It has been a summer of British anniversaries: Sgt. Pepper's at 50, OK Computer at 20, the death of Princess Di. Less recognized but maybe culturally as important, today is the 47th anniversary of Black Tot Day -- the final day that the Royal Navy served its sailors their daily ration of rum.
The ration, or tot, dated back to the 17th century, when rum replaced beer as the Navy's choice of crew libation. Beer kept better than water on board, but it was also heavy to carry and could turn sour. Caribbean slave plantations that produced sugar and rum had recently come under British control as part of its ongoing tussle with Spain, and those plantations were more than happy to tout the merits of a government-mandated rum ration.
The initial ration was a half-pint of rum a day. For predictable reasons, including an explosion in popular culture portrayals of drunken sailors, the ration was eventually reduced, and reduced again. It was only an 8th of a pint a day (about two ounces) by the time the military pulled the plug in 1970, on the grounds that the increasingly complex and expensive technology the Navy was deploying was incompatible with the hands that held the tot. The final serving was known as the Black Tot, and many sailors wore black armbands for the ceremony.
This actually left the British government in a bit of a quandary, since under normal purchasing plans they had already stockpiled a fair amount of rum, which they, now had no legal use for. The leftover rum became known as the Black Tot "Last Consignment," and it has been gradually released commercially. In 2010, to mark the 40th anniversary of Black Tot Day, some 6,000 bottles were sold off, at $1,000 a bottle. There are bars in London, New York and elsewhere that list Black Tot Rum on their menus, selling shots for high double-digits. (This for rum that was by all best guesses distilled in the 1940s.)
The Last Consignment may or may not be worth the price -- I like this equivocal review -- but you don't need Black Tot Rum to mark Black Tot Day. Any rum drink will do. In the summer, we're partial to the Dark 'N' Stormy, made with Gosling's Black Seal Rum. (This is the rare trademarked cocktail, meaning nobody is allowed to serve something called a Dark 'N Stormy unless they use Gosling's rum. Fortunately, Gosling's is delicious in this drink.) It's simple, just some good ginger beer and some Gosling's, in a 3:2 ratio. Some recipes call for fresh lime juice, but we prefer a lime garnish, which gives you a squeeze without overpowering the drink. However you like it, remember to toast the sailors and their rums gone by.
Today, according to whoever decides these things, is National Tequila Day in the United States. We could argue that it's odd to have a national day for a liquor that can't be legally produced in this country, but why quibble when you have an excuse to drink tequila?
Tequila has a fascinating backstory, well worth appreciating while you're slurping a margarita or sipping a glass of fine anejo, neat (the way most Mexicans drink it). It is derived from the blue agave plant, which is, for the record, not a cactus. It's a succulent with large, spear-like leaves that grows in west-central Mexico. It is one of many varieties of agave in Mexico, which collectively were known to the Aztecs as maguey plants. Maguey were an important source of both food and drink in pre-Columbian cultures, who squeezed the plants' nubbly cores (the pina) to extract sap that they fermented to produce a mildly alcoholic drink called pulque. The Aztecs were so enamored of the plant and its products that they assigned it its own deity, Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey. The sap of the agave was her blood.
Into this sacred relationship of people and plants came, of course, the Spanish. While conquering and colonizing in the 1500s, the invaders tended to run dry on whatever hooch they had brought with them across the Atlantic. Looking for locally sourced intoxicants, they seized on pulque -- and found it not nearly potent enough for their tastes. So they applied their alcoholic know-how and distilled the milky liquid to its essence. The result was the smoky kick in the head we call mezcal. The spirit derived from the blue agave in particular had its own distinct distillation process and flavor profile, and eventually took on the name of the largest city in its growing region: Tequila.
Tequila is now a geographically protected "appellation of origin" product, meaning it -- like Champagne or Rioja -- can only be produced in its native territory. (This primacy was even recognized in the North American Free Trade Agreement.) Its subsequent adoption as the party drink of choice of generations of U.S. vacationers and college students is well known, with the requisite salt and lime acquired along the way. Recent years have seen a growing appreciation here for the full range of tequilas, which are distinguished primarily by how long they are aged. The cocktail commandos at Death and Co in New York City even brought the drink back to its spiritual origins with an agave bar named for Mayahuel. Sadly, that bar will be closing next month, a victim of rising Manhattan rents.
Fortunately, you can pay tribute to the goddess in your own fashion. We at Libacious suggest a siesta, pictured above, which adds grapefruit and Campari for a brisk summer cooler. ¡Salud!
Welcome to The Muddler! We'll be using this blog to tell stories, share bits of knowledge and history, and generally celebrate the world of mixed drinks.
As a first entry, we'll get this perennial puzzle out of the way: When should you shake a drink, when should you stir it, and what difference does it really make?
A quick Internet search will give you a range of opinions on this subject, but most people agree on a few general rules:
Simple enough, but why? In both cases, you are really trying to accomplish two different things -- blending the ingredients for consistency throughout the glass, and (when there's ice involved, which is usually) chilling the drink and drawing off a little water from the ice for dilution, which helps smooth your mixture.
In a drink with all clear liquids, for example a Negroni (gin, vermouth and Campari), stirring will be sufficient to bring them together. Anything rougher will aerate the drink and give you bubbles that will turn it slightly cloudy, detracting from its crisp appearance. With liquids of different weights or acidity, the more vigorous action of the shake will ensure a thorough blend -- and in some cases, say in a drink with egg whites or dairy, you need the aeration to give you the foam or fizz you're looking for.
My favorite experiment on this topic comes from the adventurous souls at Booze Nerds, who a few years ago decided to put the conventional wisdom to the test. You can read all about their results here, but the bottom line is that the rules held up.
But wait, you say -- what about James Bond? In Ian Fleming's books and the movies derived from them, the spy who loves martinis almost always orders them "Shaken, not stirred." That's a clear-liquid drink that any bar manual will tell you ought to be stirred over ice and decanted. How could the suave defender of Her Majesty's honor make such a blunder? There are assorted theories, none definitive. There is some evidence that Fleming, a dedicated day drinker, preferred his martinis prepared with a shake. There is also the suggestion that it was a way of signifying Bond's rough-and-tumble roots -- he's more of a brawler than a gentleman. Whatever the reason, it has no doubt led to generations of first-time martini drinkers giving the same instruction to indulgent bartenders the world over. And why not? At Libacious, we'll give you our best advice on drink preparation, but we're happy to make it your way.