How pirates and the demon grog became good mates on the high seas
Ham and grits; salt and pepper; peanut butter and jelly; friends and Facebook; 5 p.m. and cocktails — some things are just meant to come in pairs.
It can be said without fearing argument that this includes pirates and rum.
Can one even mention rum and not have a flashing thought of a swashbuckler? The marriage is easily reinforced by a brisk walk down any rum aisle in your favorite spirits store. There’s Captain Morgan, Blackbeard, Lady Bligh and Black Roberts — complete with skull and crossbones — in a squatty bottle a little farther down. If not in the actual name, rum bottles are awash in labels showing pirate ships, pirate symbols and pirates replete with sword and shoulder-perched parrot.
Or take Kelly Railean, co-founder, owner and master distiller of the area’s best known rum makers, Railean Handmade Texas Rum in San Leon. Railean isn’t a pirate, but she’s a sailor.
“I learned how to sail and then my husband and I bought a sailboat,” Railean said. “Whenever we would entertain or come back in and want to relax, rum just seemed the natural thing.”
Most people just try different rums after that, but she bought a distillery. It opened in 2007 and now makes four styles of rum serving multiple states and most large cities in Texas.
Pirate glory is found throughout her craft distillery, right down to the establishment’s Buccaneer Bar, where rum drinks such as Black Beard Dark Beer & Rum Delight, Calico Jack, Pirate Daiquiri, Talk Like a Pirate Punch, The Jolly Roger and Walk the Plank are served up regularly. Buccaneer Bar also celebrates the yearly Talk Like a Pirate Day each September.
So, what is this thing that forever binds pirates and rum?
History shows it’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg story. Almost all ships in the glory days of sailing across the bounding Caribbean main had ample barrels of rum. Almost all pirates, at least the successful ones, were on ships. It was pretty inevitable the two would meet.
Medicinal reasons started it all, however. At the time, ships could spend many months at sea and between ports. Fresh water was brought on board in large barrels, but between the filth and heat of the ship’s hold, the untreated wood of the barrels and the untreated water being used, the stuff became pretty darn rancid in short course. As a result, ships also carried beer, which lasted longer. When that ran low, out came the stronger stuff.
Before the mid-1600s, the stronger stuff was usually French brandy, but Great Britain went to war with France and promptly captured Jamaica, an island notable for a lot of reasons, rum making not being the least of them. So, in a French Fry to Freedom Fry move, the Royal Navy poured its last brandy and switched to stocking its ships with rum.
Thus began a love affair with rum that, with some good winds and some becalmed ones, continues today.
“When I started, the craft movement didn’t even exist, but now it is affecting all kinds of spirits,” Railean said. “I think that is going to continue to grow. And with rum, we are going to start seeing more and more of the aged rums coming out in the next few years.”
The appeal of rum in the early days is easy to understand. Sugar was abundant and the rum was made from a molasses that had been discarded. And, unlike whiskey and some other popular spirits, rum has always been a coastal thing.
“Barrels of molasses are very heavy,” Railean said. “You don’t lug barrels of molasses uphill into the interior.”
Rum did have one drawback. Unlike the water or the beer used, rum had a tendency to intoxicate. A ship swarming with drunken sailors is not a good thing as famed pirates Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Calico Jack Rackham can all attest. Their ships were all taken with hardly a saber unsheathed, the pirate crews being in a happy hour state of bliss. The Royal Navy devised ways to ration the rum to its crews — daily pours called tots, which was originally about 1 pint. This daily practice wasn’t abandoned by the English until 1970. It was a sad, sad day to be sure and for the last 45 years the anniversary is known as Black Tot Day.
The deliberate dilution of rum resulted is one of the first and most familiar rum cocktails. Ship captains had it mixed with the remaining rancid water or beer, sugar and lime juice to make the water more palatable, as well as to prevent scurvy. This concoction became known as grog.
The choice of rums today is almost overwhelming. They’re produced in a variety of grades mostly identified by color. Light rums are the mixer ones for cocktails, while darker ones are more likely to be consumed straight or on the rocks. The rules, however, are as loose as a pirate’s morals. There also are premium rums, spiced rums, flavored rums, overproof rums and myriad others, which can be used in uncountable ways.
Railean makes four different styles of rum — a white that’s distilled multiple times for smoothness; dark ones distilled once and then aged in small, new double-charred, American oak barrels. Many distillers age their rums in used whiskey barrels, which absorbs some of the whiskey flavors. Railean’s distillery also produces a blended rum, small cask rums and spice rums.
“A lot of people just assume rum should be mixed with something, but that is not true anymore,” Railean said. “I make a single-barrel small cask rum that people drink straight or on the rocks. As people learn more about rum, the more serious they take it.”
One of the stranger ways to drink rum that found its birth among pirate lore is mixing it with gunpowder. Blackbeard was said to drinks shots of this before battle for protection. This odd cocktail has been served at bars, and there’s even a New Zealand-made rum called Smoke & Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum, which has remnants of real gun powder. The truth behind this drink, however, has less to do with cocktail mixology than it does with pocketbook thievery.
It seems buying from rum purveyors was a tricky business, even for pirates. To make sure the rum being purchased had not been watered down, wary buyers learned they could mix a little rum and gunpowder then set a spark to it. If it flared, it was proved, meaning it was not watered down — the origin of today’s proof percentage on all alcohol. If it did not flare, pity the purveyor.
So, for all Hollywood’s lore of pirates sailing the ocean blue in search of gold, jewels and pretty lasses, a captured ship with only a cargo full of rum didn’t disappoint.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, once wrote in his journals he feared his crew was plotting a mutiny.
“So, I looked sharp for a prize (and) took one with a great deal of liquor aboard,” he wrote. “So kept the company hot, damned hot, then all things went well again.”
Buccaneer Bar at Railean Distillery
341 Fifth St., San Leon
Talk Like A Pirate Rum Punch
Courtesy of Kelly Railean and Buccaneer Bar
1 part Railean Texas White Rum
1 part Railean Reserve XO Dark Rum
1 part orange juice
1 part pineapple juice
1 part ginger ale (or lemon lime soda)
Splash of bitters
Splash of grenadine
Pineapple wedge and cherry for garnish
Shake all juices and rum, add soda and then add grenadine and bitters. Serve over ice.
Helpful tip from about.com “One part is any equal part. Think of it as one measure of your jigger. For ‘1 part,’ you would pour a full jigger; for ‘2 1/2 parts,’ pour two and a half jiggers; for ‘1/2 part,’ pour one half of the jigger full. It is very logical, yet you may have to adjust a little bit to obtain the right sized cocktail for the glass.”