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Food Rum run

August 27, 2018

Coastal Connecticut is the ultimate recreational multi-plex; it has something for everyone. Swimming, shell fishing, throw a line over the side of the boat and just sit there fishing. Winter and summer sailing, island hopping, bird watching, nature walks, waterskiing, tubing, and the list goes on.

And then there’s rum running.

No, we are not talking about another charity road race. We are talking about the fine art of smuggling hooch under the cover of darkness to avoid “revenuers” during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. Connecticut’s varied terrain provided ample hiding places for the many boats needed to supply the more than 1,500 taverns that operated during that dark period we’ll just call The Dry.

We decided to create our own rum run for 2018. The only criteria we used was the joint had to be accessible by boat.

“Rum is popular in many drinks, but our most popular drink in the summer is our Rum Punch,” explains bartender Patty Murray, a veteran barkeep who was standing watch over the Crab Shack dockside bar of the Crab Shell Restaurant in Stamford.

With that, Murray plopped down a 16-oz. heavy plastic cup filled to the top with ice. (No glassware dockside, please). “I don’t use exact measurements, but I start with about two ounces of light rum, and then equal parts cranberry juice, pineapple juice and orange juice. Then I top it off with Myer’s Dark Rum.” The dark rum floats on top of a kaleidoscope of colors created by the three juices.

The simple drink is cold and delicious, but then Murray shares an ingredient that she first used at the request of a customer: Worcestershire sauce. Just a splash.

“Some people use bitters, too,” adds Jim Clifford, co-owner of the Crab Shell.

Clifford and his Crab Shell partner, Richard Gildersleeve, have been in business together since the 1970s when they owned Galleon Bay resort in Antigua. They then opened Tumbledown Dicks in Greenwich. The Crab Shell opened in 1989, in what was then an undeveloped, mostly industrial area.

“Now look around,” Clifford says, his shaggy gray hair blowing in the breeze as he stretched his arms wide. “There are thousands of apartments. A brand-new boat yard, right next door. And marinas everywhere you look.”

With our yacht out of commission (permanently), we headed up I-95 to exit 16 and the very hard-to-find Sunset Grille, which faces west across Norwalk Harbor and offers an impressive view of the sun as it sets behind hundreds of boats.

“My grandfather started this place in the early ’90s, and it was built on top of a couple of barges sunk into the harbor,” says Vinny Promuto, who now runs the family business. (The family also owns Valentino’s in Norwalk.) “I’ve been running around this place since I was in diapers.”

“We’ve been through everything here. Fires. Hurricanes, high tides,” Promuto says with the enthusiasm of a storm chaser.

We asked Sunset Grille bartender Erik Vitaglione what was his customer’s favorite drink. “Rum punch, no question,” he replies quickly. Already having sampled a rum punch, we pushed him for a more unusual, yet popular, rum drink.

He suggests a rum drink with grilled mango, and we order one. In the kitchen, cook Eddie Garrido quickly throws slices of mango onto the grill.

’The recipe was a collaborative effort by our staff,” Promuto explains. “But Carlos Gonzalez came up with a great name, ‘Mango Loco.’’’

Vitaglione starts by puree-ing sliced grilled mango in a blender, pouring it into a cocktail shaker. He then adds two ounces of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, one ounce of lemon/lime juice and a squirt of agave syrup. After a vigorous shaking, the concoction is poured into a tall glass garnished with a slice of mango.

The mango pulp paired well with the citrus juices and agave syrup. And somehow the slice of mango garnish let us convince ourselves we were drinking a great-tasting health concoction.

Our second day takes us to Captain’s Cove in Bridgeport, the busiest waterfront complex in Connecticut, according to its Memory Wall that details its many different evolutions since 1982. Kaye Williams and his family have transformed what had been a derelict marina into a 375-boat, state-of-the-art destination. It has a unique vibe that is part marina, part maritime museum and amusement park.

Williams’ daughter, Jill, orders us one of the bar’s special drinks, the Island Girl, which was named by our bartender of the day, Lauren Lopes, and features a brand we had never tried, Kenny Chesney’s Blue Chair Bay Coconut Rum. Lopes poured two ounces into a plastic tub filled with ice. She adds pineapple and lime juice, and tops it with a splash of grenadine. Island Girl was the sweetest of the drinks in our Rum Run, and tasted great on a hot, steamy afternoon.

Armed with our Island Girl drink, we stroll around. Seagulls soared overhead and lobster pot buoys hang from every available spot. Huge navigation buoys help mark the driveway. We get the impression that Captain’s Cove is still a work in progress, but what a work it is.

Our rum run could have lasted days, but our bodies could not, so we decide to end it here, on Black Rock Harbor.

A little Prohibition-era trivia: The only way to purchase alcohol legally during The Dry was through a medical prescription presented to a pharmacy. That is why there are still a few Connecticut pharmacies that sell booze. Switzer’s Pharmacy in Southport is one. A big neon sign in the front window advertises “Wines and Liquors.” Stop in for a little medicinal rum the next time you are in the neighborhood.

Bob Horton is a columnist for the Greenwich Time and a contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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