Rum by Gum
Posted: September 9, 2013
By Terry Sullivan, Very Special to BTI
Rumbullion. Sounds like soup, put it’s the most likely source for the name of a lovely spirit which has been unfairly tied to pirates. Rumbullion, sometimes rumbustion, was the behavior associated with folks who’d had a few jars of rum when it was the new kid on the bar, and it was shortened to become the name of the tipple itself. Today it would probably be called Depp. (Yes, there are other theories, but let’s just keep them to ourselves, OK?)
Once upon a time, rum was the drink of choice in these United States, and long before we got into that scrap with the Brits. In the mid-seventeenth century, New Englanders, even then known to be careful with a shilling, noticed how much cheaper it was to import this fermented and distilled molasses up the coast from the Caribbean than to ship fortified wine (Have some Madeira, m’dear!) across the Atlantic. Then they noticed you could ship the molasses itself, distill it at home and make money on both ends. When Atlantic shipping got even dicier during the Revolution, rum got even more attractive.
And then the Scots-Irish wandered in with their recipe for whiskey, which was not only quite tasty but could be cooked up from rye, and later corn, both of which could be grown right out back instead of on tropical islands. (And both of which grew better here than barley, the original, and still favorite, in less-than-sunny Hebridean climes.) Wasn’t long before whiskey drove the rum dealers out of business; although there would always be some acolytes (you have time on your hands, Google Boston Molasses Flood of 1919) we were a nation of whiskey drinkers for good.
There was a bump in the rum trade during Prohibition, when other importers noticed, once again, that Jamaica was closer than Scotland and had fewer revenuers that the back roads of Kentucky, but it wasn’t until another little skirmish, this time with Japan, that rum appeared on the horizon in big numbers. Returning GIs returned with, among other things, a taste for things South Pacifical, and a few entrepreneurial restaurateurs, you should pardon the expression, opened genuine ersatz Polynesian pupu parlors. Here were served, along with a lot of pork and pineapple chunks on sticks, a staggering array of drinks combining rum with fruit juice from anything that grew on trees in southern California in 1947.
These places limped along until we were visited by the Great Tiki Scare of 19 hundred and 60, when, perhaps driven by Thor Heyerdahl’s book, Kon Tiki, or more likely by Mitzi Gaynor washing that man right out of her hair, there was an explosion of places serving mai tais and scorpions to après-prom celebrants whose skin had yet to clear up.
Yes, I’m being unfair, but to be fair, the rum served in those years—and I was among the lads squatting on imitation palm leaves and quaffing War Gods from plastic coconuts, was, well, in need of all the fruit juice it could find.
And then…and then…the spirit renaissance in America. The spread of single malts beyond the bar at the Yale club; the rejection of sour mix by bartenders; the search for something worth sipping instead of tossing down your throat. Along with folks discovering cachaca, aquavit and grappa, some blessed pioneers took to sailing the islands and looking for rums they’d heard stories about. And importing it. Yes, there’s still plenty of bad rum around, clear and caramelized, but today’s pirate has a choice of stunning, beautifully made rums from islands you’ll never get to and some you never heard of. Today’s rums mean you don’t need a dozen limes and a case of Coke, and you can (please) eighty-six the Daiquiri mix. Now go, sit in a quiet corner, put on your grandmother’s South Pacific album and sip the best thing ever to come out of a hunk of sugar cane.
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