In Search of Jamaican Overproof Rum History
When it comes to rum, seemingly simple questions often lead deep down a rabbit hole of more complex questions. Today’s example: while analyzing the rums used during Tiki’s “golden era” during the writing of Minimalist Tiki I realized that no classic Tiki recipes used unaged Jamaican overproof rum—as we know it today. Such rums are the high-hogo barn burners bursting from the bottle at a palate melting 63 percent ABV, such as Rum Fire and J. Wray & Nephew Overproof.
Today’s Tiki bartenders revel in using these rums, but the recipes of the classic Tiki canon — as uncovered by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and others — don’t use them.
Why weren’t Tiki’s forefathers such as Don and Vic using such rums?
To help answer this, we can ask more concrete questions:
When were the first Jamaican Overproof rums made and sold?
Would the Tiki forefathers (Don and Vic) have access to them?
A quick Google search turns up nothing of note answering these questions. To my knowledge, nobody in recent times has asked these questions and shared their thoughts online
If we want answers, we must roll up our sleeves and dive into original sources, i.e., contemporary written records of the period in question. Thankfully, this quest is very well time-bounded: Tiki’s golden era between the 1930s and 1960s. We’re also fortunate that Jamaica’s rum producers were prolific advertisers in the Kingston Gleaner during this era, and Gleaner back issues are extensive and available online.
An obvious first step in the quest is searching for overproof rum in the archives and further constraining the results to pages referencing well-known Jamaican rum maker names like Wray & Nephew, Myers, and Finzi. As it turns out, this preliminary step yields no smoking gun – no specific branded rums are listed as Jamaican overproof or variations on the term.
Luckily, Jamaica’s rum producers frequently listed their entire rum catalog in their advertising. By collecting enough advertisements over several years, a reasonably detailed list of each producer’s expressions can be established and when they were introduced and discontinued. Even better, there were two periods during the golden era when Jamaica’s government printed the maximum selling prices of all Jamaican rums sold in the colony. Between these two data sources, we have a surprisingly high-fidelity list of what rums were made and sold in Jamaica during Tiki’s golden era, perhaps more complete than for any other Caribbean locale at the time.
Looking for Proof
At this point in the narrative, it’s essential to establish some baseline facts regarding the word proof. In a nutshell, Britain and the US used different calculations for representing a spirit’s strength. Thus, 70 proof in the British system was not 70 proof in the American system. In the British proof system, a spirit at proof was 57% ABV. Anything below 57% ABV was underproof; anything stronger was overproof. The strength under or over 57% was specified in degrees. For instance, “70 degrees underproof” was 70% of 57 %ABV, i.e., 40% ABV. A deeper explanation of Britain’s proof system is available here.
At 63% ABV, today’s Jamaican Overproof is 10 degrees overproof in the British system; the fact that it’s 10 degrees overproof is likely not a coincidence.
In Search of Overproof
Returning to our quest, “proof” and “overproof” were common rum trade terms. However, as noted earlier, searching for branded overproof rum in Jamaica newspapers of the era turns up few clues. Even the related phrase “over proof rum” turns up little of note turns of little of note. However, in looking over various Jamaican rum brand portfolios, something interesting popped up fairly often and across brands: white proof rum. Although not explicitly stated, we can reasonably assume white implied the rum was unaged.
The earliest noted references to white proof rum date to the 1870s, when hospitals called for bids to supply it. However, no specific brand was called for. The white proof term disappeared from the newspaper for the most part until the 1930s, when we see the earliest mention of a specific branded expression dubbed white proof rum. A 1931 advertisement for Edwin Charley’s White Proof Rum notes “Curing Colds with Proof Rum,” another reference to its healthcare use.
Since our quest regards overproof rum and we’ve previously learned that proof rum is “only” 57% ABV, the above might be dismissed as little more than an interesting sidebar. However, a 1941 advertisement for Wray & Nephew’s “Extra Strong White Proof Rum” strongly suggests that at least some white proof rums were stronger than proof strength.
Further evidence that some white proof rums were actually overproof comes from a 1956 Wray & Nephew advertisement mentioning “White Proof 1.38 OP” In rum trade lingo, that’s 38 degrees over proof strength. (1.38 x 57% = 79% ABV)
A few years later, we find two smoking guns effectively proving the above assertion. The first is a 1959 Wray & Nephew “Full Strength Green Label White Proof Rum” advertisement that includes a similar bottle to today’s Wray & Nephew Overproof bottle. Look closely near the bottle’s bottom, which states “overproof rum.”
The second smoking gun is a 1964 maximum selling price list in the Jamaica Gleaner. Most such price lists encompassed the entire gamut of Jamaican-made rums, but this list only included white proof or overproof white rums. The last line in the list says: “ANY BRAND White Proof or Overproof,” which we can reasonably assume meant they were considered equivalent by the government.
Returning to the first of our questions posed at this story’s beginning, it’s clear that there was something akin to today’s 63% ABV Jamaican overproof rums made in Jamaica during Tiki’s golden era. However, just because such rums were made in Jamaica doesn’t mean they were exported off the island. Prior experience has shown that many Jamaican rums weren’t exported to the US. This segues us to our second question from above.
Did Don and Vic Have Access to (Unaged) Jamaican Overproof Rums?
In an ideal world, we could answer this question by referring to a list of all rums imported into the US during Tiki’s golden era. However, such lists don’t appear to exist; even David Wondrich says so. At best, there are a sprinkling of state-wide lists. None of the lists I’ve seen mention white proof or proof white rums.
After discarding this approach, the next logical approach is to search through the handful of rum lists from Tiki bars of the era, looking for terms like proof rum, white proof, or Jamaican overproof. If something like “Wray & Nephew proof white” appeared on a Tiki establishment’s rum list, it would conclusively establish that such rums were available to their bartenders.
Having reviewed two Beachcomber rum lists (1937, 1941) and the Mai Kai’s alcohol purchase records from the late 1950s, no Jamaican proof white or white proof rums are to be found. Note to readers: If you have other golden era Tiki bar rums lists, feel free to send them my way!
The earliest UK-based reference to Wray & Nephew white overproof I can find is April of 1964; it was bottled at 101 UK proof, i.e., 57.7% ABV. From this point forward, we know white overproof was was exported from Jamaica. The earliest US-based reference to W&N white overproof is 1971, at the outer limits of Tiki’s golden era. Interestingly, it was bottled at US 151 proof, not 126 proof like today. However, this version seems to have disappeared from US markets until 1987, wherein it was bottled at today’s 63% ABV.
What have we learned after examining numerous original sources?
Something like today’s Jamaican overproof rum was made during Tiki’s golden era but was known as white proof rum.
Jamaican white proof or overproof rums didn’t appear to be exported from Jamaica prior to the mid-1960s and probably didn’t arrive in the US until the 1970s.
There’s no evidence (thus far) that Jamaican overproof rums found themselves in US tiki bars during the golden era.
Naturally, if you have documents that disprove or further prove the above, do let me know in the comments, or better yet, shoot me an email!