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Bumbo Mumbo Jumbo

November 4, 2011

This isn’t like me. Generally when it comes to cocktails I am a strict constructionist. For example, to me a Dark and Stormy isn’t just rum and ginger beer over ice (for all that is good and holy, do not even think of sullying this drink with a lime). No. A Dark and Stormy can only be Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda rum and Barrett’s ginger beer.

You know why? Because that is the freaking drink. It came to exist in Bermuda, and was made from the ingredients on hand.

There are however cocktails that seem to be in a perpetual state of evolution, like the Martinez. In cases like this there is no one clear recipe. Rather people choose to see it in its youth as the drink that would eventually morph into the Martini, or in its final chapter which is decidedly more Martini-like. For the record, I prefer the latter.

Then there are the drinks that are just all over the map, like the Bumbo. The Bumbo is a mess. So I’m going to do something unusual. I’m going to pervert a cocktail so classic, it was enjoyed by pirates before cocktails even existed.


So here’s the story as best as I can tell after several days of intense Internet research. Officially, nobody agrees about any of this, and I’m citing nothing. If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to look it up yourself.

Scurvy is a nasty disease with a simple solution: Vitamin C. British sailors were afflicted with this condition because they spent a long time at sea, and they didn’t get fresh foods. They did get a lot of rum however. Throw a fresh lemon into your daily dose, and you are immune from the horrible death that might otherwise befall you. Rum, sugar, water and lemon put together make grog.

Pirates made lots of stops to burn and rob. While they were pillaging, they got fresh food. They didn’t need citrus. But they still needed to hydrate. And nasty ship water goes down better with rum and sugar. Instead of lemons they added cinnamon and nutmeg. Rum, sugar, water and spice make bumbo.

Hello bumbo.

Now, the savvy reader may notice the components of pirate bumbo looks awfully similar to that of an old fashioned cocktail.

I stumbled upon all of this when I was at first looking for a good grog recipe for Steve Barnes’ five year blogiversary. But I didn’t think people would go for a hot drink of watered down rum. But as the weather is starting to turn colder, I’ve been looking to warmer cocktails.

Pirates weren’t stirring their drinks over large freshly-made ice cubes. Their bumbo was probably room temperature. But like some versions of grog, I’ve been making my bumbo hot. I’ve also replaced the rum for bourbon, taking the drink off the pirate ship and into the American colonies. And historically speaking, that’s cool. George Washington bought votes with bumbo, but his was still apparently made from rum.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to deal with spices. I’ve got cinnamon and nutmeg at home. But I really don’t want to grate the nutmeg on my drink. It’s way too much work. Instead, I’m perfectly happy substituting Angostura bitters to get a sweet spice component to my drink.

Can you see where this is going?

Yes, I’ve made myself a hot old-fashioned and I’m calling it Bumbo. Dammit, it’s just fun to say. And I think I have just as much right to call my drink Bumbo as do the people who shake rum with industrially produced grenadine and serve the whole thing in a cocktail glass (like this clown).

It’s more soothing than a hot mug of herbal tea and quicker to prepare. Simply heat a mug with boiling water and dump it out. Melt one Angostura bitters soaked sugar cube in a small amount of boiling water. Add a generous pour of whiskey and top with a few ounces of additional boiling water to taste.

But really, I’ve been thinking about this more as a framework than a recipe. I’ve sweetened the drink with honey and even a slug of maple infused Cabin Fever whiskey. More than anything else, I’m thinking this discovery might open me up to keeping a bottle of dark rum around the house for the long cold Albany winter. Because here hot drinks aren’t just a novelty, they are a necessity.

Now I’ve got my Bumbo. What’s going to keep you warm and toasty?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug permalink
    November 4, 2011 9:46 am

    Back in the day, when our house wine was Gallo Hardly Burgundy, the onset of a winter cold or flu called for a Hot Benefactor — basically your Bumbo with red wine along with the whiskey, and a squeeze of lemon.

  2. Lija permalink
    November 4, 2011 9:51 am

    You had me at Dark and Stormy. I’m going to have to try this one.

  3. November 4, 2011 10:37 am

    Mulled mead is always a nice way to warm up. My sister and her ex got some of the best I’ve ever had when they were in Wisconsin of all places…I’ve never had anything like it before or since but have been searching for it…what they got was a bottle of honey wine that came with a spice mix that you heat together on the stove. It was incredible.

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 4, 2011 10:45 am

    Make it with vodka and it’s a Bimbo!

  5. November 4, 2011 1:58 pm

    Excellent. David Wondrich makes a good point about why the history of drink is so sketchy — most people were drunk when they were writing it. I doubt that there was ever a master recipe for Bumbo, and as you say, it’s a great place to craft your own special blend.

  6. November 4, 2011 8:18 pm

    I generally don’t like hot alcohol but I make (made) an exception for warm milk with atouch of brown sugar, nutmeg and scotch. So yummy, warming and sleep inducing. But alas, the whole lactose intolerant thing has kept me from it in the last couple of years and I’ve yet to try it with milk replacements.

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