Rum. Just the saying the word can elicit many intense feelings and sensations. Thirst. Pain. Want. Need. Poets, or at least poetic pirates, sailors and fishermen, through the centuries have sung its praises while under its influence, only to cry in anguish in its aftermath. Preachers have castigated its users and producers and characterized it as “demon rum”. Many islands produce rum but this is the story of only one of them, one which I have come over the last 15 years to know quite well. It goes by the name Sunset.
Sunset, by which I mean the rum which is sub-titled Very Strong Rum, is a white rum produced on the island of St Vincent in the Windward Islands of the West Indies. It is a once both a source of local pride, as it is at 170 proof the strongest rum made in the Caribbean, and national shame due to its many corrosive effects on the fabric of family and society at large. Strong rum is incredibly cheap, a ½ pint bottle can be had in most rum shops for a mere ec$5 and as noted above it is strong enough to render a grown man senseless in short order. It is a hidden dragon used as the base for signature rum punches at many reputable establishments, which only later does the now jelly legged tourist realize was masked at first by the sweet fruit and nutmeg they tasted when it hit the tongue. Mostly though it is sold at rum shops and village groceries and consumed overwhelming by men in “shotties”, small sips poured into a “plastic glass”, followed by chaser which if the men are feeling flush is a splash of a soft drink or more often water.
I first encountered it late night at the legendary nightspot Penthouse, a small cinder block shack on the edge of Port Elizabeth, Bequia. Run by a young guy with dreads, whose name escapes me now, it was the place to go when all others shut down. Whether there were 200 people outside or just 2, he would play great music and serve drinks until no-one wanted more. The place is so small that by necessity most of the action takes place outside with the street serving as the dance floor and the low walls around as its ersatz seating. Often, when attempting to describe the place to friends in the US, I would say that it was like a boombox on the side of the road with drinks coming out of it. One night I offered to buy a couple local guys that I knew a beer. They asked me instead to get them rum and chaser which, it was pointed out, would cost ec$2 less than the beers. Inside the Rasta took a funnel, poured the clear liquid into a half pint bottle and gave it to me with a bottle of Pepsi and a couple plastic cups. My two friends and several other opportunists performed the ritual of shotties and insisted that I join in for one. It smelled like paint thinner and went down like jet fuel but after the sweet splash of Pepsi there was only a warmth spreading through me. I got another and then another “quart”, assured by the locals that drinking strong rum never, ever leads to a hangover. This was just an amuse-bouche to the cavalcade of untrue claims about the properties of strong rum that I have since encountered and, needless to say, the next morning, so blinding was the pain behind my eyes, that I wished I were dead and swore never to drink again.
John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, his classic portrayal of the denizens of the Monterrey CA waterfront, charts poetically and hilariously the progression of mood, spirit and conversational subject matter moved through by a group of men as they drink down a gallon of wine. I could do a similar thing here switching a bottle of Sunset in for the wine but then I’d be inviting comparison to a Nobel Prize winning titan of American letters which, safe to say, would not cast the prose that follows in a very flattering light. So rather, I’ve decided to delve into the incredible number of hilarious, spurious, dark and downright insane ancillary uses of strong rum. Many of these have been have been told to me, unsolicited by enthusiasts, while on various beaches and blocks or at rum shops. Some were passed on second hand by others, who hearing of my quest to assemble this list gave me their favorites. Some of the uses are well known and oft repeated others, probably apocryphal, are simply to good to not include. Though I have not yet reached 101 uses as yet, the number itself is such a touchstone for such lists that I felt it must be used as the heading and so, in no particular order I give to you the 101 uses for Strong Rum.
- Kill a caterpillar. Witnessed this one night at the Frangipani bar. For those who don’t know, the West Indian brown caterpillar is a nasty fucker, up to 8 inches long it packs a very painful , potentially fatal venomous bite. Most often found in rotting wood, they do sometimes come out onto open ground. So anyway, a foreign customer alerted Garfield the barman to the presence of a big one, by the step down into the main bar area. Wasting no time he poured a shot and passed it across the bar to a local man who immediately dumped it on to the caterpillar and then which he then set ablaze with a match. The tourist, ignorant of the danger, was horrified. Perhaps having thought that he was pointing out some beautiful fauna he was instead witness a strong rum auto da fe.
- Remove a wart. First rub as much of the wart away with a good piece of brain coral or other abrasive stone. Next apply a cloth dipped in strong rum. The jury is out on whether it is best to then set it ablaze or not. Patient’s discretion is recommended based on tolerance to burn pain. Repeat process daily until no sign of the wart remains.
- Fuel for a 2 stroke outboard engine. Although I am sure that Sunset would probably also do the job for a car or airplane, this use was enthusiastically endorsed by a charter boat captain one day in Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau. While he rhapsodized about the infallibility of the older, carbureted Yamaha outboards the captain told me, “an if you was to run out of fuel, you pour in strong rum an’ she still gonna run.”
- Remedy for urchin spines. Once, while our dear old friend Sarah was visiting us on Bequia, she borrowed some snorkeling gear to take a look at the nearby reef. Sarah is equal parts wildlife enthusiast and total spaz. The end result of this combination being that she swam too close to some spiny urchins and got some spines in her foot when swept in by a surge. Back on the beach a taxi man volunteered that the application of strong rum to the spines would dull the pain and make them dissolve and work their way out sooner. As she was nearly in shock from the pain we opted for oral and topical application, a decision which as you will see is often suggested for the uses on this list.
- Remove water from a fuel tank. Like dry gas, strong rum, it is said, can be poured in a fuel tank contaminated with water and once in there will somehow bind with the water and then evaporate leaving clean gas behind. Scientists at Muppet Labs are working on reproducing this effect, thus far without any success.
- Spermicide. According to one drunken sailor if uncertain as to the tensile integrity of a condom or worried that perhaps “ah gyal wine to wile”, dip the condom in strong rum both before and after rolling it on. He assured me that if the condom were to break, the strong rum would immediately kill or render insensate all sperm. At the very least he said this should make them incapable of swimming to their biologically programmed destination. An assertion which I found hard to dispute after I witnessed him fall from his dinghy and nearly drown. A likely added bonus being that if fellatio were to precede intercourse, the giver of such pleasure would most likely be receptive to other more exotic requests that might follow.
- Swimmer’s ear. Similar in concept to the fuel tank usage. Pour strong rum into the affected ear and any water trapped inside will evaporate out. Also, the rum should simultaneously kill any invading parasites and render sterile any infections. Although if you were to avoid swimming near high concentrations of yachts or in the harbor after a good rain you would probably avoid this altogether.
- Kill a man. This I learned by way of a rather intense personal experience. It was Easter 1999 and me and my family were staying in a rental just above Lower Bay. The raging all-weekend party which accompanies Regatta had finally ended, much to our exhausted body’s relief. At around 2am Monday morning, my wife anxiously awakened me because someone was knocking at the door of our villa. Dragging my ass to the door and opening it I encountered a woman who asked to use the phone because her boyfriend was sick and needed to get to the clinic in the harbor. He’d been vomiting for hours she said but had only drunk a couple Guiness. Expecting to be jumped at any time, I followed her across the road and down a short path to a dilapidated wood shack, inside of which on a foam mat lay her boyfriend. He was dead. Her story that he’d only had a couple of Guiness was belied by the presence of several empty bottles of strong rum laying around him on the floor. I later found that he was only 27 years old. So beware gentle reader, laugh and drink on at your own peril for even the young may find themselves overpowered and laid waste by Sunset, the strongest of rums.
- Infected tooth. Told to me at Shortman Bar, a rum shop in Paget Farm. The rum should be applied to the affected area by means of a swab. The effect described was that “it eat up yuh mout”. Which I determined after some further questioning was that it would attack and neutralize the infection. Although this is not the most hazardous alternative therapy on this list, I’ve got to think that a trip to the dentist is better than risking an infection getting in your brain because you had to choose the folk remedy.
- Clean corroded electrical contact. This one is also from a charter captain. While on a trip to Happy Island we requested some music and were disappointed when the Captain said that the sound system wasn’t working. When we returned from our time on that most happy of places, silence had been replaced by a driving Soca riddim. I asked the Captain what had been wrong and he told me that a wire connection to the speakers had corroded. He cleaned it off with strong rum and presto, music!
- Cauterize a wound. I heard this one from a fisherman at Alick’s International rum shop in La Pompe. Long ago when fishing schooners would go out for days and weeks, a man lost most of two fingers when they got caught in a line during a fight against a Marlin. His mates, fearing gangrene and blood loss tied tight lines at the base of each finger to stem the flow of blood, dipped them in strong rum and then set them alight to cauterize the flesh and seal the wound. After wrapping them up in bandages the man rejoined the fight and helped land a 1000 lb Marlin. Whether I was told this tale to illustrate what bad asses men used to be compared to us modern Nancy boys or just to give a tip in field medicine doesn’t really matter. The lesson here is mind those fingers when a Marlin is on.
- Steal a man. A local woman friend once explained to me that she wouldn’t be accompanying me to a beach party because a girl who was there hated her. In response to my asking why the girl hated her, she said, “ah tek she man!”. Poaching of sex partners is rampant in the West Indies and according to my source, men are, weak in general and completely defenseless when plied with strong rum. I have theorized that the vertical lap dances administered by the ladies known as “winin’” could also be a factor in this phenomenon but do; however, plan on personally conducting more field research in the hope that gathering substantially more data on this intriguing but unproved hypothesis will yield a definitive answer.
- Shellac thinner. Simple science here, by which I mean probability and statistics . Shellac bases can be thinned with and cleaned up by de-natured alcohol. Strong rum is not de-natured, but is however, at least 10 times more likely to be found on a Vincentian job site than its undrinkable analog.
- Pay back to abusive boyfriend. Torn from the headlines the St Vincent Searchlight newspaper. A woman in Calliqua, angered by her boyfriend’s continual physical abuse, took matters into her own hands one night. As her abuser lay sleeping she doused him in strong rum and set his bed on fire. The man, burned severely, did live but you suspect he most likely curbed his violence towards women. At least the ones who hadn’t already fled, terrified by his scarred and twisted visage.
- Rum cake. What could be a more traditional use for rum than to put it in a Christmas cake? Rum has long been added to fruit cake at Xmas time to preserve the cake and to ensure that no-one under the age of 40 will eat it. By using strong rum in the place of a normal strength one, you increase the length of preservation to somewhere between the shelf-life of a Twinkie and the half-life of Plutonium. An unintended consequence; however, is that now your teenagers will likely steal it, eat it on the block with their friends and then barf it up all over someone’s house while out “banning” on Boxing Day.
- Forget painful memories. Sweet, sweet amnesia! Oh, to have a device as simple as Ren and Stimpy’s history eraser button to forever banish the painful past to the land of shadows and ghosts. Well wait! Here it is in front of you at every shop you enter. Doctors recommend medication begin immediately following exposure to psychic traumas. Just take a 1 oz dose of strong rum every 15 minutes for 4 hours or until unconscious. It is guaranteed that when you come to from the alcoholic psychosis which follows you will have no idea what happened the in the hours preceding treatment.
- Whiten toilet bowl. A foreign woman who is known as a bit of a domestic goddess complained to me that if she ran out of certain cleaning fluids, a long trip to the harbor was required to replace them. Could she not, I asked, use strong rum as an alternative to any of them? She said that she would give it a try the next time she ran out. Her report back sometime later was that she had met with mixed results cleaning windows but for the purpose of whitening a toilet bowl Sunset was as good as Clorox.
- Wash meat before preserving. Hawksbill Turtle! One of the West Indian’s favorite endangered repasts. Turtle makes a nice stew when fresh but the meat does not stay fresh long and in the times before refrigeration was widespread local fishermen would often preserve turtle meat in oil. Preparation naturally could include washing the meat with strong rum for the dual purpose of reducing a strong, gamey taste and to also kill any harmful bacteria lurking on the surface of the meat.
- Humiliates “weak” rums. Local pride amongst the islands of the West Indies runs deep. Locals on any island you go to will list without solicitation the various reasons their island is the best one of all. Woe to any visitor to St Vincent and the Grenadines who might want to sing the praise of any rum from another island. A Vincy man, will never hesitate to let you know that Sunset is the hardest rum and that whatever pussy rum you might drink it had better not show its face in his rum shop or it will catch licks, for no real man could get drunk from such a girly concoction. A Vincy man would tell you, while dumping out your bottle of Mt Gay in front of you, that he’d get more fucked up drinking water all day rather than from consuming your Bajan swill.
- Penthouse paint cleaner. One night a beautiful Englishwoman with deep local roots was dancing inside Penthouse in a new party dress. Little did she know that the interior had been painted earlier that day and all the paint had not yet dried. Much to her chagrin, she soon discovered that when she had brushed the wall, paint had clung to her dress. The gallant Rasta at the bar applied a strong rum soaked rag and much to her delight to the paint was removed and her dress was like new.
- Birth control. West Indian men for macho reasons often refuse to use birth control. Sometimes they may even brag about how many babies they have made with various women. In a culture where men will tell you that virtually everything will “mek you strong” or be “hydraulic” or “mek so me nah can sleep pon me belly”. A poor woman, who knows that she is ovulating and can’t afford the pill needs some kind of defense against her randy man’s constant demand for sex.. Enter strong rum. The wise woman in the middle of her cycle mets her man at the door with a plate loaded down by a heavy meat stew, steam breadfruit and macaroni pie. In her other hand, a bottle of strong rum, which she encourages him to hit hard, while feasting, by constantly praising how he drinks with such manly gusto. The combination of the rich food and the 170 proof rum invariably proves to much for Romeo and soon he is asleep in his chair leaving our heroine free to catch up on all the episodes of “2 ½ Men” that she’s recently missed. Of course many women just want their men to shut up and use this strategy on a daily basis, which may be why you see so many men with big bellies in the Caribbean.
- Joint pain. Another entry from the Journal of Questionable West Indian Folk Remedies this is known colloquially as “sap yuh joints”. My understanding is that if arthritis is causing pain and swelling of the joints then rub the strong rum on the affected area. I can not say with any certainty what ameliorative property of the rum comes into play here but will hazard a guess that it doesn’t make things worse, at least then adhering to the first tenet of the Hippocratic Oath, “first, do no harm”.
- Hot toddy. Probably one of the top medicinal uses for rum and whisky is to help with throat and respiratory ailments. The local toddy is comprised of hot water, lime, strong rum and cane juice (or honey if available). This stands as one of the most legitimate alternative uses for strong rum. The vitamin C from the lime provides a boost to the immune system and regarding honey, science has only begun to understand the many properties of this amazing apian product. Even if the effect on the throat is negligible it certainly can help the patient get some much needed rest.
- Humane fish killing. Not a fisherman but an Englishwoman told me of this one. Her father it seems when out fishing would pour a bit of strong rum straight into the gills of the fish as a more humane method of killing them than the standard, flopping asphyxia, throat slitting or head bashing. Whether or not there is any credence to this method, we can at least be sure that the fish will be seeing more than one Jesus when he does finally reach the pearly gates.
- Hand sanitzer. The Purell company has made a fortune playing on people fears, whether real or unfounded, that there is a constant, unseen menace of pathogens and malevolent bacteria loose in the world. I fall into the camp that believes children are healthier when exposed to the natural micro-organisms of this planet and that constant sanitzation, in addition to being a time consuming pain in the ass, also gives rise to the multi-drug resistant, flesh eating super bugs now plaguing hospitals. Be that as it may, were I in an emergency medical situation and about to perform some type of field surgery then a hand wash of strong rum followed by an oral dose to settle both the doctor’s and patient’s nerves would seem to be quite sensible.
- Extract pigments from plants and flowers. Makers, crafters, self-reliant bushmen! Take heed all! For those elements of society who would rather spend countless hours spinning, weaving, dying and sewing their own garments rather than using Amazon Prime for 5 minutes, rejoice! Personally, I’d rather use the time carousing, lollygagging or playing a spririted game of grab-ass. It has been revealed that strong rum can be used to extract base pigments from plants and flowers. An added bonus being that you can consume any excess liquid and save a trip to the rum shop. What to do about your purple teeth is your own problem…although perhaps that hair shirt you are knitting could be fitted with a handy niqab.
- Ward off mentally ill at street parties. Mental illness is a problem faced by many in this modern world . The government of St Vincent and the Grenadines unfortunately lacks the resources to treat and house most afflicted citizens, consumed as they are by the monomanical goal of building an international airport that no major carriers are lining up to land at, on an island with no tourist infrastructure. Politics aside, the result of all this is that high functioning crazy people roam the streets and when liquored up or just hearing voices in their heads may accost you at a party with aggressive actions or demands. These individuals who come equipped with colorful nicknames such as “Tango” and “Jeff” are for the most part harmless but can occasionally cross a line which requires some type of firm response. Many local people feel that the best way to deal with this is a few good smacks to the head but for those of us more sensitive to the plight of these poor folks there is another way. A quick splash of strong rum to the face temporarily blinds and disorients the accosting party and can provide the chance to move away without an escalation into violence.
- Open yuh mind. This one comes courtesy of the barman at De Bistro. When consuming strong rum with others it does not, as the title may have led you to believe, make you more likely to understand or respect the convictions of your fellow drinkers. In a perfect world this would be the effect of rum and it is safe to say that this is not a perfect world. Rather the rum serves more as a truth serum leading people to say things that they, under other less boozy circumstances, would have kept to themselves. The truth is an elusive quarry, malleable and highly adaptive. The result, therefore, is generally the blowing of a great deal of “cocksmoke”, ultra-violent fantasies and the exchange of many creative curses most of which concern creative uses of the reproductive organs of the assembled drinkers and their respective mothers. So there you have it, the list so far. Ok, so as of now it only has 28 uses but, as stated before, 101 was an arbitrary number chosen for the auspicious sound and comedic value. Plus, we should aim high in any project of such monumental significance. All new submissions are welcomed but will be subject to the same vigorous scientific review process applied to all examples on to list above before being accepted as a valid new use for Strong Rum. It is helpful to cite the source of the use and to explain, if it is not entirely clear, the method used in its application. I’d like to thank all who have contributed to the list thus far, Penthouse, Captain Wayne, Garfield, rum shop owners everywhere, the boys at the long wall and of course The Larry Storch Institute for the Advancement of Civilization.