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Rum, the devilish drink with a controversial history. Defined as any spirit distilled from sugar, rum was first discovered by slaves in sugar plantations who noticed the by-product of sugarcane was naturally fermenting in the Caribbean sun. With the by-product rejected by plantation owners who preferred their European cognac and port, slaves had the freedom to get creative, eventually distilling it into what is now known as rum. The original homebrew. The result was dark and rich, needing a lot of additives to make it drinkable, and was given the nickname “Kill-Divil”. A placebo effect was achieved using chillies to make it taste stronger. The word rum is most likely to have originated from the word rumbullion, a slang term for “uproar”—which somewhat accurately captures its effect and explains why it then became so popular.
Rum has a long association with shipping. Free rations of rum, called “tots”, were given to British sailors, justified at the time for “medical” reasons, perhaps improved mental health. Royal New Zealand Navy sailors were the last in the world to enjoy this privilege, finally dropped in 1990. It was such poor quality the rum had to be mixed with water, creating what was called “grog”. With a typically 51 per cent or higher alcohol content, the liquor has always been a test for anyone’s tolerance.
The spirit has a trading history unmatched by any other. The increasing European obsession with sugar in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to an obsession with rum. Stored in oak barrels, it was easy to move and less likely than gold to attract pirates. In the American Colonies rum was served to voters in an effort to persuade the masses of the candidate’s generosity; literally liquid gold.
Slavery, unfortunately, helped fuel the craze. Now called the Triangular Slave Trade, huge numbers of slaves were taken to the Caribbean from Africa. Slave labour supported the export of sugar to Europe or New England, where much of it was distilled into rum, and the rum profits were used to fund the purchase of yet more slaves. Think about this colonial history while enjoying your rum cocktail.
Even the colonies couldn’t escape the addiction. Australia’s only successful armed government takeover, surprising considering its convict history, is also popularly dubbed the Rum Rebellion because the conflict was partly fuelled by a state attempt to quash the rum imports at the time. Rum has always had a tendency to cause conflict. It’s thought the implementation of the Sugar Act in 1764 even helped cause the American Revolution.
Today the Caribbean has the strongest claim over the rum market. Havana Club intimately connects its brand with the legends, music and culture of Cuba. Now owners of the largest privately-owned spirits brand in the world, the Bacardi family played a key part in the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59, which installed Fidel Castro. With a long-standing cultural and economic significance, rum is so much more than an avenue to just get wasted. Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote in Treasure Island, “Drink and the devil be done for the rest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”, which isn’t too far from the truth.
When the region created white rum—which is lighter and far more drinkable—the cocktails started to emerge. Rum and Coke is now the second most popular drink in the world. It may be a highball cocktail but it isn’t exactly highbrow. Instructions are to mix one part rum to two parts coke and add a bit of lime (making sure it is cut exactly into sixths)—resulting in a cocktail mix almost as simple buying a bottle of tonic from the dairy and pouring in some gin. On drinkmixer.com it gets a 9.7 per cent popularity rating. Rum is now an easy drink.
There is a guy roaming Wellington who, down to the eyeliner and beaded dreadlocks, looks exactly like Jack Sparrow. After seeing him walking down the street with planks of timber on one shoulder, I wondered if he would turn out to be the local gunpowder rum creator I had arranged to interview.
Benedict Simpson, founder of Smoke and Oakum Manufactory, remarks upon meeting that “many people are disappointed that I’m not dressed like a pirate.” Despite the contemporary clothing, lack of beard and no apparent monkey sidekick, he admits to a subtle endeavour to be “trying to live the pirate life”. As well as sword-fighting for a hobby, Simpson also runs a business that replicates a rum enjoyed by the infamous Blackbeard three hundred years ago.
In keeping with a “Smuggler” theme, Simpson first trialled the rum when he was working at Motel Bar. He was inspired by Blackbeard, the “poster boy for gunpowder rum”, who would set mugs of rum sprinkled with the explosive on fire to terrify anyone in the vicinity. Simpson describes customer reactions as generally being “give me a shot of gunpowder rum… disgusting, give me another.” Yet in spite of its unusual taste the drink became highly popular, giving Simpson the impetus to evolve it into a fully-fledged business concept in 2007. Bolstered by the extensive research into pirates he conducted during his History major at Victoria University, this man can easily be considered a world expert on both rum and the explosive he experiments with.
Think of traditional gunpowder as a novelty form of seasoning. It has historically been used as a preservative, excellent for making jerky and salami. When Napoleon’s surgeon in the Battle of Aspern-Essling ran out of salt to season the horse meat being fed to the wounded, he used gunpowder instead. Gunpowder is a combination of potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal, all ingredients that human beings are made of themselves and that are used individually as remedies.
Gunpowder would be used to augment the flavour of rum. There are only four traditional gunpowder mills left in the world, mostly located in the United States, which typically sell it to people who “like to play pirates” or re-enact the American Civil War. Benedict imports traditional gunpowder and then infuses it (through secret means) into rum sourced from the Caribbean. Modern gunpowder used for bullets and bombs is extremely poisonous, so cracking a firework into your rum and coke will probably kill you.
If suspicions arose that the rum had been watered down, gunpowder could also be used to prove its spirit level. If it burned with a blue flame it was over 57.1 per cent alcohol and 100 per cent genuine. Pirates were also rumoured to mix rum with gunpowder, human blood, and soil from a freshly dug grave in a voodoo ritual appropriated from Haiti.
For a long time there was very little rum in New Zealand other than Caribou—a watered-down rum created specially for the Kiwi market, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Rum, however, has recently come back into fashion. As one of the first to start selling rum in this recent wave of popularity, Simpson has been consulted by other rum enthusiasts around the country for advice on how to sell an appealing product. After awarding Simpson’s gunpowder rum with a highly sought after five-star rating, the UK’s CLASS magazine instructs readers to “sip, light touch paper, stand back and ponder the Kiwi mentality”. If anyone is bourgeois enough to understand what that means, this is the drink for you.
The sub-Antarctic climate of New Zealand does not let rum age gracefully. Fermentation relies upon specific temperatures and the presence of a sugar cane field. To create a refined specialty product, Smoke and Oakum, among most other businesses, imports rum from the Caribbean. It is then diluted with water from the Petone aquifer, which “if the government department thinks is good enough to fill up their jury cans with, must be good enough for me.” Chillies, black tobacco and gunpowder are then added to create Simpson’s contemporary “firewater” and historical relic.
The end result is distinctive and addictive, with a potency that cannot be smothered by Coke. Huffington Post described the taste in a review last year as, “surprisingly smooth with a smoky finish that lingers like Russians on the Ukrainian border [wish I had come up with such a creative simile], a little bite from the chili and then something indescribable, not quite metallic, not quite organic, yet quite lovely, if impossible to define.”
This boutique rum is not an easy drink to get hold of. Almost as rare as the pirate lifestyle it references, the bottles sell for $95 in Moore Wilsons and you have to put your name on a waiting list. The rum belongs to a niche community who “like to play pirates” and enjoy drinking something that challenges the sweet, syrupy favourites of today. Rum was rough in the 1700s and Simpson wants it to be rough now despite the price. It’s real “firewater”. Who could resist.
Large jars of full of brown, orange, red and purple liquids sit behind the bar at C G R Merchants and Co (which stands for Cocktail, Gin and Rum). It has a simple menu structured around $10 rum and gin infusions, inspired by whatever ingredients are in season and customer suggestions. The focus is not on having a large stock of each spirit. Instead, the staff create concoctions on-site with dried apricots, plum, lavender and even carrot. The most popular flavour is salted caramel, unsurprising given the current fashion to salt and caramelise anything in sight.
Rum absorbs the flavour from whatever is added into it, like an alcoholic tea. Research into culinary oil infusions sometimes helps to successfully create the flavour. When a woman asked how to make a pumpkin infusion for Halloween, the bartenders baked a pumpkin pie from scratch then dunked the entire thing into a cask of rum. Cooking with alcohol.
The solids are filtered out and the bartenders begin determining how best the drink is served. The infusion process usually reduces the alcohol content to around 37.5 per cent, making it smooth to drink. The bar matches the infusions with different local beers and ciders. A refreshing option is to order a glass of beer on the side to complement the flavour of whatever rum you’re drinking.
The spice trade, rather than pirates, inspired the vision for the bar’s aesthetic. Large old maps are spread across the walls, sacks line the roof and ladles hanging above the bar are used to measure out the shots. Archaic. Gin and rum were historically bartered for exotic spices that would then be transported to England. Sailors from wealthier backgrounds would drink gin and the poorer would be left with the devilish rum. With aged rums today, drinking has become a far classier affair. For C G R Merchants and Co, the selection of a dark, spiced or white rum is crucial to creating a delectable drink. White rum is milder in flavour whereas dark is deeper. Then there’s spiced. Sometimes it’s as simple as the colour, in other occasions it’s more of a chemical balance in enhancing the flavour potential.
The Facebook page promises the salted caramel will never run out—just in case you haven’t had enough of the flavour’s pushy involvement in every other culinary experience that week.
Slaves, pirates and the navy loved it hundreds of years ago. Today, rum is enjoying a comeback. When it comes to New Zealand produced rum, Stolen Rum refuses to be ignored. Awarded a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Awards a month after the business was launched, the brand has attracted significant global attention. Stolen were unwilling to interview for this issue as the brand’s premise is an explicit rejection of mainstream associations with pirates and the Caribbean. Instead it panders to a more “modern” audience by throwing exclusive parties for the newest I Love Ugly store in Newmarket.
Stolen’s success stems from its innate desire to be, historically and contemporaneously, different. Or plain cheeky. The brand conducted a series of blind tests in 2011 comparing their rum with the giant Bacardi. With over half of the participants preferring Stolen White Rum, the New Zealanders then sent a letter to their competitor suggesting Bacardi steal their recipe.
It has been illegal to import any rum that has not already been aged into Australia for over 100 years. Bundaberg rum needs protection. To circumvent the archaic rule, Stolen recruited “mules” to smuggle its white rum across the ditch. The volunteers wore t-shirts plastered with the word MULE through the airports and donated the bottles to local bars. The rum smuggling lives on.
Rum promises a fun time. To use an analogy from Benedict Simpson, “if you had two islands and you had a choice between a rum island and a gin island, gin island might be people drinking martinis in suits. Rum island will be full of people on the beach getting toasted.”