My father was born in Trieste, Italy, to a Sicilian father and an Austrian mother. My mother was born in Massachusetts. Her mother was DAR-American from Norway, Maine and her father was Welsh, but born in Matamoros, Mexico and raised in Arizona after his family was chased there by Pancho Villa. My wife is Irish-Luxembourger-German, via pre-Hollywood Los Angeles, Wisconsin and various spots on the frontier. So holiday traditions? How do you choose? Do I give my Christmas cheer a rocket-assisted take-off with granita di caffe con panna (a childhood favorite)? With hot, spiced wine? Rompope? A good, Midwestern Tom & Jerry? I suppose if I were clever I would make up some unholy blend that nods to each of those traditions. But that just sounds like work, and who wants to work during the holidays? Instead, I apply rule 17: given a choice of drinks, always go with the strongest and simplest. In this case, that means my other childhood favorite, hot buttered rum. Maine in da Hizzouse (as they’ve never said back in ol’ Norway)! Nothing simpler or more warming. And boy, howdy do these get your cheer off the ground.
For as long as Americans (and Proto Americans) have been taking strong spirits and tossing bits and bobs of other things into them to make the flavor more interesting, they’ve also sought hot drinks for the cold season or for use in circumstances in which leeches and cupping were insufficient medicine. Indeed, before there was such a thing as a cocktail, in the middle 1700s, there were Toddies and Slings, somewhat interchangeable versions of the same thing—spirits, water and sugar—served hot or cold, sometimes with a bit of nutmeg grated on top to finish, and sometimes not. If a lemon peel was used in the mixing, it was neither of those things, but rather a Skin.
Accounts of the time differ as to what makes a drink a Toddy or a Sling, with different sources calling cold versions one thing and hot the other, but they are both the basic foundation upon which cocktails come to rest, and the hot versions, in particular, soothe on those cool nights or when your chest is compacted with catarrh. But, with a little flourish added, and by the Colonial period, there were flourishes to be found, it becomes something even more pleasing, and such is the case with Hot Buttered Rum.
It Comes From New England
There is no doubt about the origins of Hot Buttered Rum. Not long after the colonists set foot upon Plymouth Rock and began to carve out a future in the New World, the Triangular Trade brought molasses in quantity into New England, and with excess of organic material comes distillation. Up until the time of Prohibition, New England was a major rum producer and the label of origin on your casks or bottles of rum were just as likely to read “Providence,” “Medford,” or “Boston” as they were to read “Cuba,” “Jamaica” or “Guyana.”
In those days before easy rail, air or road shipping, great quantities of the stuff were consumed in the local market, and rum was the house pour as soon as you got north of New York or New Jersey. Take your rum, and mix in sugar and water, and you have, for simplicity’s sake, a sling if the thing is made with cold water and a toddy if that water is hot.
Imagine now, in particular, a New England winter before the advent of double pane windows, central heat, fiberglass insulation and global warming. Think also of a subsistence diet, in which the bounty of the summer growing season is but a memory, save for what you have been able to preserve or can (or make into hooch). Think of the cold and the hunger and the long nights and the wind and snow. Toddy would seem just the thing, and the strong local rum is readily available and affordable to lighten those heavy, meager nights.
But better still would be a drink with the soporific effect of the toddy, but also the addition of something else, something with nutritional use and apt for the climate. Something with fat. Thankfully, there is a cow in the pasture and a churn in the kitchen, and sweet butter is one of the few luxuries available. What happens if you plop a dollop of that butter into your hot, sweetened mix of rum and water? The flavors round out, the rougher edges are smoothed, and the chill is further removed from your bones.
No one knows who was the first to take a tankard or mug, toss in some Medford Rum, some sugar, water and butter and heat the thing with a red hot poker pulled from the fire, but by the mid-1700s, the drink was commonplace throughout New England and spreading to the far corners of the colonies when a chill was in the air. George Washington was known to be fond of Hot Buttered Rum and it would have been available in every tavern with a fireplace, a bottle of rum and access to butter (i.e., all of them).
A Note on Ingredients: The Butter
When making Hot Buttered Rum, choose a good quality butter and make sure it is unsalted. While salted butter is delicious on toast, it clashes in this drink. Many modern recipes also call for whipping the butter with a sugared spice mix. On this, there is decided disagreement, with many finding the combination of rum, butter, sugar and spice delicious, while purists, like David Wondrich urge you to “resist the impulses to make a butter-sugar-spice batter or use cider rather than water. In Maine, that would mark you as a Communist.”
Great minds can differ on this point, but the many contemporary recipes that call for whipping up a batter that is a mixture of butter, sugar, spice and vanilla ice cream, while perhaps tasty, stray far from the simple essence of Hot Buttered Rum, and should be considered another drink altogether.
But, reach for the best butter you can find. Plugrá European-Style Butter is fantastic here (and in just about anything). Despite the protestations of one Charles Browne in the Gun Club Drink Book, the butter is not just “to lubricate your mustache.” Break out the good stuff.
The Cider House Rule
Rather early on in the life of Hot Buttered Rum, as noted by Wondrich, there were some who replaced the water with apple cider. This makes for a very different drink, one that has its own pleasures, but that is not nearly as ruggedly simple as the original, and more apt for the slight chill of autumn than the bone cold of winter. Those who choose to go this route should consider that non-alcoholic apple cider of the time would have been fresh pressed and consumed rather quickly during the time of the apple harvest. This is a flavor profile that is difficult to replicate with juice from the shelf of your local grocery store, so proceed accordingly and feel free to give it a try if you have access to good quality, fresh, real apple cider. If not, stay away.
A Note on Ingredients: The Rum
The rum produced in Colonial New England was rough stuff indeed, pure pirate juice made palatable by aging in barrels, and it would have been dark, strong and viscous, with the heavier body of pot distilled spirits. Choose something dark, strong and with a bit of funk. The Smith & Cross Navy Strength you brought in for your Tom & Jerry will be nice here, if a little stout. True Medford Rum is poised to return to the market, but any flavorful dark rum will work here. Meyer’s is acceptable, Bacardi Select is better, but the rich, dark Demerara Rums from Guyana are outstanding here. In particular, Lemon Heart 80 Proof, if you can find it, or El Dorado Five Year Old (go older, but not younger), will really shine.
A Recipe: Hot Buttered Rum (original)
2 oz. Good Quality Dark Rum
3-4 oz. Water
1 teaspoon raw sugar
Unsalted Butter, softened
Rinse a heat proof mug with very hot water to warm it. Add rum, sugar, water and a hazelnut sized piece of butter (about 2 Tbsp). Remove a hot poker from the fire and plunge it into the mixture until it begins to bubble. Remove poker and stir to combine ingredients. Top with fresh grated nutmeg if you wish (and you should wish).
If hot pokers are unavailable: Rinse a heat proof mug with very hot water to warm it. Add sugar to the mug and top with about an ounce of boiling water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add rum, the remainder of the water and a hazelnut sized piece of butter (about 2 Tbsp). Top with fresh grated nutmeg if you wish (and you should wish).
Spiced Hot Buttered Rum Batter
If you elect to be considered a Communist in the great state of Maine, you can make a spiced butter-sugar batter for your Hot Buttered Rum. After compounding the batter, proceed as above, but omit the sugar. Feel Free to vary the level of spice and sugar here to taste, this is a rough guide.
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 4oz stick unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
Combine all ingredients until thoroughly integrated in a mixing bowl. Makes about eight servings.