Rum Journal: In Trinidad and Tobago, the Art of the Rum Shop

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - April 4, 2015

By Jamie Gangoo
Rum Journal Contributor

Rum shops have offered a lot — a haven for the broken-hearted, a podium for aspiring leaders, and a round table for discussions on current affairs and bacchanals (i.e. gossip). They are the place to be re-energized and the place to simply “have a nice time”.

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are endless rum shops that can be found almost anywhere- by corners, beaches, main roads and back roads.

It is common to hear the terms “bar” and “rum shop” used simultaneously to refer to the same establishments, however, there are a few distinct differences between them.  To put it simply- rum shops are for the grass roots and down-to-earths, whilst bars are for the more, well, refined if you will.

Rum shops are embedded in Caribbean history and culture, first taking shape as English “tippling houses”. Unlike bars, they are characterized by selling alcohol by bottle, a nip/petit quart/PQ (half-pint), or a shot- all of which can be bought without any surprise service charges.

Ambiance and appearance are also distinct in rum shops when compared to bars. Traditional rum shops are simple structures with two or three doorways and often painted with the colours of a rum or beer sponsor brand. The walls are usually pasted with posters and scribbled notices. More than likely, you can also spot the sign “Any day, any time” somewhere, which basically translates to “I am my own boss”. Some shops are mellow places to just sit back, relax and sip. Others can be known for their pounding music, karaoke, All Fours competitions and Friday-night squabbles.

Customers, which mostly consist of men, tend to be from around the area and can easily spot a visitor as one who refers to the shop by its actual name rather than the owner’s nickname (Trinbagonians get creative with these.). This communal closeness can become a burden for an owner though, since many persons use it as license to demand credit. Then there are the other conspirators, called “moppers”, who have perfected the art of assimilating in groups to enjoy free drinks, then aptly disappearing when time for payment draws near.

Like any business place, items on sale vary according to customers’ preferences. While Tequila can be a big seller in one place, in another shop it can be non-existent as the patrons may favour local rums such as the legendary and somewhat infamous “firewater” that is Forres Park Puncheon Rum. Yes, the label “firewater” says it all.  In terms of foodstuff, nuts and fried channa are standard snacks, but many rum shops offer sustenance in the forms of geera or fried chicken, sandwiches, pies, barbecue and souse (pickled meat).

While cruising through Trinidad and Tobago, it would be extremely difficult to not see at least one shop with patrons casually “liming” (hanging out) outside. If you do decide to check one out, here are some common terms you may want to be familiar with to carry on, or even understand, a conversation:

  • Babash– Extremely strong home-made rum that is illegal in Trinidad and Tobago; also known as bush rum, mountain dew, twist or daru
  • Brian Lara — Fernandes Black Label Rum (named after the world-renown Trinidadian cricketer)
  • Carmen Jones — another name for Fernandes Black Label Rum (based on the movie, Carmen Jones)
  • Cutters — appetizers taken while drinking that are preferably salty and spicy; popular choices include geera pork or chicken, souse (pickled meat with pepper, lime, onion and cucumber), fried chicken wings and spicy, curried channa
  • Double dog/Two dogs– Black and White Scotch Whiskey
  • Fire (v.) — To have a drink of rum e.g. “You firing one, man?”
  • Firewater — A potent, alcoholic drink; Forres Park Puncheon Rum
  • Mopper (v. mop) — someone whose sole purpose is to get free drinks at a rum shop
  • Rum-cork — an alcoholic; someone who drinks heavily; also called rum jumbie, rum mouth or rum sucker
  • Rum talk — saying things when high or drunk that you wouldn’t usually say when sober
  • Steel and Brass — a mixture of Forres Park Puncheon Rum and Carib beer

P.S. Before drinking from a new bottle, don’t forget to pour a libation of rum on the ground for the ancestors. Have fun, beware the moppers and drink responsibly!

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