by Roger K.A. Allen, Skipper of Wee Barkie, A Colin Archer cutter, QCYC, Shorncliffe, Brisbane.
Say the word “rum” and for me it will evoke many images. I see the turquoise Caribbean, the Jolly Roger, gold doubloons andpieces of eight, Long John Silver and peg legs, bronzed buxom beauties in floral skirts and bandanas, and slaves working in sugar cane fields. I can still smell the sickly sweet molasses wafting from the sugar mills along the Tweed River of my childhood, Mum’s delicious rum custard and a flaming plum pudding at Christmas courtesy of bottle of Bundaberg rum and the warmth of rum and milk (Moreton Bay porridge) after the dawn service at ANZAC Day. Thus for me, rum is the most evocative of drinks, unlike wine, whisky, or beer.
In French as in most European languages, nouns have gender i.e. masculine or feminine. The Fates decreed that rum be masculine (le rhum). After a hard day’s sailing in a 35 knot nor’easter with waves crashing into my cockpit and down my cabled polo neck jumper, with my red ensign shredded and my blasphemous red macaw hanging featherless and freezing from my left shoulder, don’t hand me a chilled well-oaked chardonnay, an amber ale , nay not e’en a dram of your best single malt. Pour me generous rum and one that looks like the bronze thighs of a Tahitian maiden and not one of them (sic) pale imitations blanched white like a sperm whale’s tooth for milady’s cocktails, complete with a pigmy’s umbrella and a swizzle stick.
The origin of the word “rum” is obscure but may come from the word for rum, “rumbustion” or perhaps a contraction of the Latin for sugar cane “Saccharum officinarum”. Cane sugar along with coffee and rum saw its début in Europe in the 17th century and at first sugar was dispensed by apothecaries. Rum reached Australia in the late 18tth, century and is now second only to beer in popularity.
Rum is forever associated with Admiral Vernon, who in 1740 instituted his infamous Order to Captains No. 349; the dilution of the daily ration of neat rum in the proportion of one quart of water to half a pint of rum, in a scuttled butt and for “those that are good husbandmen receive extra lime juice and sugar that it may be more palatable to them”. As he wore a cloak made of the fabric, grogram, he thereafter bore the contemptuous nickname of “Old Grog”. The Royal Navy rum ration ceased on “Black Tot Day”, 31 July, 1970 but is still available as Pusser’s (viz. Purser’s) Rum; a dark, robust rum still made in the original wooden pot stills.
The test of rum for me is whether it is nice to drink it neat. Regrettably our rums are third rate. Rums are made either from molasses, or less often, from the first-pressed sugar cane juice which gives a smoother finish and more subtle, floral flavours. The French call this type “rhum agricole” and my favourite is Ron Zacapa from high altitude of Guatemala. I also like L’Arbre du Voyageur 1998, from Martinique and the slightly orange marmalade taste of Pyrat Rum, from Anguilla in the British West Indies, Angostura from Trinidad, Ron Matusalem from Cuba and the hint of vanilla in Appleton’s from Jamaica. Drink these neat like cognac. After a hard day’s winter sailing I come home to a rum toddy; a nip of Pusser’s rum in a medium glass with boiling water, a teaspoonful of Demerara sugar and a slice of lime. Indeed a small amount of Demerara sugar goes well with rum on the rocks. I have enjoyed seeking out new rums which are now competing with best Cognac, Armagnac and my favourite, Calvados. But that is another story.