When it comes to Canada Day libations, patriotic booze can take the form of Caesars, craft brews from sea to sea, Canadian wines from the Okanagan, Niagara and elsewhere, and, of course, spirits such as Alberta rye. But there's one beverage hailing from the East Coast that's a bit of a contentious subject: Screech, the sweet, dark Jamaican rum bottled and sold by Newfoundland's liquor board. Its onomatopoeic name might best describe how your throat feels when you drink it neat.
While Screech may not be the finest rum for sipping, this spirit with its sugary, smoky notes, is winning fans and gaining cred with food lovers as chefs and bartenders on and off the island increasingly find ingenious uses for it in their sauces and dressings, meats and desserts, as well as in their cocktails.
"It's not the most popular rum by sales, but it's certainly iconic … We use it sometimes in our cures for hams, brines, cakes, gingerbreads," chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage in St. John's says. "We use it more for cooking than drinking here. It's quite sweet and has a hint of spice, even though it's not a spiced rum."
Screech is also famous from the kitschy Newfoundland custom known as the screech-in. Look it up online and you'll find the rules to this touristy local ritual for welcoming out-of-towners, or "come from aways." The format varies from place to place, but typically includes reciting a short poem, taking a shot of Screech, wearing a fisherman's rain hat (known as a sou'wester) – and kissing a fresh cod on the lips.
The screech-in tradition is only a few decades old, but the history of Screech goes back to the colony's formative years when fishermen would trade cod for moonshine in the West Indies.
In the glass, a whiff of Screech yields sweet but strong vanilla and molasses notes with a peppery finish. Locals and drink experts alike say today's version has mellowed significantly since its days as a sailor's go-to spirit. The closest thing to the Screech of decades past, according to Ottawa-based spirits expert and author Davin de Kergommeaux, is a white overproof rum from Jamaica called Rum Fire (sadly, not available in Canada).
Still, a splash of Screech makes for a tasty addition for many East Coast chefs.
Andrea Maunder of Bacalao in St. John's uses it to make sweets such as Screech-caramel sauce, steamed puddings, Screech-soaked raisin cheesecakes, ice creams and flourless chocolate cakes. "It lends itself better to cooking than a lot of other rums because it has such a unique caramel flavour and toasty notes that are like chocolate and coffee."
Maunder also does screech-ins at her restaurant. "We do them a bit different. Some places will make you eat bologna and wear a sou'wester [fisherman's rain hat], but we don't do that," she says. "The point of the ceremony is to welcome people from elsewhere and have them be honorary Newfoundlanders so they're welcome back home any time.… It's about the generosity and our people's friendly nature. We're poking fun at ourselves. Done well, it's a respectful and welcoming ceremony."
Screech has also landed on the central-Canadian mainland at Canoe, the posh restaurant perched on the 54th floor of a bank tower in Toronto's financial district. Executive chef Anthony Walsh has been cooking with Screech for almost 20 years. "Screech has become a bit of a staple here. One of the first things I made at the restaurant was a toffee pudding with a Screech butterscotch. It's good for that deep caramel, spicy rum taste," he says. "One of my favourites is a Screech squab where we take the aged bird and dip it in this incredibly aromatic broth that has a Screech base and five-spice, white pepper and cardamom. The Screech cooks the skin and gives this amazing, toasty character with the sugar and alcohol."
For Walsh, it's important to look to the country's heritage when designing his menus. "Canada's young and we're always looking to the future, but we should also look to the past for these snippets, and tipping our hats to our history and the fisheries."
Canoe's head bartender, Jeff Sansone, swiped a bottle of Screech from the kitchen and started using it in his cocktails five years ago, starting with a Screech mojito, then a Screech Manhattan. His menu currently has a take on a Dark and Stormy where he mixes Screech with maple lemonade and ginger beer. "It's got a real vanilla, smoky flavour, [and] there is oak in it so it adds a lot of depth to a cocktail," he says. "The lemonade has a tartness that counteracts the sweetness of the Screech."
But ask a Newfoundlander why he or she consumes Screech, and they'll often say it's not necessarily because of its taste but the meaning behind it. "I have a bit of a soft spot for it because I can taste hints of molasses," chef Roary MacPherson of Oppidan, a St. John's restaurant says. "Growing up on the west coast of Newfoundland, molasses was an everyday condiment on toast."
For MacPherson, Screech's spicy, brown-sugar notes with sweet vanilla overtones make it a versatile ingredient that he adds to cakes, baked apples and dressings, as well as sauces and glazes for meats and fish. "Tourists love it and it's a big part of our culture – especially with the screech-ins. For many years, it was basically the only type of rum you could get because we'd trade it with salt cod with Jamaica.
"It's tied to our history, tied to our fisheries, and if you're coming to Newfoundland, you have to try it," MacPherson says. "That goes without saying."
What is a screech-in?
A Newfoundland screech-in can take many forms. Here's one of them.
1) To become an honorary Newfoundlander, first gather your friends and pour everyone a shot of Screech.
2) Everyone has to kiss a cod – fresh, salted, taxidermied – or, alternatively, a puffin.
3) Then everyone recites this poem:
From the waters of the Avalon, to the shores of Labrador,
We've always stuck together, with a Rant and with a Roar.
To those who've never been, soon they'll understand,
From coast to coast, we raise a toast, We love thee Newfoundland!
4) Take the shot. Congratulations, you're now as much of a Newfoundlander as anyone who can drink booze and kiss dead fish.