If you read much food writing, sooner or later you’ll notice that food writers are often prone to extolling the seasonality of dishes by summoning various forms of dinnerware. “Spring on a plate!” one will chirp, describing a citrus-drizzled halibut pan-seared on a bed of pea shoots; later, “Autumn in a bowl!” to describe a squash soup laced with sherry and cinnamon.
In the booze sphere, the winter holidays are the most common source of this construction. At this point, hearing a cranberry or pine-scented punch described as “Christmas in a bowl!” causes me to consider drowning myself in it.
Still, allspice (a.k.a. pimento) dram is good enough that I choose to ignore how often the phrase “Christmas in a bottle” comes up in odes to its pleasures. And this zippy liqueur’s appearance in many a summer tiki drink makes it a dram for all seasons, despite the holiday baking spices it sends wafting elfishly up one’s snoot.
That scent comes from allspice, so named in recognition of its impressive variety of flavors: alternately clovey, cinnamony and nutmeggy, and possessing a gingery heat. Its other name, pimento, may have been a goof: According to “The Cultural History of Plants,” Columbus, looking for valuable spices on his travels, showed black peppercorns to locals in Cuba and was told they had plenty of them. If you look at a handful of peppercorns (“pimienta” in Spanish) and a handful of whole allspice berries, you can see the resemblance; the authors speculate this may be why the Spanish expedition called allspice “pimiento,” another Columbus-era mistake that stuck. (“Who lives, who dies, who names your foliage?” is a historical question Lin-Manuel Miranda could wrestle with in “Hamilton 2.”)
At some point in the naming of the liqueur, the second “i” came out, resulting in “pimento” dram. But since my Southern roots have left me unable to hear the word “pimento” without thinking of cheese spread, I prefer to think of the liqueur in its “allspice” hat. The mere thought of a pimento cheese cocktail is enough to make one consider giving up drink.
Like orgeat, falernum and other secret potions of the early tiki titans, allspice dram is one of the ingredients that takes tiki to flavor profiles beyond rum-laced sugar and fruit. It’s often the spice that makes punch nice, and is traditional in Jamaica, where the berry has long been used to enhance the local tipple.
“On every island that was making rum hundreds of years ago, the rum was horrible coming off the still,” says Ed Hamilton, the writer and connoisseur behind the Hamilton rum label and the Ministry of Rum website. “So everybody added sugar to it, or if they couldn’t afford sugar, they added whatever was growing in their garden, which was local fruits, spices, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon — in Jamaica, it was pimento.” The spice is also a primary component of jerk seasoning; in Jamaica, Hamilton says, the liqueur is mostly used for cooking. As he described various ways he uses it in marinades, I paused now and then to wipe the drool from my phone.
After the Wray & Nephew version of the liqueur disappeared from the American market in the 1980s, it was missed by bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts, who “commented on how this magical ingredient was unavailable, and a mess to make at home,” says Eric Seed, founder of spirits importer Haus Alpenz, which started bringing in St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram in 2008.
As the cocktail movement spread, St. Elizabeth became the go-to for bars. More options have come around: The Bitter Truth makes an allspice dram, and last year, Hamilton launched his own (delicious) variation; the rum base brings rich notes of butterscotch and banana. Bar folks are taking advantage of the choices. Martin Cate wrote in his James Beard award-winning book about his tiki bar, “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki,” that they use St. Elizabeth. But since the book was published, they’ve switched over. “Still like St. Elizabeth,” he wrote in a message, “but I prefer the higher ester Jamaican rum funk at the heart of Hamilton.”
Now we have a new iteration, from D.C.’s rum distillery Cotton & Reed, which launched this spring. Lukas B. Smith, who serves as the distillery’s barman and herbalist, tends to make everything more interesting, and this is no exception. Having now sampled and mixed with their dram, I’d say snag it not with expectations of a traditional allspice liqueur, but for something that stretches the category.
Not everyone will want that. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who helped keep tiki alive with his writing and now with Latitude 29, his bar in New Orleans, says what he wants in an allspice liqueur “is a liqueur that tastes like allspice.” Some brands, he notes, try to add interest with other spices, but he says that can make it too idiosyncratic for cocktails.
I can see his point in a bar setting, where there are benefits to stocking components that can be popped into classic recipes and be trusted to function the same way as another brand, without having to rejigger the specifications. But while Cotton & Reed’s dram may not lock into every old recipe with the easy click of a Lego, it makes some lovely drinks. Idiosyncrasy is part of its appeal.
Rather than the typical allspice/rum/sugar recipe, Cotton & Reed’s incorporates molasses and different spices, including ginger, peppercorn, gentian and dried lime, for a liqueur that’s drier, hotter and has a nip of bitterness — like an allspice dram majoring in amaro studies.
Smith argues that it can go anywhere you’d use another brand. Because they’ve reduced the amount of sugar, “you have to mind your sweetness levels; you might have to kick that up a little” in some recipes; then again, you might find you prefer a drier drink.
The liqueur is a bit of a shape-shifter. “Next to a spirit, it’s gonna show you its sweet and spicy side, but then you put it next to the lime juice and it brings out these tropical crazy flavors that, when you taste it on its own, it’s not even clear they’re there,” Smith says. That versatility interests him: the way the liqueur reacts to what it’s mixed with, and how “the brain wants to harmonize these things.” It feels liberating in its newness, he says, noting that historical progenitors like 19th-century author Jerry Thomas weren’t thinking these thoughts: “They didn’t do this in the old days.”
Still, it’s an allspice dram, and apparently, some things stay the same: “It’s surprising to me how many people pick up the bottle and go, ‘It smells like Christmas!’ ” Smith says. “And I’m like, ‘Come on now.’ ”
I feel you, buddy.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.