The Oldie

Drink Bill Knott



I was always destined to become an aficionado of alcohol; or, less charitably, an old lush. And it all started with rum.

While other children dreamed of strawberry ice cream, I craved rum-andraisin, and any spare pocket money was squandered on two-ounce bags of rum toffees from the corner shop. In January – rejoice, rejoice! – Cadbury decided to bring back the classic Bournville Old Jamaica rum-and-raisin chocolate bars.

Of course, these confection­s were merely flavoured with an ersatz-rum-style substance. But just the word ‘rum’ and its romantic associatio­ns with pirates and smugglers felt exciting and rather grown-up to a ten-year-old whose only experience of a life on the ocean wave was feeling mildly seasick on the Isle of Wight ferry.

Later, it was Hemingway and Havana, daiquiris and mojitos, Latin jazz drifting like cigar smoke through crumbling baroque alleyways. And my favourite pudding is still rum baba, as long as the waiter has a generous hand with the rum.

Since the main requiremen­t for the alchemy of fermentati­on is fermentabl­e sugars, it makes sense to cut out the middleman and make rum with sugar. It is, mostly, made from molasses, but can also be made simply from the pressed juice of sugar cane, a technique practised in the French Caribbean and labelled rhum agricole: ‘agricultur­al rum’.

Once distilled, it can be bottled immediatel­y – for white rum – or aged in casks, sometimes for decades, which tames the young spirit’s brashness and lends it maturity and complexity. The very best examples rival whisky and cognac in elegance and smoothness and are best matched with a fine Cuban cheroot, if you are of that persuasion, or else a few squares of very good, very dark chocolate. I am very fond of Diplomatic­o Reserva Exclusiva, a dark gold, Venezuelan rum with a spicy vanilla kick and a satisfying­ly long finish: sip it slowly and try to resist adding ice.

White rum is best employed in cocktails, especially the mojito. Squeeze the juice of half a lime into a tall glass, stir in two teaspoonfu­ls of caster sugar, add a small handful of mint leaves and gently bruise them with a pestle (or similar). Slosh in a generous measure of rum, top up with ice and soda water, and garnish with a few more mint leaves.

While the mojito is a fine drink, it will have to wait until summer. In the meantime, try a hot buttered rum; it warms the cockles like no other drink.

For one drink (scale up as necessary), cream together a tablespoon­ful of softened butter and a teaspoonfu­l of soft brown sugar, add a pinch each of cinnamon, nutmeg and salt, whisk in 100ml of scalding hot water, add a double measure of dark rum (try Havana Club 7) and whisk again, before serving in a sturdy glass or a teacup.

There is something marvellous­ly transgress­ive about combining butter and hard liquor: it is, I realised when I first tried it, simply the grown-up version of the rum butter toffees I devoured when I was a child.

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