Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Yo ho ho and a bottle of screech!

Rum. The very word conjures up visions of sandy beaches, warm salt breezes, coconut-laden palm trees, frothy blender drinks. What it does not generally bring to mind is Newfoundland. Of late, I find it should.

I was wandering the booze aisle of my local supermarket, as I am wont to do, browsing for something new. Since it’s still too cold (43° F) and snowy (nearly two feet yet in my backyard) for gin and tonics, I lingered wistfully in the rum section until a bottle caught my eye: Famous Newfoundland Screech Rum/Rhum. A lovely deep maple-brown color, it glowed bourbon-like amid its white and pale golden neighbors. I had to have it and brought it home with me.

According to the folklore, true “screech” was first developed in the 18th century when the same wooden barrels transported both rum and molasses from the West Indies to points north. These barrels were almost never cleaned and quickly built up a thick, sticky coating which was melted out with boiling water and either itself fermented or added to grain alcohol (the quick and dirty route). The end product was crazy-strong and incredibly harsh, and can apparently still be purchased under the table in Newfoundland.

The Screech Rum available for legitimate sale by the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation has a slightly different background, being true rum distilled in Jamaica. While it may not have the hardcore pedigree of its moonshine-esque predecessor, Famous Newfoundland Screech Rum/Rhum does continue to lay claim to the legend behind the name: In WWII, the commanding officer of the first U.S. detachment in Newfoundland and was offered some local rum as an after dinner drink. Seeing the Newf host toss back the shot, the American thought to do the same but was completely unprepared for the ferociousness of the alcohol, turning several shades of purple and letting out a scream that was heard for miles. The American soldiers outside rushed to their leader’s aid, demanding “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?” The Newfoundlander who opened the door replied, “The screech? ‘Tis the rum.”

Screech Rum is liquor that makes its presence known. It is not meant to be hidden in a daiquiri or a frilly pina colada; you sip this rum as you would a small-batch bourbon or a single malt scotch, neat or with an ice cube. It is not spiced but deeply carameled with a hint of molasses – indeed, there is no need for added flavorings with this rum. Folks who drink Malibu coconut rum will not be able to stomach this tough, award-winning rum. Those who can drink it are in for a treat.

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