Blackbeard, the Royal Navy, and the Strange History of Gunpowder and Rum Cocktails


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Blackbeard, the Royal Navy, and the Strange History of Gunpowder and Rum Cocktails

Long before a kohl-stained Captain Jack Sparrow strutted haughtily onto the big screen, there was Blackbeard — the original bad-boy pirate of the Caribbean Sea.

In addition to his eponymous facial hair, the unkempt 18th-century pirate was famous for employing a range of outlandish tactics to intimidate his enemies. These included lighting cannon fuses beneath his hat, which made it look like his head was on fire, and, apparently, chugging gunpowder-laced rum cocktails before boarding enemy ships. The bizarre concoction was a unique form of Dutch courage, and a deliberate attempt to reinforce his crazed reputation.

But the custom of adding gunpowder to alcohol actually predates Blackbeard by around 100 years.

The practice was born and popularized in the 1600s, in an era when soldiers in the British Royal Navy were regularly paid in rum rather than money. A skeptical bunch, the sailors set about figuring out a way of ensuring their employers weren’t shortchanging them and watering down their liquor.

Eventually, some bright spark (pardon the pun) came up with the idea of mixing gunpowder and rum, and setting it on fire. If the solution lit, it was “proof” that the spirit was sufficiently alcoholic. If not, well… let’s just say you wouldn’t want to be the captain of that ship!

The consumption of rum and gunpowder was not confined to the seas, however. In the years following Blackbeard’s death, the cocktail made its way into rituals and religions on nearby Caribbean islands, most notably Jamaica.

During Tacky’s Rebellion, an important slave revolt in Jamaica in 1760, warriors prepared for battle by drinking rum mixed with gunpowder, grave dirt, and, rather gruesomely, blood. Later, in 1865, when Paul Bogle led the Morant Bay peasant uprising, captured law enforcement officials were forced to consume similar oath drinks as a show of loyalty to the rebels. The ritual even became a part of the local Obeah religion.

Nowadays, one doesn’t have to be a pirate, rebel, or religious practitioner to enjoy Blackbeard’s favorite tipple. Those hoping to drink like a pirate within the confines of their own homes (and personal safety) just need to get their hands on a bottle of Smoke & Oakum’s Gunpowder Rum.

The Blackbeard-inspired blend is infused with peppers, calumet “tobacco” — a Native American nicotine-free substitute — and authentic black gunpowder. Dirt and blood have thankfully been omitted.

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