One would have to be about as dull as an empty bottle to set foot on this island and not figure out the importance of the Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Vendors sell Dark ‘n’ Stormy scented candles, bars advertise happy hour specials and t-shirts sport every bad pun imaginable. It is the national drink of Bermuda.
With that in mind I set out Thursday to learn a bit more about the Dark ‘n’ Stormy’s two ingredients: namely Gosling’s Black Seal rum and Barritt’s ginger beer. Both are about as Bermudan as pink sand; Gosling’s has been around for seven generations, while five generations of Barritt’s have been brewing ginger beer.
For decades, the only place in the world one could get a real Dark ‘n’ Stormy was on Bermuda. That’s because for decades the Gosling family stubbornly refused to export their distinctive rum. The drink developed a cult following- chiefly amongst the sailors who raced in the many annual regattas to the island. Once in port, they’d drown themselves in rum and ginger beer before returning home with a hangover and several bottles of Gosling’s stashed in the bilge (to elude custom’s officials who would otherwise enforce quantity limits). Over the last decade Black Seal has started trickling into the U.S., but can still be tricky to obtain. So much so that the company took out a billboard on the Mass Pike a few years back that read “Harder to find than Whitey Bulger.”
People who have never had a Dark ‘n’ Stormy either love them or hate them upon first taste, both because Gosling’s and ginger beer are somewhat acquired tastes. Ginger beer can best be described as ginger ale on steroids. While it is somewhat sweet, Barritt’s in particular has an intense spiciness that cuts the sugar and plays on the tongue like the sun on Bermuda’s waters. Gosling’s meanwhile is the obnoxious uncle of rums, the one who stomps into your mouth and makes his presence known immediately. The trouble is that most Yankees are accustomed to a light rum that mixes well with coke and absorbs the fruity flavors of a pina colada. Gosling’s is no such drinking partner. It is dark in color and complex in flavor with swirls of fruit, vanilla and smoke. It is a rum that’s impossible not to notice.
Like most things on this island, there is very little about the Dark (rum) or the Stormy (ginger beer) that is actually native. As Barritt’s General Manager Bruce Barritt said, “We’re an island of 22-square miles, it’s hard to grown anything for production.” Instead, Barritt’s uses imported cane sugar (Brazilian) and Gosling’s imports rum from all over the West Indies and blends it in giant tanks on-island before shipping it to Kentucky where the product is aged in smoked, recycled bourbon casks for three to six years. It’s the smoked barrels, and a little molasses, that gives the rum its motor oil color and burnt sugar undertones.
As with many things involving booze and boats, the history of the Dark ‘n’ Stormy is somewhat cloudy. Holmes told me that ginger beer was long a popular mixer for Gosling’s, but it wasn’t named until the early 1960s when a bartender at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club accidentally put the ginger beer into a highball glass before the rum. As a result, the dark rum floated on top of the drink like a storm cloud. Barritt on the other hand said the drink had been dubbed such because it’s orange-ish color was reminiscent of the sky in the old mariner’s rhyme: “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morn, sailors be warned.”
By law (in the U.S. anyway), a drink can be labelled a Dark ‘n’ Stormy only if it actually contains Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. As The New York Times documented last month, Gosling’s has two trademark certificates on file, a rare move in the cocktail world, but a vital one in the eyes of the Gosling family given their flagship spirit’s distinctive flavor. “There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t have to protect that trademark,” Holmes told me. Unfortunately for the Barritt’s folks, the brand of ginger beer isn’t specified.
Though Barritt’s and Gosling’s livelihoods appear to be inextricably linked the two companies have no formal business relationship. Interestingly, while the Barritt’s web site suggests mixing it with Gosling’s to make a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, the rum maker makes no mention of Barritt’s on their web site. This may be because Gosling’s started producing their own ginger beer line in May (Made by Massachusetts’ own Polar Beverages), putting themselves in competition with their former unofficial partner (though Gosling’s Brand Manager Andrew Holmes stressed that the ginger beer is intended mainly for the U.S. market to sell in liquor stores alongside the Black Seal Rum). Meanwhile, Barritt’s recently ceased production of the pre-mixed Dark ‘n’ Stormy in a can (available on-island only) and supplies are expected to run out before the end of the year.
Lest you prefer the dark minus the stormy or vice-versa, there are plenty of other things you can use Gosling’s and Barritt’s for. Bermudans christen new homes by pouring a bottle of Gosling’s over the roof. Nelson’s Blood (Gosling’s and milk) was once quite popular on-island, while Canadian fisherman tend to prefer the “Seal Caesar”- a combination of Clamato and Gosling’s (yeah, I just threw up a little in my mouth too). On the stormy side, Barritt talked up the Moscow Mule, which mixes ginger beer and vodka. Golfers in Bermuda have also been known to enjoy a “Shandy”- that is, a pitcher of beer with a can of ginger beer poured into it. Both companies are interested in collecting recipes- both for cooking or cocktails- from consumers… so if you’ve got any get in touch with them directly or email me.