A RUM HISTORY
Smoke & Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum is a recreation of a style of rum that is perhaps 300-years old – a style that would have been consumed by pirates, smugglers, privateers, navy hands and practitioners of voodoo.
Before the invention of the column still rum production was an uneven affair with full-bodied and dark styles predominating. Syrupy probably (from added molasses), rough definitely.
To blunt the coarse character of this ‘kill-devil’ spirit it was not an uncommon practice to augment the flavor, and not just with sweeteners.
Herbs, spices, supposed aphrodisiacs, tobacco and gunpowder were all used. The heritage of spiced rums is a long one and no recent invention.
Perhaps the most mythical flavoring additive was gunpowder.
Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach) was said to have drunk rum and gunpowder before boarding the ships of his victims. Legend has it that this most famous of pirates would fill a tankard with rum, set it alight and then sprinkle black gunpowder over the flaming mix. Great fizzing sparks would result. Blackbeard would then drink down this rum, thereafter setting out to terrorise the shipping lanes of the early 18th Century...
Why would a man do such a thing? Who can say. It is true that in voodoo ritual the consumption of a mixture of rum, gunpowder, soil from a freshly dug grave and human blood is used in ritual observances. Perhaps this is the origin of this peculiar habit (Blackbeard's reputed invincibility was sometimes implied to be the result of certain unholy rituals). Or it could simply be an example of normal shipboard practice (aboard ‘ships of the line’ gunnery officers would sometimes taste their gunpowder to check its quality before loading bags with charge).
At the juncture of these worlds of 'truth' and 'legend' resides S.& O.’s Gunpowder Rum. Our recreated spirit taps into this rich heritage of legendary pirates, long-lost shipboard rituals and life upon the roiling seas of history.
RUM & GUNPOWDER AT SEA
RUM AS SHIPBOARD TOOL:
In the days before the Industrial Revolution and mass produced chemicals, cleaners and solvents, the sailor's daily ration of over-proof rum had many uses.
- Tattoos: many early sailors' tattoos were done using a needle and a mixture of rum and gunpowder as ink
- Sterilising: it should come as no surprise that high-proof rum was good at sterilising anything and everything aboard ship - mixed in with one's stagnant water ration it made the liquid drinkable - add some lime juice and perhaps some sugar and one had also dealt with one's scurvy while creating a forerunner to the Daiquiri cocktail.
- Medicinal: aside from sterilising and washing open wounds resulting from battle or general shipboard work, rum was a handy medicinal tool. It was commonly believed to be good for the relief of toothache. Meanwhile a ship's surgeon would use it to dissolve the various powders and treatments he would prescribe the crew - the surgeon might give the patient his prescription in a fold of paper and instruct him to dissolve it in his rum ration. Rum was also a key ingredient in various rubs, poultices and topical ointments, while not forgetting its role as a crude anaesthetic during surgery.
- On the gun deck: when a cannon is fired the gunpowder leaves behind a residue that, when mixed with seawater, forms a corrosive mix that will eat at the iron of the cannon. This results in pitting and scarring to the the inside of the barrel that will reduce the accuracy of the cannon. Alcohol (rum) will neutralise this acid. A practical use of one's generous allotment of rum would be to use some of it to sponge out a cannon after firing. Not only would it clean the barrel and accelerate the burning off of any smoldering remains of wading, it would quickly evaporate, leaving a dry environment for the next charge of powder.
Another use was for the making of fuses - working a mixture of gunpowder dissolved in diluted rum into a twist of oakum created a dependable fast fuse that would burn even in damp conditions.
- With food: alcohol is a known preservative for food (as is gunpowder, for that matter, due to the high potassium nitrate content).
Yes. Rum is a useful tool aboard ship. And if, after a hard day's work, you had any of your daily half-pint ration left... well I guess you could drink it as a last resort (shame to waste it).