Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Punch, Flip and Old Grog

Recently, I was asked by a friend who is a professional editor and screenwriter to look at a piece he was working on. The screenplay was about buccaneers in the latter part of the 17th century and there were a few points my friend was unfamiliar with as far as seafaring, timeframes, dialogue and particularly the little details of historical accuracy. Of course I was eager to get my hands on the thing; the idea of a well researched, high spirited buccaneer movie (featuring real life filibuster Michele de Grammont, no less) excited me immeasurably. Sadly, reality put a damper on that enthusiasm pretty quickly.

There were a million little details that crushed my spirits thoroughly (the hero, just as an example, wore a tricorn hat and beaded braids a la Jack Sparrow) but one that stood out was the drinking that went on in the buccaneer port of Tortuga (sadly positioned off Puerto Rico, not Haiti where the buccaneer outpost actually was). Many was the time that the protagonists reached for a mug of grog; in fact de Grammont and our hero sealed a deal over pints and pints of the stuff.

In the 1680s, for better or for worse, grog was an unknown commodity. In fact grog was probably largely unknown in the New World well into the 18th century. Grog was initially a drink of the Royal Navy and was not officially adopted by them until 1740. The mix of water and rum was a replacement for beer, which had a habit of going off pretty quickly, particularly in warm climes like the West Indies and India. As an aside here, if you are familiar with India Pale Ale you know how the Royal Navy tried to fix that; the stronger, sturdier IPA was brewed specifically for ships headed east.

This is not to say that buccaneers were not familiar with rum, or that they would in fact not have added things – including water – to it. It simply would not have been called “grog”. What the gentlemen rovers called their drinks of choice, though, is one of the more curious tidbits about the early filibusters and those freebooters who came after. At least to me.

The type of rum that was most available to many of the Caribbean islands in the 17th century was affectionately known as “kill-devil”. This was a common man’s drink composed of rum that had not been properly aged to smooth over the bitter taste of fermented sugar cane. While wealthy land owners, Governors and visiting dignitaries in the first outposts of Britain would drink rum proper which was originally called rumbullion, the working poor and the slaves who made the rum drank a less refined form of same. It was probably an addiction for most and the death of many as well.

Another popular way to drink rum was in what was called a punch. Alcoholic punches were intensely popular in Europe in the 17th century so making one with the locally bottled alcohol was not much of a stretch. Rum punch usually contained water, some form of citrus juice – lime was the most popular – and molasses or sugar. Sometimes nutmeg was grated into the beverage. Henry Morgan and his captains were getting roaring drunk on rum punch when his flagship, Oxford, exploded underneath them killing every man directly across the table from Morgan but sparing the old dog and his mates on the other side.

Bombo or bumboo was also popular and was probably virtually the same thing as rum punch. A heated version of both drinks was called rumfustian. This contained rum, beer, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a raw egg and was then heated with a rod such as a red-hot poke from the fire. A cousin to rumfustian, flip was a popular drink in the American colonies before and during the Revolutionary War. It was made with rum, beer and molasses or sugar heated just as its relative had been. In his history of all things regarding the title …And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis states:

If grog was an emblem of the triumph of order over disorder on the open seas, rum – especially in the form of a popular drink called “flip” – was a symbol of the new order displacing the old in the colonies.

And doubtless very popular with the privateers of the era; in fact John Paul Jones was known to enjoy his flip when in port.

All that said, it is important to remember that our freebooting ancestors were not terribly picky about their alcohol, at least in general. An onion bottle full of wine or porter would have done just as well as a bowl of bumboo and the big head the next morning would have been just the same.

And so, in less wordy form, my recommendations went out to my friend and his client. I will continue to wonder about that ambitious buccaneer screenplay and hope for its great success. Especially if the tricorns and grog are ditched all together.

Header: From Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates

Update 11/22: Looking for more in depth information on rum for the pirate in all of us?  Check out Blue Lou Logan's well researched and delightful post at his freebooting blog.


Capt. John Swallow said...

A quick note on the mixture that became known as "grog" - while it may appear that it was a wtered down version o' Rum - it was actually a slightly rummed version o' water! The term kill-devil (despite the obvious hangover references) came about because o' the strong alcohol's ability to keep the "wee nasty divils" out o' the water (parasites and the like). Of course unless ye grew up drinking Scrumpy in Devon, a tankard o' Rum in the islands would like to drop ye in yer tracks!

The Navy lads got a "tot" o' rum on special occasions (about a shot worth), but it seems they acquired a taste for it and were known to help themselves when no one was, as the song goes "and then they stopped the tot" and they were occasionally rewarded with some ale - less alcohol by at least 6x and, technically some minor nutritional benefit.

Pauline said...

As always, dead on, Captain; thankee indeed. And when will you be writing a screenplay praytell... :)

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I just like saying "rumfustian"...

Also, I wonder why they called it "flip"?

But, like our freebooting ancestors, I'll pretty much take whatever I can get.

Pauline said...

You know, I think I could probably drink any of these without complaint. Although I might as the alehouse keeper to hold the egg in my rumfustian.

As to the name flip, I've no idea; it's a fun one, though.

Blue Lou Logan said...

Ahoy...I'm back!

Just wanted to recommend further ...And A Bottle of Rum. This is a book to be savored, saved, and reread. At one point, I took an afternoon and read alone at a bar, drinking each cocktail as I read about it. I now challenge bartenders to traditional mai tais and see if they can pull it off...and if they can explain why.

I also (back to being an ethnomusicologist again) after the book made an iTunes playlist that ranged from Caribbean work songs and old shanties to Revolutionary marches, all the way to "Rum and Coca Cola" (both the original calypso and the Andrew Sisters version) and modern Cuban and Puerto Rican son. I even stuck a Temperance poem in the middle.

I am a geek of booze, I'll admit. Read the book.

Pauline said...

Lou! We're so glad you're back. And, even though Blogger wouldn't let me post aboard you, I know exactly where you are in HMS Surprise; more trouble for Stephen ahead a la "I do this with my own hand."

Anyway yes! What a wonderful idea re: And a Bottle of Rum. Would love to hear how each of the many rum-filled beverages used as chapter titles in the book turned out.

And now I'll be singing "Rum and Coca Cola" and thinking of its wicked history all day long. Cheers!

Timmy! said...

Another great and hilariously funny book on adult beverages is "Everyday Drinking" by Kingsley Amis. It's not piratical at all, just very, very amusing and informative.

Munin said...

Really enjoyed this post. I seem to have been raised on movie grog scenes as much as the hearty "aarrrgh!" All good fun.

I had to smile when I came across the word "tidbit". I remember being jovially ribbed on a forum some years ago by a friend from California for saying "titbit". It turns out you guys across the pond tended to find the English spelling a little too racy, and changed it. Haha. The meaning seems to have remained the same though. I thought us British were meant to be the prudish ones. :)

Pauline said...

Well thankee, Munin.

As to the tidbit/titbit issue I believe the real problem on this side of the pond is our overwhelming obsession with boobs. Any word that relates to them turns the men among us into Beavis and Butthead clones:

"Huh-huh, huh-huh; you said tit."


On another note, todays post at the Sketch Blog was brilliant!