When it comes to cocktails, there is nothing that quite matches the balminess, versatility and simplicity of rum and coke. Come to think of it, it is a drink loved by many, as it’s easy on the palate (and to some extent addictive) and perhaps the only cocktail in the bar that plays to your whimsical fancy than to the strictures of any recipe. It can be made anyway — more rum, less coke; less coke more rum; equal parts of rum and coke with tons of ice and a wedge of lemon, rum and coke with warm water, so on and so forth. And yet, fascinatingly, for a drink that has captured more palates than imagination, (it is so affordable that often drink critics call it the ‘poor man’s tippler') there is little known of its journey into the Indian shores and how it rose to be a bar classic. Almost essential in a way, says seasoned bartender Aman Dua, “that every bar worth its shaker for three decades starting the mid-60s would begin their list of classic cocktails with this drink.”
Sugar on sugar
Says seasoned chef Sabyasachi Gorai for whom the cocktail is a must-have at every restaurant opening, “by the ‘90s, it had become a ritual to celebrate the opening of a restaurant and the success of a great service with a bottle of dark rum and coke (rather Thumbs up).” The fascinating part was, says spirit expert Avinash Kapoli, “that while rum and coke, at least the version that appeared on the Indian shores around the end of World War 2, was inspired by the Cuba Libre — a 1900s cocktail celebrating the freedom of Cuba. They may also have used the rum that was brought in from Cuba by the British Army before production began in India. The drink that became a classic and an emotional connect, was, however, a far cry from the original.” In fact, adds Kapoli, “there is little semblance to the original in terms of taste and make, apart from the two ingredients that go into making it. The rum and coke our palates (and memory) are so used to is completely swadeshi and is perhaps an exceptional example where sugar on sugar works wonderfully.”
Perhaps one of the reasons, says Dua, “that a different style of serving rum and coke was developed for the drink, where the cola is served in a flask with a bucket of ice, wedges of lemon and of course a glass with a small or large peg of rum.” But this DIY presentation did little to stop bars to develop their own signature style, which they vouched were the best way to have the drink. Like Thugs in Broadway for instance would serve it with lime juice and a blend of two different dark rums, while Olly Pub in Calcutta would serve it with two wedges of lime, one twisted and the Islam Gymkhana in Mumbai would coat half the rim with pink salt to jazz up the sip. In fact, old school bars in Kasauli and those in Gulmarg tend to serve in glasses that were resting on a cobbled stone to catch in on the “dewiness of the climate that makes the drink even taste better.”
In the spirit
So where did the India journey of rum and coke begin? The cocktail incidentally followed the rum’s suit — and most likely began in the camps of armed forces where drinking rum was part of the “relaxation, and evening entertainment culture.” Such was the love of rum amongst the soldier, says retired officer Tarun Singha, “that a lot of celebrations were curated around the spirit, be it badakhana where the officers and soldiers shared a glass of rum or when celebrating a win, bidding an officer goodbye or even a promotion. So much so that the armed forces had a rum register where drinkers and non-drinkers of each battalion were named,” he says.
Experts believe that rum and coke made its way from the armed forces into the corridors of hospitality and bars, which by the mid-70s had become swadeshi. And of all the drinks that the bars had taken over — most of it was British and American-presented — rum and coke became the one that could be Indianised completely, says Kapoli. What aided to the transformation was the rise of Thumbs Up after Coca Cola left India because of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. “The fussy drink that had a hint of cinnamon, cardamom and honey became the perfect spouse for rum to recreate the drink, which had become a part of the drink language of the ‘70s as the ‘cool adult punch’. The ‘Made In India’ movement of the ‘70s along with the indigenous cola boom in the country, adds Chef Gorai, “became the perfect catalyst to popularise rum and coke, which was seen as the guilt-free drink that was palate friendly. The fact that the leg work of Coca Cola had already done the work of showcasing how the fizzy drink could be the perfect ‘big guy drink mix’ came as an advantage to Thumbs Up that became the preferred cola in rum and coke.” 1977 and the years there on became a turning point for rum and coke.
With two leading brands available through the country, affordable rates and the DIY style that made everyone a master in creating their own drink made this mediocre cocktail not only the most recognised coming-of-age drink but the soul of many celebrations where it would be the ‘punch with a kick’. By the time India opened up again and allowed the entry of superior rums and Coca Cola (once again), the desi recipe had become our own speakeasy classic. Of course, says Dua, “modern-day bartenders look at white rum and superior Caribbean ones for creating this classic today for discerning palates, but it is the good old sweet rum and sweet, fizzy Thumbs Up that still rules.” After all, sums up Chef Gorai, “it isn’t just a cocktail, but an emotion that has been there, unchanged, with most of us.”