Hot buttered rum

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Emma Powell

by Charles Upchurch

Quintessentially American, HBR predates the first cocktail jiggered up in this country by more than 200 years. It doesn’t get more old school than a concoction made from ingredients readily found on the average pirate ship. Rum, sugar and spices have been soothing souls since the first barrel of blackstrap molasses was distilled into raw spirit in the early17th century.

The modern version of HBR calls for a simple combination of unsalted butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg – possibly allspice, cloves or vanilla – and a wee pinch of salt. Add a shot of good, dark rum and piping hot water, stir together in a warm mug and float a thin pat of butter on top.  You can vary the ingredients and their measure to find the combination, balance and intensity of flavor that you prefer.
Most recipes call for the preparation of a compound butter, or paste, made of some combination of these ingredients, and refrigerated for up to two months. The HBR is then made by spooning out a healthy dollop of paste then stirring in rum and hot water.  A little vanilla ice cream can be added to make a paste that freezes easily and infuses the mixture with additional flavor. Making paste in advance allows the ingredients to fully mingle and saves prep time later.
In a walk-about survey of a few of my neighbors on a cool autumn afternoon, I learned that while HBR may be a rare indulgence in our Southern latitudes, the Northern transplants among us are well versed in its delights. Jay Dunbar, who lived in Maryland before attending Elon University, said his mother always made a spiced compound butter every year around Thanksgiving. His wife, Maureen, makes her own using butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. “It’s like an 80-proof Moravian cookie,” said Dunbar, a marketing consultant. “It’s nice to be able to just spoon it out, ready to blend with hot water and rum.”
But even with no advance preparation, you can still throw together a bang-up HBR in the time it takes to boil water. Premium rum is the key, since the quality – or lack thereof – will be enhanced when heated. Myers, Bacardi Select, Captain Morgan, Pusser’s, Gosling’s or any number of fine dark or spiced rums can anchor a top-shelf HBR. I’ve been looking for an old, 114-proof British label called Smith & Cross Navy Strength, distilled in Jamaica, bottled in London and so named because if spilled in the hold of an English naval vessel, the wet gunpowder would still ignite.
Which leads to an important distinction regarding HBR. In addition to the 1954 White Christmas version, with Bing ruminating on hot buttered rum and snowy winters in Vermont – eliciting the urge to stoke the fire, put a kettle on and hop into a pair of feety jammies – HBR has another side. Like the steaming frontier grog Spencer Tracy serves up in Northwest Passage while braving the wilds of the Adirondacks during the French and Indian Wars. HBR at its most primitive – rum, sugar, hot water and butter – is the iteration most revered by purists, preferably with a high-proof Jamaican rum. If the water can be heated by inserting a red-hot poker from the fire into the mug, all the better.
Chuck Force, a Rochester, N.Y., native who moved to Raleigh with his wife Kay in 2001, makes HBR every Christmas the same way his grandfather did in the 1940s. “I think he learned it from his grandpa,” said Force, a retired systems engineer. “He used dark Bacardi’s, added sugar and hot water, and dropped in a little butter that melted on top – that’s it.
“I use Myers, but except for that, it’s a recipe that probably goes back at least three generations.”
New York and Boston, in fact, had the first commercial rum distilleries during the colonial period, converting cane syrup from the sugar plantations in Barbados and Jamaica into raw spirits aged in oak casks.  By the late 1600s, rum had begun to replace French brandy as the spirit of choice among the early colonists. Which may explain why my Yankee in-laws are rum drinkers. George Washington, a Southern Renaissance man, was also partial to Jamaican rum and to HBR in particular.
The rum connection extends to North Carolina, of course. While it may not have been on board with Walter Raleigh in 1587, by 1716 when Blackbeard’s flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge was roving from El Caribe to Okracoke, rum, sugar and spices were used as trade currency as well as the frequent contents of Blackbeard’s party chalice. Among rum’s many nicknames is “Kill Devil,” so it’s fair to say that from Kill Devil Hills to points north, south and inland, our state shares a far-traveled kinship with rum.
So even if HBR isn’t in your annual holiday cavalcade of cocktails, chances are there’s a story somewhere in your family’s memory book. I had never tasted HBR until recently, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I had. One of my favorite stories told by my father is this one:
It was Christmas time, 1956, only a month after Mom and Dad’s wedding in Greenville, N.C. They were back in town to spend the holiday and had been invited to visit my mother’s Uncle Jim and his wife Louise, who lived nearby in Little Washington. Jim Hawes was a handsome, athletic physician who had served in World War II. Louise had been an Army nurse. They met in London during the blitz. To my father, they were larger than life.
Jim and Louise lived on the water, along a sandy road where the houses faced the Pamlico River. Arriving in the late afternoon, the newlyweds parked on the front lawn under giant red cedars and Spanish moss. The view across the water, more than a mile, faded into a frigid, winter grey.
Louise took my mother inside the gabled Cape Cod house while Jim directed Dad to a green British roadster and off they went, top down in the chill air, leather shoulder harnesses and all, fog lamps cutting through the mist, headed for the town docks and the five o’clock oyster boats. The waterfront was briny and cold. They tossed a half bushel in the boot and raced back home.
Inside, oak and hickory burned in a big kitchen fireplace. Firewood was piled on the brick floor. Bread was baking. A smaller fire burned in the living room, where two couches were pulled close together. Oysters appeared, iced and on the half shell. From the kitchen, four mugs of hot buttered rum were served.
My parents, Nina and Roy, had never tasted hot buttered rum before.  For Dad, there was something about the scene that foretold a life he never expected, one rich with such moments. It was just like an old movie. Somewhere out over the estuaries, a quiet snow started to fall. Life was just beginning, and life was good.