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News18 » Lifestyle » Food
3-min read

Gunpowder Rum: How Centuries Old British Navy Practice to Identify Diluted Tot Found its Way to Mainland

Gunpowder rum is very much here, even in our 21st century. Its made in Wellington, Newzealand, is just a few miles away from the concoction of Blackbeard and the British Royal Navy.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:December 8, 2019, 1:44 PM IST
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Gunpowder Rum: How Centuries Old British Navy Practice to Identify Diluted Tot Found its Way to Mainland
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News18 Tippling Point"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

Drink and the devil had done for the rest

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum."

The song is about the people in wide waters, a time when the real pirates and British Royal Navy would clash in the oceans. It speaks of a time long before the Captain Jack Sparrow, and the flick, 'Pirates of the Carribean' made their way to the oceans.

About three hundred years ago, the sea water was dramatic with frequent fights between these forces. The cause behind the fight were hundreds of merchant ships carrying goods worth millions. Now, who would blame the pirates if they wanted a piece of the pie! Amid all the pandemonium, one name that stood apart and sent shivers down the spines of those daring to cross the Atlantic with their wares was Blackbeard alias Edward Teach. You could never guess in what form or using what outlandish tactics the pirate, or rather a terror, would suddenly emerge from the calm water onto your boat to loot the merchandise.

The annals of the 18th century are full of tales of Blackbeard leaping into merchant ship, shouting, all afire, after kindling cannon fuses tied to his hair and flowing beard. What ghostly spectacle it could be! For those who wish to know what the devil stuffed himself up with before taking such daredevilry stunts; it was Rum laced with gunpowder.

Yes. Blackbeard used to quaff a pint before every assault he made. It could be a deliberate attempt to boost the macho image that reached places ahead of him in flesh and blood, as bile-curdling stories.

However, Blackbeard was not the first to start the practice of adding gunpowder to rum.

It began a hundred years even before Blackbeard fear in the oceans.

The practice began after a growing suspicion among sailors in the British Royal Navy, that their daily tot was getting adulterated with, bah, water. They didn't trust the Purser, who was officially in charge of rum. The growing discontent and suspicion gave birth to a solution- What if they mix their rum with gunpowder and set it alight? Pure rum would catch fire, instantly, they reasoned. If the rum wouldn't catch fire, well, it's adulterated. The sailors resorted to a new ritual they just invented. They began tossing the Pusser to the ocean.

In those days people were also looking for options to cut the bitter taste of rum (which was aptly named kill-devil back then). So the new combination - rum and gunpowder - caught on. It’s worth noting how the flavor in those would have been when they found gunpowder a little more agreeable on their palate. The new idea seeped ashore from the seas, even to the voodoo rituals of Jamaica and Haiti. By now it had undergone a seachange.

Legends say that a voodoo pledge could be sealed only with a ritual of sipping rum laced with gunpowder, soil from a freshly dug grave and human blood. Something that could scare the pants off of even our Blackbeard.

In the 1760 slave revolt in Jamaica, warriors prepared themselves up by sipping rum blended with gunpowder, grave dirt, and of course human blood. Hear this, before you relieve yourself with a sigh imagining we have evolved much since.

Gunpowder rum is very much here, even in our 21st century.

Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum made in Wellington, Newzealand, is just a few miles away from the concoction that Blackbeard, the British Royal Navy and the tribals of Jamaica drank (Good that they have skipped soil and human blood- the last part of the voodoo recipe).

Smoke & Oakum (S&O) rum is made from a blend of Carribean rums infused with chilli, pipe tobacco - a Native American nicotine-free substitute - and black gunpowder. Ever since the first batch was made in 2007, Ben Simpson, the man behind the rebirth of the cocktail, has been tweaking with the recipe to get his drink closer to what is mentioned in history books. Each batch of rum is carefully aged, bottled, and packed in wrappers, all by hand before they are sent to adorn the shelves of the most luxurious bars in Europe and the US.

Recently ClASS, a British magazine which is an authority on alcoholic spirits gave S&O's Gunpowder rum five-star rating. It has "an explosive nose of graphite, maple syrup and spent shotgun cartridges", followed by an "earthy palate" and "spicy, tingling, phosphorous finish".

So let's go for the blast.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

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