The Connecticut River "Calibogus"

Category: River Culture

on: Jan 7, 2019

The Connecticut River “Calibogus”                            

 Courtesy of Mike Nunez / Penny Lane Pub, Old Saybrook, CT


The idea of mixing rum with a fermented drink such as cider or ale came early and stayed late in the British colonies. Sailors experimented regularly with such mixed drinks, ever in an attempt to avoid the water that so quickly went bad on ships.

 Calibogus was such an experiment—and one that did not go awry. It was, originally, a concoction that brought together rum and spruce beer. Later writers such as Alice Morse Earle recorded (or assumed) that it was simply “cold rum” and beer brought together in harmony.

 Spruce beer, as the name suggests, is a drink brewed with some part of a spruce tree, usually the needles. It deserves its own entry, one that I will highlight on this blog eventually. Spruce beer was relatively popular in New England during the colonial period and early Republic.

 The term “calibogus,” however, does not readily appear in the histories of the River Valley towns and cities. It was, rather, a preferred term for the drink in the Canadian Maritimes and Maine. River town histories do mention mum, ale brewed with spices, along with pumpkin ale and sassafras beer (a spiked root beer). All of those drinks will appear in later posts.

 Although there might not have been a popular name in the River Valley for a drink mixing rum and ale, the drink surely was not unknown, as it combined two of the favorite tipples prior to the rise of cocktail culture in the 1800s. This is especially the case if the beer in question was porter, dark ale that was regularly made in the breweries on the River. (In his 1863 A History of American Manufacturers, for example, John Leander Bishop praised the porter produced at a brewery in Middletown, CT as “considered equal to London porter.”)

 There are some commercially available spruce beers, including from Vermont and New Hampshire, but they are often hard to come by. This recipe reflects a contemporary take on this potent potable:

 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon Demerara sugar or molasses (optional)
1.5-2 oz. rum

5-6 oz. porter (cellar temperature)

 If so inclined to use the sugar, add it to a pint glass with an equal amount of water and dissolve; if so inclined to the molasses, add to a pint glass. Add the rum and stir. Top off with the porter. If so inclined, sprinkle nutmeg on the top.

 You will note that this recipe contains no ice. That is deliberate; the historical calibogus predates the regular use (and availability) of ice. No one will blame you, however, if you stir the rum and dissolved sugar with a few cubes and strain it into a pint glass. And it is entirely appropriate to drink this beverage warm, especially on a cold New England day.

 This drink is not beholden to crisp air, however, and as a cool drink the calibogus pleases in the spring and even summer. In temperate to warmer weather, the following recipe works wonders:

 1.5-2 oz. rum
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice

5-6 oz. porter (cellar to cooler temperature)

 Add the rum and lime juice in a shaker with a few ice cubes. Stir and strain into a pint glass. Top off with the porter. Modern custom warrants a lime slice as a garnish, but a sprinkle of nutmeg instead would add a dash of historical deference. And if you can get your hands on one of the pine liqueurs coming from the Alps to the United States, it’s worth some serious play in lieu of the lime juice.

 This drink is primed for experimentation with different porters and rums. I am biased, of course, but I prefer mine with porter from one of the states that formed the Dominion of New England way back in the 1680s. That’s the six current states along with New York and New Jersey. Then again, I suppose any porter deserves the opportunity to make a decent calibogus. For those of you in the lower CT River Valley, the porter made by Back East Brewing Company works like a charm. It is, as my friend Alex Foulkes (a cicerone and owner of Penny Lane Pub in Old Saybrook, CT) advises, “a very good porter that is very much to style in the English tradition.”

Pot still aged rums that are made in New England are excellent choices as are blended aged rums. Bully Boy Boston Rum and Lawley’s Small Batch Dark Rum are favorites in my house for a calibogus, but there are ample additional good decisions. Blackstrap rum that smacks of molasses offers a unique taste you will either love or hate. Be forewarned that too much porter or rum with too much funk (or rhum in general) readily overwhelms the balance of flavors.

 As an alternative to porter, the right herb and spice beer could deliver a sublime experience. Winter and holiday ales deserve a chance, especially in a warm calibogus. Similarly, Shebeen’s cannoli beer was a hit when I used it for yuletide visitors. And be sure to experiment with rums touched by the quintessential spirit of New England—maple syrup, such as Dunc’s Mill or Mad River. Warm calibogus made in such a manner defies even the harshest chill.

 There’s no trick to this simple recipe, but when you find a combination that suits your taste, you’ll wonder why you’ve deprived yourself of rum and beer combinations for so long.

 Until next time, cheers!

 Stephen Olbrys Gencarella