The wretchedly excessive Thanksgiving we recently experienced might never have come to pass if not for rum. And it began with a long ago case of false advertising. According to Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses, “England’s plan to establish colonies in North America … was founded on a fallacy.” The assumption was that, since that portion of the country to which the crown laid claim was generally at the same latitude as the Mediterranean, a similar climate would prevail — a climate that would allow for cultivation of such crops as olives and oranges. “One prospectus claimed that the colonies would provide ‘the Wines, Fruit and Salt of France and Spain … the silks of Persia and Italy.’ America, in short, was expected to be a land of plenty that would quickly turn a profit.” Move over Madoff.
Enter a very different reality: disease, lack of food, battles with the local natives … and, perhaps most importantly, nothing but water to drink. The first relief ships brought beer, but much of it was consumed by the sailors on the voyage over. The lack of good drink “is contrary to the nature of the English,” noted a Spanish observer, “on account of which they all wish to return and would have done so had they been at liberty.”
Cultivation of cereal grains from which to make beer proved difficult. Being English they knew nothing about growing grapes, and attempts to make wine from indigenous varieties proved “revolting.” But, according to Standage, “everything changed in the second half of the 17th century when rum `from the Caribbean` became available.” Made from molasses and thus a byproduct of the more important commodity, sugar, it was cheap — and stronger than beer to boot. Accordingly, rum “quickly established itself as the North American colonists’ favorite drink.” Almost as quickly it became a medium of exchange as well as “a liquid form of central heating in the harsh winters.” By the end of the century, New England merchants had realized that it was cheaper to import raw molasses than finished rum, and distilleries thrived in Boston, Salem, and Newport. “Rum became so cheap that in some cases a day’s wages could get a laborer drunk for a week.” Sailors were presumably drunk all the time. Yo, ho, ho.
Even putting aside for the moment rum’s role in the sea-going slave trade, it’s astonishing that such a downmarket drink survived to be reviled once again in present-day Cuba Libres and Piña Coladas. (Sorry — personal bias.) But over the centuries rum has emerged as a liquor of astonishing variety (depending on distillation technique and country of origin) and amazing versatility. As a result (or maybe because we’re fickle), rum now challenges vodka as America’s most popular spirit. And no umbrellas need apply.
Harking back to the harsh winters of the not-so-puritanical colonists, rum still seems like an appropriate holiday drink, marrying well with spices such as cinnamon. Accordingly, OTR decided to stay at home with friends this month and play with rum in ways neither groggy nor hot-and-buttered, but spicy and seasonal all the same. This was the favorite:
(Inspired by Jonathan Pogash of Bookmarks, NYC)
Pumpkin Spice Mixture:
1 t each, ground ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon
Pumpkin Spice Agave Nectar:
Add ¼ t of spice mixture to 1 t agave nectar
1 dried fig, halved
1 t pumpkin spice agave nectar
1 T fresh lemon juice or to taste
1 ½ oz. 10 Cane Rum (made in Trinidad from cane, not molasses)
Muddle fig half in shaker with nectar and lemon juice. (After tasting, we added more lemon, per above, than the original recipe. We also ignored a sugared orange slice garnish as being superfluous.) Add ice and rum. Shake well then strain into wine glass filled with more ice. Nice, seasonal spice without recalling pumpkin pie.
This came in at #2:
New England Daiquiri
(Adapted from Food & Wine Cocktails’09)
1 oz. 10 Cane Rum
1 oz. Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum
½ oz. pure maple syrup (We used a light Canadian product)
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
Assemble all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake, and serve in a chilled coupe. The original recipe called for dark rum and “aged” rum, but the above — what we had — worked beautifully, with nice balance and just enough sweetness.