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The Best of History’s Rum Cocktails Brought to Life

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Bringing authentic rum punch back, one snazzy punch bowl at a time.

Rum is a spirit with serious legs. From Colonial-era flips to whimsical tiki fantasies, the molasses-based spirit has been an important part of drinking life over the last two-plus centuries. These days, industrious bars across the U.S. have taken classic rum cocktails and yanked them headlong into the 21st century. Drink up: This is history, alive and in drinking color.


1. The Flip

The Backstory: Made with rum, beer and molasses in a tankard and served hot, the flip was a tavern staple in the 1700s. Rum historian Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum, pegs this drink, heated with a poker from the fireplace, as “the most famous early American rum drink,” with references appearing as early as 1690. The drink took shape as the colonial taste for home-brewed beer and hard cider began to fade, displaced by an abiding thirst for stronger liquors—namely, rum.

Bring History to Life: Root Beer Flizzip (Sugar House, Detroit, MI)
No hot poker needed for this foamy cocktail with attitude, built from molasses-rich Cruzan Black Strap Rum, Art in the Age Root Liqueur and a whole egg and garnished with grated nutmeg.

2. Cuba Libre

The Backstory: At heart, this is a fancy rum & Coke—with a squeeze of lime. The drink’s history is as murky as the drink itself, but the prevailing theory is that the Cuba Libre dates to Havana around 1900, after the Spanish-American War. Cuba Libre (“Free Cuba”) was the battle cry during that conflict, which led to Cuban independence.

Bring History to Life: Cuba Libre  (Pleasant Storage Room, Austin, TX)
A free-flowing Cuba Libre, served on draft. Its components: Matusalem Ron Classico, house-made “Pleasant cola,” key lime and Angostura bitters.

3. Planter’s Punch

The Backstory: Considered a class of drink, with hundreds of variations rather than a single cocktail recipe, this fruity punch has its roots in the late 1800s. Rum expert Wayne Curtis says the ultimate version might have been this one made at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. Here’s how it was described by a writer who tried it in the 1920s: “A planter’s punch is made of pure Jamaica rum, a little cane syrup, cracked ice along with a slice of native pineapple and orange to make it more attractive. If one is at all fussy one can have a cherry in it too.”

Bring History to Life:  Counter Punch (The Dead Rabbit, New York, NY)
Juicy and intensely aromatic, this punch variation—served in a punch bowl, of course—combines Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey with a mix of Jamaican rums, fresh lemon juice, oolong tea and spiced pimento dram.

4. Mojito

The Backstory: For U.S. drinkers, the muddled icon came out of seemingly nowhere in the 1990s. But Curtis puts its origins in Cuba in the early 1900s, where the Mojito was treated as an improved rum Collins—made with rum, sugar, lime and, of course, plenty of mint.

Bring History to Life:  Green Tea Agave Mojito (The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, Hollywood, FL)
A diet fad–driven take on the Mojito? Yes: This virtuous version is made with organic agave and iced organic green tea, as well as rum, lime juice and mint.

5. Daiquiri

The Backstory: The original Daiquiri was (one of) writer Ernest Hemingway’s cocktails of choice during the 1930s, when he lived in Havana during the waning years of Prohibition. According to writer Philip Greene (To Have and to Have Another), at La Floridita, where Papa was a regular, Hemingway even had a special version of the Daiquiri named for him.

Bring History to Life:  Bacall Daiquiri (The Hawthorne, Boston, MA)
This vibrant-hued variation is made with La Favorite Ambre Rhum, blood orange and lime juices, and demerara syrup.

(Photo courtesy Michael Tulipan)

6. Mai Tai

The Backstory: The war over who invented the Mai Tai has raged on for over half a century. Was the tropical drink created by Donn Beach or Trader Vic? Tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry claims that Trader Vic’s version—created in his Oakland bar circa 1944 and made with Jamaican and Martinique rums, orange curacao and orgeat—is the superior contender. We believe him.

Bring History to Life: Ginger Mai Tai (The Woods, Brooklyn, NY)
In a backyard bar that’s seen its share of tiki-fied revelry, this variation features gold and dark rums, ginger syrup, orgeat syrup and fresh lime juice.

7. Piña Colada

The Backstory: The venerable blender drink celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, having been created in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar. Myriad variations exist, but the drink typically includes white rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice and crushed ice combined in an electric blender until smooth and icy, then garnished with a pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry.

Bring History to Life: Pumpkin Colada (Cana Rum Bar, Los Angeles, CA)
This seasonal, sophisticated take is made with Knob Creek 100-proof rye, Lemon Hart 151 rum, pumpkin butter, coconut cream and organic pumpkin purée.

The Backstory: Mount Gay Rum Think a classic Manhattan must be made with whiskey? Think again. America began as a nation of loyal rum drinkers, and the 18th century’s muddled rum drinks gave rise to modern cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned. Mount Gay hails from that same era, boasting 300 years of rum-crafting experience on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Made with nature’s finest resources—coral limestone–filtered water and rich molasses—Mount Gay’s aged rums are bold and full-bodied, with hints of caramel, vanilla, banana and spice. Creating rums since 1703, Mount Gay is actually the first known rum—The Original Spirit.

Sir John Gay, the “father of Barbadian rum,” refined and innovated the process of distilling rum using double copper pot stills, a method perfected by generations of master blenders after him. Matured in charred white oak barrels, Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum has a distinct smoky character that pairs perfectly with a Manhattan’s sweet vermouth and bitters. Reunite the iconic cocktail with its original spirit, and discover how even the classics can taste new again.

Bring History to Life: The Black Key A unique twist on the Manhattan, The Black Key channels the late days of fall with Mount Gay Black Barrel’s rich, dark appeal and warm spice notes. Inspired by the prospect of finding an old turnkey that may open secret treasures, this cocktail is similarly full of possibility. Maple syrup and a mix of a Angostura and orange bitters enhance the rum’s charred oak flavors, and make this a comforting cold-weather cocktail. You may never drink a rye Manhattan again.

Kara Newman is a New York-based spirits and cocktail writer, and author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).

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