In the time before the American Revolution, no holiday celebration was complete without revelers lifting up glasses of hot buttered rum, or some similar rum concoction, and toasting the night away.
Such was the tradition.
Today, the drink is less popular, due, in part to, its high caloric content. Properly made, one glass of hot buttered contains 300 calories or more. Another factor may be that the drink is laborious to make. Once again, properly made, the drink uses a batter prepared often a month in advance.
The drink is found mostly in homes, said Dan Batto, owner of the Northeast Bartender School. “In my 30 years in business, I never made a hot buttered rum. It is not a popular bar drink. It would be a drink you would make at home,” he said.
His school does not even teach how to make the drink. “It is not on our list. It is nothing you ask a bartender to make,” he said.
People in early America loved to drink, often to excess, and rum was the drink of choice, said Scott Haefner, caretaker of Fort Johnson, the historic home of Sir William Johnson.
“Alcohol consumption in Colonial America by our measures was staggering,” Haefner said. “People drank rum as we drink milk. It was the standard everywhere. Americans drank from the crack of dawn to dusk. Everyone drank it: children, women, men.”
In his book, “Rum: The Epic Story of the Drink that Conquered the World,” Charles Coulombe said rum was an “important component of American holiday celebrations.”
Easy to come by
Rum was popular because it was cheap and easily obtained. “It was a standard in the trading triangle: slaves, molasses and rum,” Haefner said. Rum is made from molasses, which comes from sugar cane. Sugar cane was grown centuries ago on British-possessed Caribbean islands, using slave labor.
“Tea was kept in locked boxes but the poorest farmer would offer you his rum bottle when you visited,” Haefner said. “It was common to break out the bottle during a transaction. No transaction was complete without a drink, usually involving rum.”
The molasses came to America and was turned into rum. Rum composed one-fifth of the Colonial economy, Haefner said. “That and hard cider made up the principal beverages of 18th century America,” he said. “Beer became bigger after the Revolution when our trade to the Caribbean was cut off,” he said. America moved toward grain-based alcohol after the Revolution.
Rum was also the perfect lubricant to help people vote, according to the American Heritage Cookbook. When George Washington was in a race for the legislature in 1758, his agents supplied the Frederick County voters with 160 gallons of rum, beer, wine and ciders, equaling 1 quarts per vote, the cookbook said.
Haefner said Americans, on average, drank half a pint of hard alcohol per person, per day. Sir William Johnson, who frequently entertained American Indians and other guests at his mansion, often went through 34 gallons of rum a month. This is separate of any home-brewed alcohol he may have consumed.
During the holidays, early Americans drank even more alcohol, flavoring their rum with butter, sugar, fruit, spices, even with eggs, creating the egg nog. They would heat their drinks for added effect during the chill months of the year. At the time, they believed hot drinks, which today are known as toddies, quickly restored a person’s body heat after a day spent in the elements. Also, a slug of a hot rum-fortified drink did wonders to ward off the cold in their homes, which were poor insulated, according to literature.
Early Americans believed rum to be nutritious and a strengthener of the body, and the addition of other ingredients just made their favorite drink better, Haefner said. “In the 18th century, water was considered unsafe and the medical science of day said rum was nutritious and helpful,” he said.
Haefner said hot buttered rum was “one of a million rum drinks” of the time.
How butter became an ingredient is a mystery, he said.
Based on the literature, just about every family had its own recipe for hot buttered rum. People used a batter concocted a month in advance and then frozen as a base for the drink. Common batter ingredients of today include sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and up to two cups of butter. Some recipes call for up ice cream in the batter.
To make the drink, a teaspoon or two of batter is put into a mug and hot water is added, followed by an ounce of rum. Some recipes call for the butter to be spooned on top of the hot water and rum mixture. Season with spices. The drink has a smooth, buttery flavor that creates a warm sensation in the stomach.