I never thought much about rum until about eight years ago. While writing an article about the local Delta Sailing Association, the Commodore pointed out that I couldn't properly do the piece unless I knew how to sail. Fair point, but I suspect he was just short of crew that day. At any rate, once you start hanging around with sailors, you start to form opinions about rum.
It was "America's drink" long before bourbon whiskey reigned supreme. Old Naval lore is drowning in the stuff — Churchill never made the "Rum, sodomy, and the lash" quip, but someone did. The Royal Navy didn't officially abolish the sailor's daily rum ration until 1971. In a boozy counter-point to American's Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94, Australia's Rum Rebellion, in 1808, was more or less successful.
The triggering gripe was that the local soldiers didn't like the governor of New South Wales, one William Bligh, because he cut off their supply of cheap rum. If the name is familiar, it's the same William Bligh who commanded the HMS Bounty until that infamous munity in 1789, where the crew set him and a few others adrift in the south Pacific without food, water, or topsiders. The salty bastard survived somehow, so naturally he was made governor of a penal colony. In no time, the Australians hated him as much as everyone else who'd ever met the guy.
It's worth noting that in the vast annals of business books, there is not one called Management Secrets of Captain Bligh.
Still, with stories like that floating around, what little boy, standing on white sandy beaches of Destin, hasn't looked out on the Gulf Coast and said, "Golly, those old fellers used to get pretty gassed on something called grog. What was that all about?" Although it's possible that was only me.
Like a lot of cocktails invented by the British military-industrial complex, grog was essentially just spiked medicine. The official Royal Navy recipe was simple: half a barrel of water, half a barrel of rum, and a quart of lime juice. The rum "sterilized" (sort of) the water, provided a mild pain-killer, and helped the average jack-tar to NOT think about his grim lot in life. The quart of lime juice provided much needed Vitamin C that acted as a hedge against scurvy, thus extending the sailor's misery.
The problem is that, if you haven't been press-ganged into the navy, grog is actually awful. So how to make a civilian version? The first step is to lighten it up: use soda instead of still water, keep the ratio about the same: one-part water, one-part rum. Give it a good squeeze of lime, more than a twist. Use dark rum — it's more interesting. The light stuff has too much of a tiki torch/beach party vibe and no sense of adventure.
There are some fine rums out there that aren't getting the same attention as bourbon, tequila, or, more recently, gin. Rhum Barbancourt 15 is regarded as one of the best in the world. Interestingly, as it's produced in Haiti, a country not known for producing the best of anything. It will set you back about $53 and is available at various liquor stores around town. Worth every penny, yes, but too fine for grog.
For cocktails, the middle way is best. For my money, at $18.99, Gosling's Dark Seal Rum is perfect for the job. Mount Gay also makes a great bottle at $24.99.
Around the same price point, I have a soft spot for Flor de Caña, made in Nicaragua. While in Managua, I managed to run smack into in what they call "social unrest" down there. The story would be a lot better if I hadn't been using my father as interpreter — he grounded me from going to the riot. Which is why you should never take your father on assignment. Still, Flora de Caña always makes me a tad nostalgic.