Rum-maker inspired by pirates

16:00, Nov 01 2011
Ben Simpson
INNOVATOR: Ben Simpson says bartenders like to delve into history to create new drinks.

Made in Wellington, Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum is the closest you will get to the firewater imbibed by 18th-century pirates.

Blended from a selection of Caribbean rums and infused with chilli, pipe tobacco and black gunpowder, this fiery concoction is gaining an explosive reputation in all corners of the globe.

Its creator, Ben Simpson, says inspiration for the rum came from the history books, in particular, the pages relating to the exploits of Caribbean pirates. Fused rum was a central aspect in the lives of seafaring vagabonds. Legend has it the most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard, drowned a pint of rum that was garnished with a fist-full of gunpowder before going into battle.

Simpson began experimenting with fusing gunpowder with rum while working at city drinking hole Motel. "Bartenders are always experimenting, putting their twist on drinks, sometimes going back in history," he says. "It's all about setting trends and pushing boundaries."

Simpson first came up with his gunpowder rum in 2007 and has since been tweaking the recipe. Each batch of rum is aged, hand bottled and wrapped in brown paper before hitting the shelves of a selected few outlets around the country, as well as the top shelves of some of the swankiest bars in London, Paris and New York.

As the name suggests, the rum's key ingredient is traditional black gunpowder – the type used in muzzle-loading muskets – which is a mix of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate.


"The modern stuff has a completely different chemical make-up and is quite poisonous. It's not a case of cracking open a couple of firecrackers and tipping the powder in a glass of rum," Simpson says.

Chilli was a common addition to crudely made spirits, usually to give the impression it was stronger in alcohol content, while the inclusion of tobacco coloured the alcohol and gave it the appearance of a more sophisticated and expensive tipple, such as cognac.

"I've been working in bars for about 20 years. I like making cocktails and this rum works really well – you cannot bury the taste," Simpson says. "It's uncompromising, it's crude, it's fiery."

This year the British CLASS magazine, an industry authority on all things alcoholic, gave the rum a maximum five-star rating and praised Simpson's ingenuity.

It described Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum as having "an explosive nose of graphite, maple syrup and spent shotgun cartridges", followed by an "earthy palate" and "spicy, tingling, phosphorous finish".

"Sip, light touch paper, stand back and ponder the Kiwi mentality."


The need for a stiff drink is the most likely reason black gunpowder found its way into the swigging tankards of 18th- century sailors.

Royal Navy bootnecks, suspicious their commanding officers were watering down the rum stocks, would crudely determine their daily ration's strength by holding a flame to gunpowder doused in the spirit.

If the rum and gunpowder mix burned with a blue flame then it was deemed 100 per cent proof spirit – or more than 57.1 per cent alcohol per volume.

And not wanting to waste good grog, the gunpowder rum was duly drunk – and enjoyed.

Other theories include sailors storing rum in readily available large containers, which were often freshly depleted oak gunpowder kegs.

Seafarers on long journeys would also add a small portion of rum to barrels of drinking water to help keep it fresh, while adding a sprinkle of gunpowder would further extend the water's lifespan due to the preservative qualities of the sulphur in the gunpowder.

Some historians believe the notoriety of gunpowder rum arose among Caribbean pirates after aspects of Haitian voodoo ritual were appropriated.

According to legend, a voodoo pledge was sealed with a sip of rum fused with gunpowder, tobacco, human blood and soil from a freshly dug grave.

Other historical booze buffs believe gunpowder was simply added to rum to give bragging rights to those who were able to stomach the tart concoction – a modern-day equivalent of necking a flaming Sambuca down the pub in front of your mates (displays of toughness and reckless bravado ware essential prerequisites for any budding 18th- century pirate.)

The Jack Tar

1oz S & O's Gunpowder Rum

12 oz Campari

12 oz dry curacao/triple sec (optional)

San Pellegrino Chinotto (a bitter orange soft drink)

An orange wedge, for garnish

Combine the rum, Campari and curacao (if using), in an ice-filled glass. Top with the chinotto. Add garnish. Swig.

The Dominion Post