Before we had more advanced technology, the best way to proof alcohol involved gunpowder and fire. The practice dates back to 16th-century England and was adopted by the British Royal Navy two centuries later, when sailors wanted to test their daily allotment of rum. The system was simple: They’d mix gunpowder into their liquor and strike a match. If the wet gunpowder still caught flame, the spirit had sufficient levels of alcohol. If it didn’t, the sailor knew it was watered-down swill.
This fiery practice has inspired two spirits. In New Zealand, the Smoke & Oakum Manufactory’s Gunpowder Rum uses a secret recipe that incorporates the three main elements of traditional gunpowder: saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal. Blended with nicotine-free tobacco and chili peppers, their dark rum has notes of smoke and chocolate, and flavors of spice and molasses. (It should be noted that potassium nitrate, which is occasionally used as a preservative, is dangerous when consumed in large quantities.)
Meanwhile, a Canadian distillery takes a more cautious, albeit less-swashbuckling, approach, re-creating the essence of gunpowder with other ingredients. Newfoundland Distillery’s Gunpowder & Rose Rum infuses Jamaica rum with wild roses, kelp, charred birch, and local sea salt. The latter three ingredients are meant to lend notes of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. The resulting rum has sharp charcoal notes blanketed by a delicate floral quality.
Both rums can add a unique edge to cocktails, ranging from the Bellini to the pirata to the dark ’n’ stormy. And thanks to modern testing, you won’t need to set these spirits aflame to check their alcohol level. It’s right on the bottle.
Need to Know
Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum is released in limited batches. Be sure to check their store locator to find a shop that typically sells it, then contact that store just to be sure it's in stock.
Where to Try It
Martinborough Wine Merchants6 Kitchener Street, Martinborough, New Zealand
Call ahead to make sure they have Smoke & Oakum's Gunpowder Rum in stock: +64 6 306 9040. Hours: 9:30am - 6:00pm.
Newfoundland Distillery Company97 Conception Bay Hwy, Clarke's Beach, Newfoundland, A0A 1W0, Canada
On Clarke's Beach, this distillery is known for spirits that incorporate Newfoundland resources, such as seaweed and bakeapples.