The History of Rum In 4 Drinks

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iStock

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.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

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iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

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iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

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