmouth. Both works were in the old-fashioned Glee Club style and make considerable demands on the people who sing it. Men of Dartmouth is still sung at official school functions, while Eleazar Wheelock is no longer an official song. The curator of Special Collections at Dartmouth mentioned that the song had “been singled out in years
past as prime examples of racial insensitivity on campus.” So were the murals that were used as illustrations in that YouTube video – they were painted between 1937 and 1939 in the Dartmouth dining hall, and were rather racy for the time. Then again, they’re even more politically incorrect in our own – it’s hard to imagine anyone proposing to paint murals of scantily clad maidens drinking rum in a modern college. Dartmouth has an unenviable situation of owning a beautiful but offensive piece of art and has decided to make the best of it – the paintings have not been destroyed, but are screened and rarely uncovered for public exhibition. As has often been observed, the social norms of one era can be embarrassing to another, and who knows what commonplace ideas we have now will amaze our descendants.

Thanks to Mark Magers for bringing this song to my attention, and Morgan Swan of Dartmouth for his assistance with the history of both the song and mural.

The Lost Rum of Louisiana

There was a long history of sugar and rum production in Louisiana, going back to the era when it was still part of the French dominion. Production continued until Prohibition shut down both the distilleries and most of the sugar plantations, since without a market for molasses the latter were unprofitable. The heyday of sugar production was shown in this 1851 illustration from Harper’s Magazine, which shows a tranquil day in the sugar house. The children are playing with a dog and a mouse, with the mouse getting the worst part of the deal: SugarLa1

The oddest thing about this article, which goes exhaustively into every detail of producing crystalline sugar and runs 1,494 words, is that the word rum does not appear even once. There is a note that the plantation managers are dismayed when a particular harvest produces much molasses and little sugar, and a note that the molasses was sold for much less than sugar, but there was no suggestion what the buyer might have done with it.

Liquor made from sugar cane products in Louisiana was often called tafia, but that name does not appear in this article either. The two terms may be interchangeable, but some documents refer to the manufacture of “tafia and rum” that suggest a distinction between a lower and higher quality product, or perhaps a difference in the distillation process. My surmise has been that the tafia might have been made from sugar cane juice in an agrichole style, while the rum was made from molasses, but I have never been able to confirm this. On the other hand, I have found examples of professionally bottled rum but not tafia, like this “Rhum Louisiane” dated 1865 – it was bottled in Havre, France, presumably from liquor shipped there before the Union blockade of the Confederacy.LouisianeLabelFor years I have been trying to find any contemporary description of tafia by anyone who had drunk rum elsewhere, but I have had no luck so far. I continue to search for contemporary comparisons, and if anyone can help untangle this I would be grateful. If you find any contemporary reports of any nineteenth century rum or tafia, please send me the text and citation – it would be wonderful to be able to sort this out.

Sugar and Rum In Ancient India, Continued

In my book and also my first post on this site, I mentioned that India has a very long history with both sugar cane and distilling. For a look at the ancient symbolism of sugar, consider this picture of the Hindu goddess Kamakshi: CaneGoddessKamakshi is a goddess of love, motherhood, and settled homes, and is usually depicted holding sugar cane. She isn’t the only Hindu deity with a connection to sugar – the love god Kamadeva carries a bow made of sugar cane that has a string of honeybees. The fact that peaceful avatars of love and domesticity carry sugar cane suggests an association between sweetness and harmonious relationships, a connection the candy industry was quick to exploit.

Hindu alchemists had mastered distilling at least 1500 years ago, and in my book I mentioned that it was surprising that there was no evidence that rum was made in the subcontinent before Europeans arrived. The eminent food and drink historian David Wondrich found that evidence, pushing the history of distilled sugar cane juice back at least the year 1316. That was the year that a Sultan of Delhi died, and contemporary Indian Historian Ziauddin Barani wrote that among the other laws of his reign, the Sultan had prohibited the distillation of “wine” from sugar cane. Since we only know that this ruler outlawed it and that was the year he died, the law was probably enacted at some earlier date, and since lawmakers rarely outlaw something that nobody is doing we must assume that the technique had become known some time still earlier. There may be other records lurking in dusty archives, so the start date for rum history may be pushed back still further in years to come.

(Incidentally, David mentioned finding this information while I was researching the section on rum and sugar for the Oxford Companion to Sweets, which was published in April of 2015 by Oxford University Press. My article begins on page 583, and it was an honor to contribute to such a worthy project.)

Mystery Man, Mystery Slogan

A reader of this site sent a question that I’d like your assistance in answering – namely, any information at all about Alfred Lamb, the creator of Lamb’s Navy Rum. Representatives of the brand have remarkably little information: Alfred was a London merchant who reportedly came up with the blend of rums marketed under his name in 1849, when just 22 years old, and apparently did nothing else to attract any attention for the rest of his life. It’s not clear whether he ever actually went to the Caribbean – a reference to an Alfred Lamb in the West Indies may have been a different person who happened to have the same name. There are references to an Alfred Lamb, merchant of London, as a member of a charitable organization in 1866, but beyond that tenuous link he seemed to have no impact on society. For a man of wealth who put his own name on the bottle, he seems amazingly shy of publicity. The records of the company were destroyed during the London Blitz, and his descendants have put plaintive requests for help on ancestry and genealogy websites. Does anyone out there have any information, original documents, or pictures? It would be good to shed some light on the founder of a popular brand.

Another mystery seems destined to remain unsolved – a reader asked the reason for the number on this label: cachaca51-oldbottleThe brand wasn’t established in 1951, and there is no obvious connection between that number and anything in the history or production of the spirit. A question to the owners of the company yielded the following unhelpful answer:

“There are many stories circulated about the meaning of “51”. I can not confirm any of them, as the owners prefer to keep the true meaning a family secret.”

This is one of the most deliberately mysterious trademarks in the annals of marketing. I include their response so nobody else will waste time bothering them, since they obviously don’t seem inclined to discuss the matter…


The Best Book About Tropical Drinks (And No, I Didn’t Write It)

Originally posted 15 September 2014

I occasionally get questions about the origin of various rum-based cocktails, and while I know the answers to some of these, in many cases there were so many claims to the invention that I didn’t have a definitive answer. Luckily a historian has taken on the task, and he is both an exacting sleuth and a very fine writer. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s book “Potions of the Caribbean” is a marvelous read, the story behind the drinks and their cultural impact interspersed with easy to follow recipes for potions both popular and obscure. The unlikely lives of some of the creators are explored in detail, and as it turns out they were fascinating people; Berry restores the place in history of some otherwise forgotten masters of the craft.


You will want to own this – it was released in spring of 2014 and is headed for classic status. Buy his book, check out his website at, and if at all possible go to one of his events, as he is a delightful raconteur.