Rum and Flip

In our survey of sugar and molasses in chapter 6, we did not particularly emphasize their close connection with certain beverages. International trade in sugar, molasses, rum, chocolate, tea, and coffee all arose and flourished interdependently. Demand for refined white sugar was crucially linked to its use as a sweetener in chocolate, tea, and coffee. What concerns us now is the principal use of sugar's cheaper cousin, molasses. From the very beginnings of the West Indian sugar cane industry, molasses was made the basis of ''Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, ... a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.''10

In 1651, when this characterization was made, rum was already being distilled in the North American colonies—and especially in New England—

as well as in the sugar islands themselves. By 1770 there were 144 rum distilleries in the colonies, 98 (or 68 percent) of them in New England. The 5 million gallon output of these domestic distilleries in that year supplied about 60 percent of the total colonial consumption of 8.5 million gallons. In view of the particularly high incidence of distilleries in New England, an even higher proportion of the total rum consumption there may have been of domestic rum.11

Domestically distilled rum was ''an inexpensive alternative" to West Indian rum, say John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard. In the 1770s, at a tavern in Holden, Massachusetts, famed for making especially good flip, a mug of flip made with New England rum cost nine pence, and one made with the ''West India" product cost eleven pence. Rum had already by 1686 become cheap enough and widely enough consumed to come to the attention of a leading New England clergyman, Increase Mather. ''It is an unhappy thing that in later [recent] years a kind of drink called rum has been common among us," Mather complained. ''They that are poor and wicked, too, can for a penny make themselves drunk."12

In the eighteenth century Edmund Burke stated that New Englanders were ''more famous for the quantity and cheapness than for the excellency of their rum." Such judgments were as little heeded as those of our own day on, say, the beer produced by major American breweries. Half a century later, a Yankee herbalist conceded that when New England rum was fresh from the distillery, ''the odour and taste is so disagreeable that it is not fit to be drunk by the human species." However, the writer had found by his ''own observation'' that if New England rum was allowed to age, and especially if it was ''carried to sea'' for a good long spell (eighteen months in the example given), it would emerge ''free from any disagreeable smell'' and would also have ''a very pleasant taste." Not quite a ringing endorsement.13

The figure given above for overall rum consumption in the colonies in 1770 works out, at the least, to slightly more than one-eighth of a pint (2.5 ounces) per inhabitant per day—more than four times the amount drunk in the same year by the average inhabitant of Great Britain. This assumes that everyone drank rum, which is a safe assumption. While rum was handed out with particular liberality to laborers, ''as a source of energy while performing hard manual work,'' it was also readily available to women. In one community, Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth century, rum arrived mostly from Boston, though at what ratio of domestic to West Indian is unknown. Once it arrived, it was exchanged so commonly among the people of the area that a historian attempting to keep track of it states that references to it, along with those to cider, ''could not be fully recorded" in her database. Other scholars state that rum ''was bought by every class of Deerfielders in amazing quantity." One seventy-six-year-old woman purchased three quarts in the year of her death, 1754.14

So Baron Friedrich von Riedesel, commander of German mercenaries in the Revolutionary War and later a prisoner of war, was perhaps guilty of understatement when he restricted to the male inhabitants the ''strong passion for strong drink, especially rum" that he observed among New Englanders. And maybe John Adams wasn't being all that hyperbolic when during his tenure as U.S. president he observed regarding the Greek and Roman cult of the god of wine that ''if the ancients drank wine as our people drink rum and cider, it is no wonder we hear of so many possessed with devils.'' We have already noted that, with cider, Adams made his own contributions to New England bibulousness.15

The herbalist who damned Yankee rum with faint praise claimed that ''good rum properly diluted with water, sweetened with sugar, and drank with moderation, strengthens the lax fibres, incrassates the thin fluids, and warms the habit. It proves the most beneficial to those exposed to heat, moisture, corrupted air, and putrid diseases." So if you want your lax fibers strengthened and your thin fluids incrassated, get yourself a hogshead or two of Medford rum, send it around the world a couple of times on a Yankee clipper, and bottoms up!16

A form of spirits so universally consumed was bound to give birth to various mixed drinks. One of these was ''black-strap,'' made with rum and yet more molasses. Tavern keepers would hang a piece of salt cod in proximity to their supplies of black-strap, in hopes that the customer who ate some of the cod would get thirsty and call for another round of the black-strap. In the opinion of Josiah Quincy, ''this black-strap was truly the most outrageous ... of all the detestable American drinks on which our inventive genius has exercised itself."17

The most popular mixed drink made with rum was flip. It is a toss-up whether to designate flip as a derivative of rum or of its other principal ingredient, beer. It was made by mixing sugar, molasses, or dried pumpkin with ''strong beer'' and a gill (quarter pint) of rum. A red-hot iron poker (called variously a ''loggerhead,'' ''flip-dog,'' or ''hottle'') was thrust into the liquor, making it ''foam and bubble and mantle high,'' and giving it ''the burnt bitter taste so dearly loved.'' At one tavern, if not more, the custom was to enhance the flip with a compound of cream, eggs, and sugar. An additional fresh egg beaten in after the loggerhead had worked its magic would cause the froth to spill out over the top of the mug. Such a spectacle warranted a special name — "bellows-top."18

Flip-dogs were in such constant use that they frequently had to be sent to the village blacksmith for repair. One such repair demonstrates how the colonial New England economy was comprised of an interplay between long-distance exchange via the international markets and local exchange or barter. In compensation for his labors, the blacksmith received not cash but goods from his neighbor the tavern keeper's available resources. But the goods were an imported commodity—two gills of "West India Rum at 4d"

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