Tony Deyal | Rum, glorious rum
Almost everyone of us who grew up in the Caribbean in the late 1940s and early '50s, especially in Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad, was exposed to rum from an early age, if not as medicine ("It good for the cold", "It will kill the germs, and if it don't kill them, they will at least have a good time") but also as a 'likkle' taste for Christmas.
When I was about five years old, despite my mother's protestations and anger, my father, my Uncle Jacket and their friends, already very much under the influence, encouraged me to take a sip, and when I twisted up my face because of the harsh and bitter taste, they all laughed at my discomfiture.
My father grew up in the cane fields, where he started working from the time he was about seven years old. He got very little schooling and that was sporadic, mostly in the rainy season when work was scarce. He and other youngsters at the time preferred to work, and, as they grew older, drink and 'cuss' like the 'big men'. Before he was 10 years old, my father was digging para grass (Brachiara mutica), which was grown for animal feed, riding the mules, taking care of cattle, both the estate herd and his family's, and tossing back the puncheon or overproof rum with the rest of the workers.
Even in his final years he tolerated Scotch, beer and other alcoholic beverages, but did not think, and certainly was not convinced, that he had a real drink until he got his strong rum - not just one shot, but several.
I remember when we were doing Macbeth for the Senior Cambridge Examinations in 1958 and our English literature teacher came to the line, "We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it" and asked us to explain what it meant. One of the boys, whose father owned a rum shop in La Brea, said to Mr Lougheide, the teacher, "Sir, it means that Scotch ain't strong enough to kill a snake. If you want it to dead, you have to give it puncheon rum."
Anyone who talks about the romance of rum, or delights in "rum, glorious rum, when ah call you, you bound to come", has not seen what it did to the workers in the cane fields whose 'perks' included a dram (one-eighth of an ounce) of rum. In fact, the former slaves also came under its spell and even now, throughout the region, alcohol abuse is still a problem. Incredibly, in Trinidad, over the past few months, a former minister of government, a senator and even a judge have all been breathalysed and found under the influence.
Alcoholic drinks from sugar cane go back a long time. The first record was in 1364 when the king of Cyprus, Peter I, gave it as a gift to other dignitaries. However, history did not record their behaviour, and there were no breathalysers around to measure their levels of consumption.
The Malays, for centuries, produced a drink named 'Brum', and in the 14th century, Marco Polo spoke about "a very good wine of sugar" he got in Iran. However, it was the slaves in Barbados and, later, the rest of the Caribbean in that age of King Sugar who first 'seined', or strained, the boiling matter to collect the molasses, let it ferment, and had a good time on it. Then someone, not Captain Morgan in Jamaica, but most likely a slave in Barbados, came up with the idea of distilling the fermented molasses.
It is not true that the moon was in eclipse at the time or that the event took place on the top of Mount Gay, but it is a fact, supported by the Oxford Dictionary, that the word 'rum' first appears in 1654 in the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut where it is mentioned along with another of its names, 'kill-devil', in a tax order pertaining to "Berbados Liquors, commonly called Rum, Kill Deuill, or the like".
This is supported by etymologist Anatoly Liberman, in his The Rum history of the word 'rum': "It came from Barbados, where the planters first distilled it, somewhere between 1640 and 1645. An MS 'Description of Barbados' in Trinity College, Dublin, written about 1651, says: 'The chief fudling (sic) they make in the Island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil (sic), and this is made of sugar-canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.' G. Warren's description of Surinam, 1661, shows the word in its present short form: 'Rum is a spirit extracted from the juice ... called Kill-Devil in New England!'"
What started me off on this rum binge was an article in the aptly named USA today publication, 'Eat, Sip and Trip', about 'How An Extinct Trinidad Rum Was Reborn And Gained A Cult Following'. The story is that one year after the Caroni Distillery was shut down in 2003, "Luca Gargano, the head of Velier, a Genoa, Italy-based importer and distributor of fine wine and spirits, was in Trinidad on a research trip. He stumbled across the shuttered Caroni distillery and was led, Indiana Jones-style (or was it Jack Sparrow-style?), to a boarded-up warehouse and shown thousands of wooden casks of rum, some dating back as far as 1974.
"Gargano bought up all the barrels, shipped some of them to Italy, and left others to mature in Trinidad. Velier has been releasing small batches of Caroni to the market ever since, and for rum connoisseurs, Caronimania is officially a thing."
A bottle now sells for US$400 - and some bottles can go for more than US$1,000. Velier releases just two or three bottlings a year that may yield just a few hundred bottles total.
Given how much money he is making, it is clear that Gargano found his El Dorado in Trinidad and not Guyana. I know how my father and my family felt about Trinidad rum and the fact that they were drinking it when it was 50 Trinidad cents a bottle, but what the story does not say is how Mr Wray and his nephew feel about it or, for that matter, Captain Morgan, who might probably make Gargano, whose first name is Luca (as in Luca Brasi in The Godfather), walk the plank and sleep with the fishes.
- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that rum is never the answer, but it does tend to make you forget the question.