On the rocky coasts of the north Atlantic there has traditionally been a hard life of necessity, and a resultant necessity of hard drink. On the Rock, as Newfoundland is affectionately known, this imbibatory necessity was supplied by a unique blend of Jamaican distillation and Newfoundland tradition. As unique as the culture of its adopted home, Newfoundland Screech holds a special importance for inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador, wherever they may happen to be living at the moment.
Newfoundland Cod for Jamaican Rum
Newfoundland and Labrador are not richly blessed with agricultural land. The usual sources of sugar for fermentation - grapes, barley, sugar cane, or even potatoes - do not grow readily or in large quantities on the shores of Dildo Bay or in the rocky soils of Cape Chidley. Newfoundland and Labrador's traditional wealth, the mighty Cod, does not lend itself to fermentation. The resourceful fisher folk were forced to trade, and trade they did. Each year, ships loaded to the gunwales with salt cod would sail south for the port of Kingston, Jamaica, where the plentiful and inexpensive preserved fish was in great demand in the days before refrigeration. In return for their cod, the northern ships were loaded with casks of new distilled rum which would brighten the dark winter days in the outports. It was said that the long journey north in the rocking holds gave a unique character to the spirits in the casks, a character which, in modern times, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp tries desperately to maintain through the judicious blending of Jamaican Demerara rums and Newfoundland attitude. This care was rewarded in 2003 at the 14th annual International Rum Festival: Newfoundland Screech took the gold medal.
The Legend of the Naming
While the rum itself is centuries old, the name and the legend of the naming go back to just a little before Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. According to the legend of the naming, during the period when American military bases were common on the Rock, a particular officer made an attempt to 'go native' by joining an evening get-together of Newfoundlanders. In imitation of his hosts, the American threw back a glass of the beverage of choice and promptly cried out in wonder or pain. Nearby compatriots soon were pounding on the door inquiring after the 'ungodly screech'. In all versions of the legend, although the age of the speaker varies, the reply is the same: 'The Screech? 'Tis the rum'.
The Newfie Bullet
On 29 June, 1898, a short narrow gauge train pulled out of St John's for its first 27-hour journey across Newfoundland to Port-aux-Basques. The tradition of crossing the island by rail at a snail's pace continued until 2 July, 1969. Ironically, the slow train to Port-aux-Basque came to be affectionately known 'The Newfie Bullet.' The train no longer runs through Tickle Harbour and Come By Chance and even the rails have been removed, but the memory of the Newfie Bullet is preserved in the T'Railway Provincial Park, a narrow corridor which spans the island and is a part of the Trans-Canada Trail which stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and north to the Atlantic Ocean. The Newfie Bullet is also commemorated in a cocktail of much quicker but much less scenic effect, consisting of one part Screech, one part coffee liqueur and whatever proportion of shaved ice suits the season. Both smoother and quicker than its namesake, if not treated with respect, the Newfie Bullet can have the impact of a locomotive. The Newfoundland and Labrador Government helpfully provides a number of other Screech Recipes for the discerning consumer of Newfoundland culture.
While Canadian Provinces have no constitutional control over immigration issues, Newfoundland and Labrador have managed to preserve a tradition of welcoming honorary immigrants through an arcane ceremony involving Screech, a cod fish, and certain mildly secret incantations. With the collapse of the cod stocks, the hind end of a puffin is sometimes substituted for the cod. At the end of the ceremony, the successful applicant is given a certificate and their name is inscribed on the roll of Honorary Newfoundlanders. This ceremony is known as 'Screeching In' and is open to all applicants, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or sexual or religious orientation.
In 1949, Newfoundlanders faced a fateful decision. Should they remain an independent state with all the benefits and risks? Should they seek to join the US since they had become so familiar? Or should they join Canada, as they already shared a border?1 After a close-fought referendum, Newfoundlanders chose to join the confederation, thus adding Screech and the Newfie Bullet to the honourable list of Canadian Cocktails which contains such wonderful concoctions as western Canada's Caesar, Quebec's Caribou, and Leonard Cohen's Red Needle.