The story behind Smoke and Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum

This story featured in the March edition of Bartender magazine
By Ben Simpson, founder of Smoke and Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum

“Rum has flavour, it has heritage, and it has quality,” says Dave Broom in his wide ranging work entitled (rather directly) Rum. That sonorous word one can’t help saying without a slight-smile. Rum, roll the ‘r’, has also been described in its early years as that ‘hot, hellish, and terrible liquor’. This was when rum was for slaves, indigenous peoples, the poor and the press-ganged and other more antisocial characters – your pirates, privateers, rebels and ye smugglers.

Those in a position of privilege on the other hand, drank the spirits of the Old World, Cognac, Port, and sherry – occasionally gin, if they were slumming. From the first plantings on Hispaniola in 1493, through to the current era, Rum has always represented something else – something that definitely doesn’t show restraint or an observance of the rules.

“There is no single correct way to make rum,” declares Broom as he raises his flag yet again. “All that matters is that the signature flavour remains the same.” Even this last ‘rule’ is a modern invention, created by the twin gods Branding and Marketing.


There is no single correct way to make rum – all that matters is that the signature flavour remains the same.”  David Broom

With the jettisoning of tradition and of the rule books I saw my chance to prosper and clambered aboard the Rum wagon. Here was a spirit category that would take all comers, no questions asked. I didn’t even have to be called ‘Ishmael’. My contribution to this motley crew? The proposition to bring those two descriptions together in one bottle; ‘flavour, heritage and quality’, combined in some ‘hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.’

The result… Smoke & Oakum‘s Gunpowder Rum; flavoured with tobacco, chilies, and authentic, muzzle-loading, black gunpowder.

A Modern Mix for a Classic Spirit

It would be easy, and not unreasonable, to think of this strange rum as being part of a recent up swell in bartenders’ own-brand and bespoke, ‘typicular fixin’s’ – the Boker’s, Bob’s and Bitter Truth’s Bitters of recent years. This itself, of course, has a long history and is not recent at all. One need only mention Jerry Thomas’ recipes for bitters, liqueurs and syrups – published into a world replete with home-brew potions, herbal remedies, and other wondrous snake-oils.

However, I took my lead from a more rum-centric direction. Caribbean bartenders have in the past frequently blended their own rums, sometimes in a barrel in the back room, or in jars on a shelf behind the bar, creating flavoured rums. The recipes for these being, of course, proprietary secrets. This is part of a long traditional of rum-augmented everything – from Bay Rum as a cologne and hair tonic, to bitters (Angostura, for instance), to something akin to spiced Viagra rum using the infamous ‘bois bandé’. One can follow this tradition back to 1639 and The Distiller of London where we find; rind of Florentine citron, cinnamon, bergamot, cloves, saffron (for colour), rectified spirit, and sugar mixed to create ‘Barbadoes Water’.

It is probable that a lot of this flavouring of rum was to disguise the un-refined character of early rum. The adding of herbs, spice, and fruit in order to make raw rum palatable… or not. As always in the story of rum there is someone not obeying the rules of good taste. The flavourings chosen for Smoke & Oakum‘s rum are of that later order; designed to keelhaul the senses rather than rock them gently in a hammock.

Tobacco was often added to crude rums to add a colour similar to more quality aged products, like cognac or whisky, while chilies were added to give the kind of longer-lasting burn some people demand from their ‘firewater’. These people are still with us today, the ones that believe “if it hurts to drink it then it must be good stuff” – like with bad-tasting medicine. Many of the snake-oils mentioned above included otherwise pointless ‘bittering agents’ as a way to sell to this particular demographic.

And who can forget Blackbeard’s contribution? One last pint of rum with gunpowder and then into his final battle… later dying of 25 wounds only to become a legend. Incidentally, the drinking of rum and gunpowder before some great feat is a detail of voodoo ritual from the island of Haiti. That mix however, includes soil from a recently dug grave and human blood.

Gunpowder Rum sits somewhere on this Caribbean shelf of rum-tinkerings and bravado inducing blends – minus the plasma. The brand itself and its creation harks back to another olden-times approach. In the 18th Century merchants and traders started to blend, bottle, brand, and distribute other peoples’ distillates. Rum is probably unique amongst the spirits categories for having so many brands that have nothing to do with the production of the base spirit; Pusser’s is one such brand.

“Who can forget Blackbeard? One last pint of rum with gunpowder and then into final battle to welcome a glorious death.”

In the more recent past we have seen Captain Morgan, launched in 1945 by the Canadian company Seagrams. This brand does not own a plantation or a distillery, what is available is blended to create the appropriate flavour for the right price. In Bermuda, Gosling’s Black Seal is the same and Mateusalem has its headquarters in Florida – blending Caribbean rums in the Dominican Republic. Like these and other companies, Smoke & Oakum only blends then bottles and does not own the means of production – Karl Marx would not be pleased.

A Barrel Blended

Smoke & Oakum’s character draws on all manors of crafty techniques in some form or another.By adding flavour components such as chilies, tobacco, and gunpowder there is suggested some of the primary flavours of the Caribbean with dashes of Blackbeard the pirate and voodoo ritual. It makes it part of a long history of ‘adjusted’ rum. Body, structure, and other flavours are introduced through blending. This forces one to learn the characters of different rums and what their combinations mean in terms of flavour. Initially this is trial and error with some methodical note-keeping (in a leather-bound book, naturally).

One learns the importance of copper, about the aromas of high-ester rum, the dryness of over-proof spirits, the difference between pot-still and column, the unpredictable transformations wrought by barrels… After this comes some compulsive tinkering and batch variation, then hand-bottling and wrapping in brown paper (suggestive of crude fireworks or bags of gunpowder), followed by a lot of word-of-mouth, with pony-express style distribution.

The final result becomes an attempt to encapsulate an era in rum production bracketed between two points.  In his Drake’s Raid on the Treasure Trains (1572-73) Sir Francis Drake records one of his crewmen drinking his aqua vitae without the appropriate watering down. This drunken character, as a consequence, spoils an ambush of a Spanish treasure train. From this early piratical non-event, until the moment when the continuous still was patented in 1831 is the setting and source era for my rum.

Served with a fair swig of naval history, a hint of the unorthodox, and ye have what I personally enjoy in a rum; rich complexity with some high, delicate notes, under-pinned by enough raw intensity to sail through any cocktail, triumphant, cannons blazing, no quarter given, with a capital R!

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