James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Always Let the Woman With Butter and Rum in the Door

Always Let the Woman With Butter and Rum in the Door

Hot buttered rum in Atlanta

After a full day of dipping the same licked-clean plastic spoon over and over into chilis made with turkey, duck, beans, or no beans, and spiced to be smoky, sweet, spicy, and every variety in between, I retired to a front porch to dance and drink beer with a crowd of friends.

Atlanta’s Cabbagetown community is known for its annual Chomp & Stomp Chili Cook-Off and Bluegrass Festival, held in early November. This year’s fête had proven to be a particularly rowdy and joyous celebration of the hearty, meaty stew and its requisite boozing.

Feeling high from all the festivities, I gathered up about a pound of specialty butter I’d brought home from my packaging job with a local butter maker. I strolled over to another friend’s house, unannounced and uninvited, and I balanced a bottle of rum and the butter rounds in the crook of my elbow as I rapped on the door with my free hand.

“Hello! I’ve come to make you some hot buttered rum!” I announced to my friend and her handful of guests.

They escorted me into the kitchen, where I tipsily prepared this artisanal winter drink for friends and neighbors—a pot of cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger-spiced butter received my laughing, distracted stir while a helper titrated a steady balance of rum into the mix. The first batch scorched, but I simply restarted, and before long we were all clinking campfire mugs and telling stories.

My drink recipe was my social lubricant. I’d learned it from my friend Patty just a year or two before, when she brought over the same ingredients to a dinner party I hosted, on a night just chilly enough to fill our mugs with the throat-warming liquid and crowd around the fire pit out back.

The wintery tipple is rooted in pre-colonizing Europe, where hot, spiced drinks splashed with liquor helped people soldier through the brutal cold season. When the British Royal Navy captured Jamaica in 1655, the sailors swapped brandy for rum, and they started importing it to the U.S. colonies, eventually setting up distilleries in the Northeast to make their own. People experimented with rum in traditional drinks like the sugar, honey, and spice-based toddy, creamed and thickened with the addition of butter.

What began as culture-theft has morphed through the centuries into something better. I go into friends’ homes and bring them hot buttered rum. I hope it makes them feel warmer. I hope they pass it on.

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