Handle The Proof: Hot Buttered Rum

In the classic film Northwest Passage, Spencer Tracy plays the legendary Robert Rogers. For those who didn't waste a portion of their youth reading about the French and Indian War, Rogers commanded a band of soldiers who wore green uniforms and fought "Indian style" in the woods of New York.

The film is a fictional account of Rogers' Rangers and their 1759 raid against an Abenaki village. Early on, there's a scene where Tracy mixes up a pitcher of hot buttered rum at some frontier tavern.

That scene--a bowl of steaming water, jugs of rum and Tracy scooping out mounds of butter and brown sugar--made me a fan of the cocktail, even though I'd never tried it at the time. It evoked warmth and fireplaces, camaraderie and a good, solid belt of alcohol.

What could be better?

The drink has been around at least as long as the 1750s--part of the long tradition of winter warmers enjoyed by Europeans for centuries, such as mulled wine. Modern recipes call for spices--usually cinnamon and nutmeg, sometimes allspice and cloves or a dash of vanilla (occasionally all of the above)--to be mixed with butter and brown sugar into a "batter" that can sit for at least a month, ready for use.

In Robert Rogers' day, of course, the base version--sans spices--would often suffice.

However one chooses to prepare it, hot buttered rum is a beautiful cold weather, leather chair, Chrissie Hynde (still have a thing for her after all these years) bringing you a steaming mug kind of drink. When made with spice, it coaxes with the aroma of warm caramel and entices through a rich, candy apple and butterscotch flavor--backed by a hit of rum. It's enough to make the real world fade into the background for just a moment.

Why no one bothers to make this venerable cocktail anymore, I have no idea...well, that's not entirely true. Bartenders grumble about shaking martinis when five or more customers are waving for a drink. Hot buttered rum would slow things down even further.

Sometimes, however, patience really is a virtue. If you use good, unsalted butter, fresh ground spice and a quality spirit, it is a creamy, evocative, robust and warming toddy.

For a reminder of its flavor, I popped into Al Biernat's. The bartender admitted he'd never made hot buttered rum before. But they had butter and plenty of brown sugar. So he wouldn't have to interrupt the chef and ask for cinnamon and nutmeg, he reached into the well for a bottle of Captain Morgan's spiced rum.

Not the thing I'd normally recommend, but the result was still incredibly pleasant. Just goes to show how forgiving old fashioned warm drinks can be.

So maybe tonight, I'll...no, I'd have to buy butter, brown sugar, spices. Have plenty of rum, though. And Northwest Passage saved in the DVR.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries