Editor's Rating

Do you know the difference between a bar and a rum shop?

By Angelo Bissessarsingh

Forget the Oilbird, Manatee Pawi, there is a more endangered species in Trinidad and Tobago at the moment . The traditional rumshop is fast nearing extinction after centuries of existence. Now don’t get me wrong, BARS still exist-we ain’t going through a next prohibition- but the classic RUMSHOP is now few and far between. These used to be fixtures of EVERY town and village in the islands. Even if there was no church or school in some of these settlements, there HAD to be a rumshop. It was the sort of place that was the original boys’ club, where the menfolk could gather and “chop ah few” while the womenfolk caught up on gossip while doing the Saturday-night grocery shopping. Most rumshops used to just be a partitioned end of a provision merchant’s counter, a hallowed sanctum which no woman dared enter past the swinging half-doors and where children were sent with the instructions “Go call yuh fadda before de wotless bitch drink out all he pay”.

In the cities of Port of Spain and San Fernando these rumshops were the unofficial “People’s Parliaments” where no topic was taboo: cricket, sex, religion or politics, all was fair game. Just so you know, places like the legendary Black Cat Bar (now Happy Corner Hotel) in San Fernando and Port of Spain’s Brooklyn Bar have been keeping throats wet for a century or more. Dock Workers Bar in Scarborough has been a watering hole since money was counted in pounds and shillings.

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The Happy Corner rumshop in San Fernando, Trinidad, formerly called The Black Cat. Photo courtesy Angelo Bissessarsingh

Yet, in a time when even the most humble tavern now boasts slot machines and a huge LCD TV, the uninitiated could be fooled into thinking that any bar could be a rumshop.  This is why a spotter’s guide to rumshops is a good idea, but seeing as how no bookstore seems to have one on the shelves , I decided to write one myself. Just for starters and for the edification of all you hipster limers, NOTHING on the famous Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook could ever be classed as a rumshop, so pay CAREFUL attention for the next few paragraphs will enable you to avoid being duped into drinking in a fraudulent establishment.

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Another classic rumshop. Photo courtesy Angelo Bissessarsingh

  •  A rumshop does NOT have: big screen TVs, games, air-conditioning, padded seats, barkeeps who know what a mudslide is, waitresses (especially ones looking like supermodels), flashing lights, menus, food with unpronounceable names, clean urinals, carpeted floors, cashiers, cash registers, valet parking, fake palm trees, neon signs. NO Sports memorabilia OTHER than a bat signed by Brian Lara or one of the other Windies greats.
  • The rumshop must serve ONLY beers (beastly cold), Mackeson/Guinness, rum (not Appleton and Malibu eh…anything by Fernandes, Angostura or jess plain firewater), the mixers/chasers must be SOLELY limited to cokes (Coca Cola), soda water and other cheap sweedrink (Trini dialect for soft drinks), if the bar in Barrackpore (South Trinidad) , they  could also serve cold Bay Rum. Every nip of  rum MUST be accompanied by some ice water in a Puncheon rum bottle. Aside from some drunk men hugging up and grooving, the only wine in that bar should be CASK WINE. If you go in this sort of  bar and ask for tequila the barman should have the right to cuff you down. If ANY of the drinks need rocks, the ice should be brought to the table in little bowls to be dispensed with one’s fingers.
  • CUTTERS are the cornerstone of a proper rumshop, not finger foods, tapas or horse divers (we Trinis don’t know how to pronounce hors d’ouvres). Just in case you don’t know what these are this is food, REAL DRINKER’S FOOD: Crispy skin and geera pork, homestyle fried chicken, curried goat , and even hops-bread sandwiches (chow-mein, curried liver and gizzards) which gonna suck up all the liquor and keep you only mildly drunk LONG after an empty stomach man would be rolling on the floor. These should be served in little, colourful saucers with toothpicks as cutlery and with a bottle of the barman’s wife’s homemade pepper sauce. Everybody has that ONE rumshop which they swear has the best cutters in creation, and for me that would be Monroe’s Bar , just off the Uriah Butler Highway’s south-bound lane on Freeport Mission Road. The pork there must be narcotic because it’s certainly an addictive habit. The chicken is good as well-juicy and tender, but the greatness of the roasted pork is proven in the hundreds of people who begin streaming through the bar from the time the doors open and shouting “GIMME AH POKE SANWICH DEY WITH HEAVY PEPPER”. If the bar isn’t serving cutters, there should at least be a doubles vendor , oyster seller’s stall complete with bottles of spicy sauce and a pitch-oil flambeaux or a dealer in black pudding and souse. Doubles is a latecomer, but oysters, pudding and souse have been classic drinker’s snacks since time immemorial. Too bad there is no one left to carry on another bar food tradition of the older days which is an elderly woman seated behind a coal-pot, turning out delicious saltfish accras and “floats” (a light fried bake). If all this fails, there should at least be some packets of salty snacks behind the bar hanging from a line with clothespins stuck to them. Some of you would remember a large, orange species of corn curls from the not too distant past which was actually branded “CUTTERS”
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Fried fish known as fry dry is a popular cutter in many rumshops. Images taken from Caribbeanpot.com

  • Any bar playing music newer than the early 1990s can lay no claim to being a true rumshop. Music, if any, should be limited to kaiso, good soca and chutney (not some of the recent cookie-cutter stuff), reggae, pan and classics from the genres of jazz and pop. Anything else just does not make the grade.
  • NOTE: There should be NO electronic games of any kind. The constant dings of a fruit-bandit electric slot machine should be enough to discourage any meaningful dialogue fueled  by rum. All Fours and dominoes should be the sole entertainment and that too needs to be of the table-slapping, shouting “HANG-JACK” kind. Nothing too sedate.
  • A proper rumshop has furniture limited to some stools and chairs with cast iron frames and little or no padding on the seats. Some simple tables fit for beating a melodious rum-drinking ditty upon and playing a crashing game of all-fours . The beers should be in a chiller under the counter with a stainless steel sliding top and a shelf behind the bar should display the rum , alongside dusty bottles with rusted caps representing all the other types of fermented liquids the bar never sold , like the better brands of vodka and whiskey (Black and White should be the ONLY Scotch permitted in the hallowed company of rum). SOMEWHERE in that rumshop should have a pair of swinging half-doors like in the old west saloons.
  • A good rumshop needs some heritage and tradition. Annual observances like a Christmas lime when the drink-up not going on the tabs, a fierce inter-rumshop all-fours competition (with the trophies of victory bearing plastic hands holding cards displayed prominently behind the bar), or a fiery curry duck cookoff.
  • There should be some dirty posters around. Carib used to have the BEST of this genre back in the day with soapy nudes draped over Porsches and such. Now the heat in dem posters tone down considerably and I am left to bemoan what a prudish nation we have become. While on the topic of wall hangings, there should be a sign hanging SOMEWHERE that says “OPENING HOURS: Anyday, Anytime) and of course , chalked notices “CASH TODAY CREDIT TOMORROW”….”IN GOD WE TRUST BUT IN OMAN WE BUST” and “NO LOUD MUSIC OR CUSSIN”
  • The barman must  have ah catchy name: Sugars, Breddo, Fats, Smalls, Blacks…well you get the point. He must  be a past master of old talk and strong enough to break up a fight. He must also know NOTHING of mixology other than dispensing puncheon by the nip, although a rudimentary understanding of how to make ah Bholai would be helpful. For the uninitiated, a Bholai is a Mackeson stout spiked with a shot of white Puncheon rum and a twist of lime or Bitters. I don’t know if Bholai was the name of the barkeep who devised such a potent concoction or the name of the first victim who drank one. Alternatively, the Mackeson can be replaced with Carib beer and Supligen mixed but then it is known as a Boodhai.
  • If you go into  a bar and the toilet have liquid soap, LEAVE. A real rumshop have a urinal facing the main road in which your passing of water will be exposed to traffic or at least marginally obscured by a half-door. On a funny note, I know two bars with signs over the porcelain which say “Please do not s__t in the urinal” which means that this was a bridge the owner had to cross more than once…..

SO, now that you have a guide to rumshops, you can no longer be fooled by yuppy pretenders. HAPPY DRINKING and remember if I see you in passing, I dropping in for a rounds.