Colonial Theraflu: Hot Buttered Rum

Last summer I dusted off my bartender’s chops and made a deep dive into the artisinal cocktail craze with a specific focus on Tiki drinks and Italian apertos and vegetals. This fall my focus is on stuff the American colonists drank.

I majored in American History, and two of the best two courses were David Brion Davis‘ course on Jacksonian Democracy and Michael Coe’s seminar on colonial archaeology. Both featured a focus on the important place alcohol had in early America and taken together I got a great introduction into American’s domestic life between 1600 and 1850. Everyone knows the old timers were big drinkers.  Really big drinkers. I mean these people drank alcohol the way modern fat people drink Fanta. The per capita consumption was huge — primarily beer and rum, the latter being the basis of the three-legged Salem slave trade that had New England merchants carrying slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and then molasses from the islands to distilleries around Boston.

“Colonists … enjoyed alcoholic beverages with such names as Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip. If they indulged too much, then they had dozens of words to describe drunkenness. Benjamin Franklin collected more than 200 such terms, including addled, afflicted, biggy, boozy, busky, buzzey, cherubimical, cracked, and “halfway to Concord.” Drinking in America: Colonial Williamsburg.

The origins of the first “cocktail” is attributed to antebellum New Orleans, and has something to do with French bitters, absinthe and American rye whiskey, resulting in the classic Sazerac. In the publick houses and taverns of New England, the drinks were mainly rum based and often served hot. Now they are being revived and the result is kind of interesting, basically like drinking stuff that tastes like liquified pumpkin pie with a kick.

In September, shortly before the end of the yachting season, I was mooring the boat after the sunset when the person helping me forgot to tie off the painter (nautical term for “rope attached to the bow of a small boat for purposes of securing it) to the motorboat (you know who you are Marta).  As I furled the sail I looked up to see the motorboat drifting away towards North Bay. I stripped off my shirt, flexed my muscled torso for the benefit of the ladies, and plunged into the autumnal seas with a gonad-shrinking gasp. The boat was returned, all was well, but I “caught a chill” — code for “I need a drink”  — and at the restaurant that evening, while waiting at the bar for a table, I saw that the drink special that had been chalked on the blackboard was a Hot Buttered Rum.

I was cold.

The drink was hot.

I had become cold while sailing.

Sailors drink rum.

I was tempted but ….

… Bad memories of hot buttered rum gave me pause. I had made them for customers at the Balboa Cafe in San Francisco in the early 80s.  Like a grand total of two of them. The pre-made “mix” was a brown paste that came in a plastic cottage cheese kind of container. It was disgusting stuff. A dollop was spooned into an irish coffee glass, hot water was added to a shot of dark rum, everything got a quick muddle to break it up and melt it and the steaming mess was shoved in the direction of the weirdo who ordered it. No one ordered hot buttered rum. Ever. So the brown paste was of some dubious vintage and I never took a test sip to confirm that it was horrible. It smelled like the basket of dried flowers my mother put on the back of the toilet tank to cover up bad odors.  This is odd because the Balboa was, I argue, the first bar in America to kick off the artisinal cocktail movement – no mixes were uses, all juices were carefully squeezed as needed, and bartenders like me were expected not only to know complex classics, but expected to make them perfectly. The fact we phoned in hot buttered rum was lost on me until this fall when the bartender at Mashpee’s Trevi showed me how it’s supposed to be done.

This was the same bar that turned me onto the evil French 75 earlier in the summer, so with some trust in my heart I ordered one. The bartender built it from scratch. A tablespoon of good butter, a couple tablespoons of dark brown sugar, some fresh grated nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, a shot of really dark Kraken rum, then a trip to the steam nozzle on the espresso machine to get it boiling. He garnished it with a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick.

It was awesome. It was the perfect drink. I felt like I was wearing shoes with pewter buckles, white panty hose, a big white floppy bow tie and a stove pipe Pilgrim hat. I was ready to join Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin and throw frozen dog poop snowballs at the Red Coats in front of the old Statehouse, toss some tea into the harbor, and plot some Manifest Destiny.  I shared it. One person said, “It’s Theraflu for Pilgrims.” That seemed appropriate, especially since the prior Theraflu analogy has been applied to the complimentary lemoncello that restaurants in Florence like to pour at the end of every meal but missed the fact that Theraflu is generally served in a mug of hot water.

It was so good I had to recreate it. I spent some time online searching out recipes. I made a batch and thought it pretty good (but not as good as the one at Trevi). I was biased because I made it, but no one else hanging around my kitchen was exactly clamoring for one, so I guess it falls into the category of acquired taste or total failure.

The hipster artisanal cocktail subculture has seized on reviving the classics from the golden age of cocktails, and with all obsessive (and bloggable) fads, that subculture is spawning branches into Tiki cocktails (Mai Tais, Fog Cutters, Zombies, etc.), vegetals (homemade nocino, Cynar, Aperol, etc.), boutique distilled gin, etc. etc. etc. etc.  The colonial branch in the mixology fad is focused on punches, flips, Bishops, shandy’s, cobblers, mulled ciders, wines,  etc..  This list of new bars from the New York Times caught my eye, primarily because of the news that a new place is opening on Broad Street, the Dead Rabbit:

DEAD RABBIT Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, veterans of the Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast, and Danny McDonald, who owns the Manhattan bars Puck Fair and Swift, collaborate on this historically minded three-story cocktail bar just around the corner from Fraunces Tavern in the financial district. The ambitious spot (named after a notorious 19th-century street gang) intends to combine two of the area’s bygone drinking destinations: the sort of taproom patronized by immigrants and a sporting man’s cocktail lounge. Expect punch, bishops, flips, cups and cobblers, and food. (Late November): 30 Water Street (Broad Street).”

And yes, hot pokers were used to heat up these things, but having converted the fireplace into a gas insert, I am not planning on brandishing any red-hot pokers around my glassware any time soon. This guy made his own, which I think is awesome:

The full story is at


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