As Rumfest, the world’s biggest festival of rum, returns to London for its sixth year, Ben Norum looks at the spirit’s connection with our city, and how we drink it now
The common link between pirates and parties, no drink is associated with a good time more than rum is. But while the very mention of this spirit conjures images of the Caribbean, its link to London stretches back much further than the Notting Hill Carnival.
It was the British Navy which first took rum seriously as far back as the 17th century. Reacting to the fact that both water and beer spoiled after long stretches at sea, boats entering the Caribbean regions took advantage of a cheaper, longer-lasting and readily available source of liquid – a harsh substance known as “kil devil” which was a byproduct of sugar cane processing sold direct from plantations.
Over time, distilling was refined and the resulting rum quickly became part of Navy culture, bringing with it many of the associations which still ring true to this day. It was ordered that rum be diluted with lime juice in order to prevent sailors getting too drunk, which led to the naming of this drink grog, after the term ‘the old grog’ referring to the Admiral in charge. And it’s likely the victory of Nelson’s rum drinking crew at the Battle of Trafalgar that has lead to the romanticised image of the spirit as the drink of choice for sailors and swashbuckling pirates.
In fact, crews were given rum partly to keep them content so that they didn’t mutiny. In an even less salubrious part of its history, rum was used as a currency for buying slaves, many of whom were in turn put to work on sugar cane plantations to ensure a ready supply of the drink.
Rum quickly become a major export for the British Empire, and much of it came back home to the UK.
The fact that The Museum of London Docklands building close to Canary Wharf was once a warehouse dedicated to the storage of rum as it came in via the port gives some idea of the scale on which it was drunk. In the 18th century rum became the most common drink in London, doing the unthinkable and overtaking even our beloved gin.
It was the British export of first rum and later cane sugar to America that led to the birth of distilling in New England. Many years later the US returned the favour by bringing its famous tiki bars to these shores.
The first to open was Trader Vic’s – still based at the London Hilton – in 1934, a copy of the original California bars. Creating a new genre of drinking den, these unashamedly over the top rum bars have spread, with trendy but trashy Trailer Happiness on Portobello Road and Mayfair’s blingy, celeb-filled Mahiki occupying opposite ends of the spectrum.
Though rum drinking is nowhere near as common as it was, it’s fitting that if only for two days, the Docklands will once again become the centre of the rum universe when Rumfest takes residency at the ExCel centre this weekend. And the hangover needn’t be too bad once that’s over – there are plenty more spots for budding Jack Sparrows spread across the city. Cotton’s, with restaurants in Exmouth Market and Camden stay true to the Caribbean spirit, with both menu and rum bar paying homage to the drink’s homeland, while Islington’s Wax Jumbu has more recently opened up its intimate upstairs as a Rum Cove filled with cocktails such as Red Sea Port which blends rum with honey and pomegranate molasses for a serious dose of St Lucian sunshine.
As a favourite tipple of many a bartender, there’s a world of clever rum cocktails to be found in bars around town, and don’t forget the humble mojito, either.