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16 november 2012

I admire Richard Foss's global history of rum for the hands-on research the author has undertaken in the pursuit of rumful knowledge.

For instance, Foss uncovers the word "rumful" itself, a coinage by the unexpectedly witty Chief Justice William Howard Taft:

British subjects on the high seas may be punished by the U.S. under the Volstead Act, if they are hovering with rumful purpose anywhere off the coast of the U.S.
But more practically, Foss recreates old rum practices for the modern household. An illustration (34) shows him in 17th-century publican's garb, preparing a dose of "Landlord May's Flip" (recipe, 125), that he says tastes like "an alcoholic marshmallow" (33). I won't reveal all of Foss's trade secrets, but suffice to say that the Flip involves a red-hot poker and one gill of "cheap light rum."

Cheap light rum, I got. We procured it for use in baking holiday cakes. It's at least as good for the purpose as the ghastly rum extract you can buy in those tiny little bottles for about 100 times the price. Bad wine is not the best thing to cook with, but rum apparently can be as bad as you like, while still lending molassesy delight to baked goods.

The association of cheap rum with cakes and puddings goes back to colonial days, when the rum trade flourished up and down the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean, and rum provided an all-purpose flavor note to early American cookery. Foss is much concerned with the quality of rum down through history. Like chocolate and gin, rum is one of those colonial items that was never very high-quality or artisanal to begin with; only in latter times has it become an item with a prestige shelf. Early on, it was the dram of choice for an enslaved or indentured workforce, and a bit later (the 18th century), an all-purpose disinfectant, inebriant, and impromptu currency. Its associations with pirates and drunken sailors didn't help its image.

Very good rum, I'll agree with Foss, is a thing to be treasured. Years ago, I had a phase of really enjoying Venezuelan rum, especially Santa Teresa Selecto in its curious mottled bottle, and Pampero Aniversario in its leather sack. Taken neat (I don't see the point of mixed drinks, for the most part), such liquors can have an effect similar to fine brandy, with their own unique taste profile. You have to like sugar to start with, of course, but that's never been a problem for me.

If I don't drink much rum anymore, it's because it's expensive to stock for the few tablespoons I'd drink of it per year, and one might as well just lay in the cheap stuff for the odd rum cake or soused banana bread. Or just possibly, for Landlord May's Flip, if I can find a red-hot poker.

Foss, Richard. Rum: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.