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The History of Rum In 4 Drinks

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With hot weather upon us, tropical rum tipples are totally in season. But the stories behind these drinks—and their evolution—often parallel the history of the spirit itself.

According to Wayne Curtis, author of And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, “any given cocktail would arise only when the confluence of economics, technology, trade, and culture came together. Without all those elements, that drink—grog, mojito, whatever—would fail to appear. Drink deeply of any historic drink, and you'll usually find a good story.” Rum is no exception.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, sugarcane farmers were producing a lot of molasses. At the time, it wasn’t considered to be a proper food, so it was given to slaves or dumped in the ocean. Luckily, someone realized that it could be fermented and distilled. The result, as they say, made history.

1. EL DRAQUE

Like the Sazerac, some claim that the El Draque was the world’s first cocktail. Though the claim is questionable, the drink’s history largely parallels that of rum itself. We know for certain that the Draque (also known as the “Draquecito”) was likely named for Sir Francis Drake.

As the legend goes, the English vice admiral’s fleet of ships became stranded near Havana in the late 16th century. His crew sick, Drake responded by whipping up a medicinal concoction using tree bark soaked in crude rum (known as aguardiente), mint, lime, and sugar. Each of the ingredients served a medicinal purpose, and they also helped cover up the taste of the rough spirit.

Aguardiente (which translates as “fiery water”) was basically rough, un-aged rum, and it would’ve likely been the only spirit available in town.

Some time after that point, some intrepid drinker substituted white rum for aguardiente. Ice was added. Someone else, probably a bartender in Cuba, topped it with soda water, changed the name, and the Mojito was born. It’s likely these small changes happened over years or decades, but the result is one of the most recognizable cocktails ever sipped.

2. GROG

Grog is probably best known as the precursor to the Daiquiri, that familiar combination of rum, sugar, and lime. “The main difference [between the two is] ice,” writes Wayne Curtis, though “Grog was originally just water and rum.” In the 1740s, Admiral “Old Grog” Vernon campaigned for soldiers to mix their rum rations with water.

Later on, British naval decrees issued daily lime and sugar rations. According to Curtis, “all the ingredients were there, but it needed to be deeply chilled and served shaken until frigid to make it into the sublime sip we now know as the Daiquiri.”

By this time, rum was an ingrained part of overseas trade and colonial life. Rum doesn’t spoil like beer, wine, or sugarcane. And because it takes up much less space, it makes for easy transport. As a result, it was used as currency in the tragic and shameful Triangle Trade of slaves across the Atlantic.

That rum was made in New England, not the Caribbean. During the 1700s and 1800s, the sugarcane exported from tropical regions fueled the stills in the Northeast. At the peak of the New England rum boom, the colonies imported six million gallons of molasses to fuel the area’s 159 distilleries. Most of the rum was produced for domestic consumption, but some was exported. How much, exactly, is a contentious issue among historians. Many, Curtis included, believe that the amount involved in the Triangle Trade has been overstated.

After the American Revolution, the British cut off the supply of cheap molasses. Grain, however, was plentiful and cheap, so whiskey began to eclipse rum in the mid-1800s in America.

Before the craft cocktail revival of the late '90s, the Daiquiri became a class of drinks rather than a singular beverage. Though many know the syrupy sweet frozen Daiquiri that certainly holds a spot in cocktail culture, the classic, simple Daiquiri has made a resurgence.

3. THE ZOMBIE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, rum largely faded from public view in America, but the emergence of the tiki movement in the 1930s helped to bring back it back in style. Not only that, the tiki trend also called for combining different spirits into a single drink.

The tiki trend was fun and a little weird, and The Zombie embodies that strangeness and strength (and sometimes its slightly less-than-palatable kick). According to cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, the Zombie was created as an extremely potent hangover cure in the late '30s. Before you go searching out recipes for making it at home, please note that it's well-known for its potency, not its deliciousness. Please drink responsibly.

4. RUM OLD FASHIONED

In the world of cocktails, few contemporary drinks are 100 percent original. Take, for example, the Rum Old Fashioned (and all the different variations on this theme). Though you may be more familiar with the Old Fashioned made with whiskey, bars are constantly looking for ways to tweak the classics.

Back in the 19th century, the Rum Old Fashioned would probably have been called a Rum Cocktail. This simple mixture of bitters, sugar, water, and spirit fits the first known definition of an alcoholic cocktail perfectly.

Despite its simplicity, there’s not a standard definition of what constitutes a Rum Old Fashioned. As a result, it’s the perfect drink to customize exactly how you like it. Like with other spirits, the quality of available rum has risen and the number of brands on the market has skyrocketed, making it easy to find a rum that matches your tastes. Check out some of our suggestions here.

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
Courtesy New District
Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Food
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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