Gunpowder Rum? – An Interview with BH Simpson

S&O's Gunpowder RumAlthough this may sound gimmicky, there is a history of Gunpowder and Rum.  Not just in the sense that rum had to be “Gunpowder Proof” but also, in that like the recipe for this, Gunpowder was indeed added to rum!

This may sound slightly mad and at times this interview will reveal the slight craziness of its creator BH Simpson.  However, as this interview will reveal there is method to his madness.

The company behind this all is Smoke & Oakum with BH Simpson at the helm.  Alongside Gunpowder Rum they are also delving into history to re-create other long lost creations.


1.  Why did a New Zealander decide to re-create such a Pirate Drink?

The journey to recreate a style of rum that hasn’t been seen for perhaps 200 years or more has been a circumlacuteous one and no mistake. The place one finds oneself at any given moment is the result of many influences in a person’s life. We are the sum of our previous experiences. Somewhere along the line (in 2007 to be precise) my interests in social history, cocktail bartending, naval fiction, archaeology, graphic design, flavour science, story-telling and, of course RUM all combined to form what is S&O’s Gunpowder Rum – the world’s only true Gunpowder Rum and torch bearer for the way pirates drank their drink in days of yore. In part this process is a reflection of the culture in which I grew up.

New Zealand is a young, under-populated country founded on immigration. Through necessity the country has built its cultural norms on the fly with a heavy emphasis on improvisation and seizing opportunities as they present themselves. Social mobility is fairly high and sacred cows have few chances for complacency. As a nation we are forever testing boundaries and tinkering, sometimes to destruction. When I came across the life story of Blackbeard the Pirate I saw a similarity. Here was a man throwing himself into the world and forging a new identity in the New World. Shrugging off the restrictive social hierarchy of the old world he renegotiated his social contract on his own terms. The ‘pirate charter’ (which was used aboard pirate ships in one form or another) was a revolutionary document promulgating a Bill of Rights more than half a century before its more famous descendent. Additionally Blackbeard called his flagship The Queen Anne’s Revenge, declaring himself at war with the new king of England. This was a man not blithely prepared to accept the status quo. He also liked to drink flaming mugs of rum sprinkled with gunpowder for dramatic effect. Who cannot help but be drawn to such a larger than life figure?

When the opportunity to create pirate-inspired rum presented itself I leaped for it – and when it was suggested that NZ is not known either for its rum or its pirates the response was naturally that perhaps the books will have to be rewritten: Gunpowder Rum hails from NZ, and the norms be damned.

2.  Are you looking to expand your operation beyond New Zealand and Australia?BH SIMPSON

The distant horizon of future possibles (new lands, new peoples, limitless possibility) has always been a grand motivator of human endeavour. And the S&O Manufactory Ltd. is more than ready to sail onto those blank pages of terra incognita (guarded by ‘here be monsters’ signs), but first we must increase our annual production – NZ and Australia tend to drink it all.

3.  Where does the base rum in S&O come from?

From the home of rum history, lore, and expertise – the Caribbean and South America. Hundreds of years of sugar cane cultivation and rum distillation saturate the landscape and its peoples, and I can’t help but feel that by bringing my base rum from this source I am maintaining a historical link between S&O’s Gunpowder Rum and the Golden Age of Piracy (and the quality is hard to beat)

4.  I have heard that at one stage you blended the rum in your own bathtub?

Lies of course. A bath tub is a luxury one can barely afford. One day, when I have made my fortune as a rum baron, I will purchase a bath tub. It is then that I will know that I have made it.

5.  I note a Cherry Infused Rum and an English Curacao?

Various half-finished projects sit on my desk which, by stages, creep towards completion as time allows. There are a handful of benefits to be had in being a boutique rum company, one is the flexibility to experiment and do short production runs. Something that the larger companies can not do as freely. One such is an annual release begun last October and timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, an important date in the history of the Royal Navy. This tiny test run of only 50 bottles was matured over a year in a cask of French oak and bottled at 60%abv.

Cherry Gunpowder Rum 2012With a slightly different blend of ‘spices’ this rum was intended to evoke the smells of HMS Victory which I once visited in Portsmouth – all tarred rope, oak, canvas and tobacco. I’m soon to start bottling the second batch, which will be twice as many bottles to try to keep the rum-lovers happy. A lot of people missed out last year.

Another thing I’m just now testing on the sounding board of public opinion is a gin infused with lime peel and gunpowder green tea. While S&O’s Gunpowder Rum invokes the spirit of the pirates of yore, this gin harks more towards the traditions of the pirate’s natural enemy, the Royal Navy. Bottled at ‘navy-strength’ it is distilled and then re-infused with a second round of botanicals giving an appropriately jaundiced hue to the spirit. This is an uncommon but traditional method of gin flavouring. This gives more to the mid-palate through eschewing further distillation simply to give clarity. The result is a softer roundness in spite of the high strength. We’ll see what the gin drinkers of the world make of Scurvy & Gunpowder Proof Gin.

Additionally two new products are near to release at the moment, but it is the nature of things that one cannot describe these until the trade marking and design work is finalised. There is precious little honour amongst rum barons and pirates.

6.  How is rum viewed in New Zealand?

Rum has long been a part of NZ history. From the first arrivals of whalers and sealers, to the ANZACs at Gallipoli drinking vast quantities to steel their nerves. Even today NZ is I think still the largest consumer of Jamaican rum outside of Jamaica.

Rum is easily obtained in quantity in NZ, and some of it is of a certain degree of quality, but as rum has long been considered a holiday and party beverage, the average Kiwi is not prepared to pay terribly much for a bottle of the stuff. Scotch is a luxury brand, rum is not.

7.  Favourite Rums?

While I remember well the bottle of 1930’s Jamaican rum I once had the privilege to enjoy, this is not a rum I can lay my hands on ever again. Instead, when not throwing down my own kill-devil blend, I am partial to the Plantation, El Dorado, Mount Gay, Flor de Cana, St James and Appleton rums as well as any Conquering Lion or Cuban aguardiente I can lay my hands on.

8.  Do you have an opinion on the Aussie favourite “Bundy” (Bundaberg)?tiki

Bundaberg is very dear to the Australian heart I think. Every Aussie has tried it, many have grown up with it. It is a colossus of the Australian industry and doth bestride their rum history (for over 125 years). Of course such a titanic producer has a certain inertia and so has taken some while to recognise the changing expectations of many rum drinkers.

Their Master Distillers’ Collection is a fairly recent innovation, as is their Black Barrel and Small Batch Vintage Barrel offerings… but they’re still at least a decade ahead of my small range. I expect interesting things from Bundaberg if they continue to experiment. Like all rum-producers they are only constrained by the boundaries that they set for themselves.

9.  Do you have signature cocktail or a drink you enjoy most with S&O Gunpowder rum? 

By popular acclimation the Gunpowder Blood & Sand is one of the more frequent ways to tame this uncompromising spirit (substituting Gunpowder Rum for the more traditional Scotch, and using blood oranges if they are to hand). For myself a quick refresher I enjoy is mixing the rum with tonic water and a slice of orange (preferably a low-sugar, full-flavour tonic like Quina Fina, another local hero).

So there you have it – some very interesting and revealing answers. 









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