Cheap Eats:
Hot Buttered Rum

“Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum,” is as likely as any phrase to conjure images of pirates riotously celebrating another Caribbean conquest — but why rum? Quite simple, really — because, beginning in the 1600s, the Caribbean was all about sugar, and what better thing to create from the sugar by-product of molasses than rum? But rum was more than just a nice way to blind yourself at the end of a successful day of pillaging. For a few hundred years, it was a surprisingly important part of international economics, politics, and events.

There is some disagreement as to the origin of the name of rum, but the most common etymology given (including in Webster’s) is that it comes from “rumbullion,” which means “a great tumult or uproar”. Though the precursors of rum date back millennia, in the southern regions of Asia where sugar had its origin, the first mention in written record of the distilled drink we now know as rum was in Barbados in about 1650. Before long, rum became a key element of international commerce and an essential part of the notorious “Triangle Trade.” Slaves were brought from Africa and traded in the West Indies for molasses. The molasses was carried to New England, where it was distilled into rum. The rum was then sent back to Africa to trade for more slaves.

But not all the rum went to trade, and the culture of many seafaring peoples became dependent on rum. Of course, rum was important in all the places it was produced, from the West Indies to New England to Australia. British sailors received regular rations of rum from the 18th century until 1970. Rum became the major liquor distilled during the early history of the United States and, along with salt cod, became one of the major economic issues leading to the American Revolution (because thanks to rum and salt cod, New England didn’t really need old England anymore, because the colonies were getting rich). Rum remained so important in Canada’s Maritime provinces that, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the right to continue producing Screech, a locally distilled over-proof rum, was one of the demands for acceptance of confederation (Canada having previously limited the alcohol content of rum).

The ubiquity of rum in the West Indies/Caribbean led to the association of rum with those pirates of the Caribbean, who were only too happy to include it among their provisions. Even as rum distillation spread to other countries, the Caribbean remained one of the two major producers, along with Australia, which began producing rum shortly after settlement began in the late 1700s.

Rum played a different part in the early days of colonial Australia than it did in the Americas, but it was still a mighty significant part. Rum was a valued commodity in a harsh, thirsty land. With the help of the New South Wales Corps (a British military force formed solely for the controlling of the new continent, known at that time as New South Wales), it became the colony’s primary currency. Wages were paid and purchases made with rum. Through import monopolies, the New South Wales Corps maintained control of the trade and, therefore, of the colony, for nearly 20 years.

Such liquid assets were easily forged, and illegal stills abounded. Of course, the problems involved in an economy built almost entirely on an illicit liquor trade are legion, and England eventually sent a stern disciplinarian out to solve the problems. Captain William Bligh (of Bounty fame) was installed as Australia’s fourth governor.

The scope of the problem had been underestimated, as almost all military officers and free settlers were involved in the rum trade at some level, and Bligh’s interference and accusations merely served to precipitate the Rum Rebellion. Bligh was arrested by Major Johnston, Commander of the New South Wales Corps, in January 1808, and spent more than a year in confinement. When news finally reached London, a new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, was sent out, this time accompanied by a full regiment to back up any orders he might wish to make. Macquarie was a bit more judicious than Bligh, and, rather than directly attacking the rum trade, he simply worked on expanding and developing the colony until land became more profitable than rum.

Rum is still a popular drink worldwide. It is often drunk neat in the hot countries where it is produced, but it is widely used in mixed drinks and cocktails, as well. It is also a popular flavor for cakes, sauces, and other sweets.

It was in New England that hot buttered rum evolved. It is one of my favorite cold-weather comforts, and it’s easy to make with readily available ingredients. Enjoy.

Hot Buttered Rum

golden rum

brown sugar



hot water

For each serving: Place 1 tsp. brown sugar, firmly packed, into a mug or Irish coffee glass. Add ¼ cup rum, generous dash or two of cinnamon, and 1 tbsp. butter. Add boiling water to fill. Stir well. Drink hot.

As with most historic recipes, there are numerous variations. Alternative preparations might include powdered sugar instead of brown, light or dark rum instead of gold, and nutmeg instead of cinnamon, or try a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or cloves. But this brown sugar and cinnamon version is my favorite.

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