The U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War drove Spain out of the Western Hemisphere; shifted control of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii to the U.S. and forced the world to reckon with a 122-year-old country as a Pacific superpower. Yet many Americans had just one question after the Spaniards signed a peace treaty: What’s to drink?
A column printed in the Dec. 28, 1898, edition of The Charleston Evening Post put the matter this way: “With the annexation of the new territory by the United States, the nimble-fingered dispenser of liquid refreshments finds it incumbent upon him to extend his repertoire, while the devotee of Bacchus has thrust upon him newly and strangely compounded assuagers of the demon thirst.” In other words, American bartenders and drinkers alike were about to make the acquaintance of Caribbean rums and pimento dram.
Rum, of course, has been served in South Carolina since Colonial days. But the Spanish-American War did wonders for its turn-of-the-century reputation. While it’s highly implausible that an American soldier wandered into Daiquiri, Cuba, and realized in a flash that the island’s rum, lime juice and sugar could be combined in a way that had somehow eluded locals, there are enough folk stories along those lines to link the cocktail’s popularization with the period. Still, the drink that’s usually listed among the spoils of war is the Cuba Libre, or rum-and-Coke.
“Rum and Coca-Cola is, by any measure, a drink of inspired blandness, with its two main ingredients both plentiful and cheap,” rum historian Wayne Curtis writes. Curtis notes the claim that Fausto Rodriguez in 1900 initiated the Cuba Libre craze by ordering Bacardi and Coke in a Cuban bar is fiction. (His tipoff? The tale first appeared in a 1966 ad for Bacardi, where Rodriguez ran the PR department.) But the idea that Coke came to Cuba with U.S. troops isn’t so far-fetched.
No drink as crude as rum-and-Coke was cited in the Evening Post’s cocktail overview. Instead, the column suggested the hottest thing in Havana was made from curacao, maraschino, brandy and lemon juice, which is essentially a brandy crusta. Other featured drinks included rum with molasses and pimento dram, associated with Puerto Rico; mulled rice wine, attributed to the Philippines; and from Hawaii, fermented coffee molasses.
“For ‘long drinks,’ residents of the Philippines have compounded two delicious beverages,” the columnist confided. One was made of rum, herbs and citrus peel; the other called for “parts of all the fruits available.” The punch was completed by curacao, maraschino, brandy and rum.
“I think this method of bottling a punch is something that people would really like to do at home,” Joe Raya of The Gin Joint says. Although Raya wasn’t persuaded by the recipe’s proportions — “I mean, I don’t include that many lemons and limes” — he judged the basic technique sound.
“Like, let’s say you’re having a party, and you have leftover stuff,” Raya says. “Then this would be the perfect way to use it. And the recipe is so non-specific; it really opens you up to trying your own thing.”
Raya suspects many 19th-century readers were better equipped than contemporary Americans to make sense of the punch recipe, which he calls “just vague enough to hold up.” Perhaps they were motivated by reverence for the fruits they were preserving, he adds.
“People were aware of the specialness of things that had perishability,” he says. “It was like, ‘Wow, we got a pineapple: Let’s celebrate.’ What do we have to get that excited about now? You’d have to get something like a day off.”