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Yo ho ho and a bottle of finest, oak-aged kill-devill

Nina Caplan's drink column.

Is there any drink more befuddling than rum? Even the etymology is weird. It began as rumbullion, which may come from saccharum, Latin for sugar (since it is, after all, made from sugar cane) and bulioen, Dutch for a precious metal in mass – although what this “hott, hellish and terrible liquor” has to do with metal of any kind beats me.

I have also heard that rumbullion is Devonshire slang for a “great tumult”, which surprises me: I wasn’t aware they had great tumults in Devon. Or the name may descend from rum the adjective, which now means “odd or strange” but originally signified “excellent or fine”, surely as peculiar a transmutation as that from sugar-cane run-off into strong drink. Even more confusingly, it has become a generic term for booze, especially among disapprovers: “fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers,” as Ambrose Bierce spikily put it. In 17th-century Barbados, which is where both rum and that first quotation originate, it was known as kill-devill, yet was used to pacify slaves and sailors. Presumably those doing the pacifying didn’t stop to think about which devills a drunken seaman or bonded African might wish to kill.

Only one thing is certain: rum is a hot-weather tipple. When I’ve the good fortune to be overheated, I like a daiquiri or a mojito: lime juice (and in the latter, mint) seems a perfectly sensible addition to a sweet liquor, even if the stipulated gomme syrup can too easily turn a refreshing, tangy concoction into the adult equivalent of a lollipop. But most rum cocktails confound me. Fruit juice, coconut milk, cola, sweet liqueurs: what are these tooth-rotting substances doing in a drink that is already a dentist’s delight?

The caipirinha (made of cachaca, a Brazilian version of fermented sugar-cane juice) actually has caster sugar in it. And don’t get me started on Bacardi Breezers (actually, you couldn’t get me started on alcopops, unless the only alternative you presented me with was individual tooth removal without anaesthetic).

If you tell me you prefer your coffee pepped with hazelnut syrup, I will learn two things about you: your tooth is sweet and you probably don’t like the taste of coffee. This is Julie Andrews territory: a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine, be it caffeine or alcohol, go down. (Andrews, in that film, was herself a saccharine version of the astringent Mary Poppins that P L Travers actually wrote. If Travers’s vain, tyrannical, sugar-free crosspatch were a cocktail, she’d be a Martini.)

Hemingway, always cited as a rum connoisseur, apparently liked his daiquiris with maraschino liqueur, which indicates to me that he didn’t really like rum. Then again, Hemingway’s reputation for discernment has been a mystery to me ever since reading A Moveable Feast, in which he drinks F Scott Fitzgerald into the ground while disparaging his friend’s weak head. If you outdrink a drunk, there’s a name for you and it’s not connoisseur.

It is a pity to make rums taste like kids’ drinks and not just because a fussy cocktail is, as Marlene Dietrich pointed out, “Bad for you, and trouble for the bartender.” Yet manufacturers can’t seem to help themselves. To some white rums, caramel is added, for colour and extra sweetness. (There’s nothing wrong with white rum. Bacardi mixes well, depending, of course, on what you mix it with.) Sometimes spices are included, which can work: Elements 8 contains cinnamon, ginger and is delicious. Yet a good rum, aged in oak, needs no addition other than a dash of water or a lump of ice, so why are we compelled to complicate things? Perhaps it’s historical: after all, rum was invented during a process of spectacular meddling by footloose Europeans.

They couldn’t leave a good thing alone and nor, it seems, can their descendants.


Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone