Possessed: A Close Encounter with Rum Jumbie
Rum Jumbie Liqueur makes a magnificent promise: Drink it and you’ll dance all night. It is named for Caribbean ghosts, which, according to legend (by way of the brand), guard a secret rum recipe in a cave on an undisclosed island. If disturbed from their slumber by drinkers seeking refreshment, the jumbies (or “jumbees”) make the offenders dance all night to the beat of conga drums. According to the Rum Jumbie website, the modern liqueur is based on this same, mythic recipe and, the brand claims, by drinking it you may “awaken the ‘Rum Jumbies’ from years gone by.”
Challenge accepted. I vowed to drink of the Jumbie and see what happened. Would sipping on Jumbie call forth the eponymous spirits? Would they make me dance? Did the music have to be conga-based or could I opt for Aretha Franklin or Chance the Rapper? Would a sip suffice or did I have to drink the whole bottle to conjure the ghosts? Did jumbies require a traditional two-step or was twerking a possibility? Was I even capable of twerking? All would be answered. But first, some background on the spirits (both alcoholic and ectoplasmic) I would encounter.
According to the Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore, jumbies are vampires who fly about in the night as balls of fire, inhabiting victims and draining them of life. Worried one might try to suck your lifeforce tonight? Try rubbing the spirit’s daytime human “costume” with salt or hot peppers while the jumbie is away. This apparently shrivels the skin, leaving the ghost with no defense against the fatal sun. Another way to defeat a jumbie is to leave piles of rice or sand outside your home as a distraction. The spirit will be compelled to count every grain like some spectral version of Rain Man.
Of course, a jumbie’s favorite pastime is making people dance. English professor Charles Kingsley gave an (extremely imperialist) description of a Trinidadian “jumby-dance” in his 1869 travel narrative, At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies:
“Martin now began to chant a monotonous African song, accompanying with the tom-tom. Gradually he began to quicken the measure; quicker went the words; quicker beat the drum; and suddenly one of the women sprang into the open space in front of the Fetish. Round and round she went, keeping admirable time with the music. Quicker still went the drum. And now the whole of the woman’s body seemed electrified by it; and, as if catching the infection, a man now joined her in the mad dance. Couple after couple entered the arena, and a true sorcerers’ sabbath began.”'
Marketed as “The Caribbean Spirit,” Rum Jumbie is produced by the Panamanian company Varela Hermanos—better known for it’s Ron Abuelo rum—and made with a blend of rums from different islands. The brand withholds the precise island from which the recipe supposedly originated (as well as how the distillers themselves overcame the jumbies).
Rum Jumbie’s exact ingredients are similarly kept ambiguous. The drink’s nose hints at the inclusion of citrus fruits and cinnamon, but tasting it yields mostly syrupy caramel and coconut. Honestly, the taste of Rum Jumbie Liqueur is hardly its primary selling point. Its real merit is the bottle, which is shaped like a conga player in the style of Aunt Jemima or the honey bear. The figure’s straw hat even acts as a cap. The bottle may or may not be modeled off an actual jumbie, but it certainly is an intimidating presence on the kitchen counter when one is expecting spirits to arrive at any moment.
A Night With the Jumbies
All the tasting notes and research in the world can only prepare you so much for a meeting with jumbies, but I wasn’t about to back down. So, putting my personal safety and podiatric health on the line, I popped open a bottle of Rum Jumbie. Here’s how it went down:
3:35 p.m. — First taste at the Supercall office. Realize it will be a long night.
5:00 — First full drink. Follow the brand’s exhortation to mix Rum Jumbie with fruity mixers. No fresh fruit on hand, so flavored seltzer will have to do. Success.
5:15 — Feel no urge to dance.
5:39 — Another full drink. I assume I have to imbibe a decent portion of the bottle if there’s going to be any effect. I’ve reached the bottle’s upper arms.
5:45 — One more for the road. Start to feel the rhythm, until my subtle dance moves get awkward looks in the elevator.
6:02 — Pass a conga player on the subway platform. No one else seems to notice him, and I begin to worry he is a vision.
Maybe these jumbie things are real. Luckily, he ignores me.
6:43 — Stop by a Jamaican restaurant to grab some jerk chicken with rice and peas. Ask them if they know much about jumbies (or "duppies," as they’re called in Jamaica, they correct me). Neither proprietor has much advice to offer, but they do find the Rum Jumbie bottle amusing.
7:14 — Pass a chalk board illustration outside a bar depicting a “cool cat” playing the bongo drums with its paws. It’s not quite congas, but I consider it significant (proof that the Rum Jumbie is at least affecting my judgement, if not my desire to move it, move it).
7:15 — I see an actual cat cross the road and recall reading that jumbies can take on the form of a cat. Sprint the rest of the way home.
7:17 — My girlfriend is concerned by my sweaty appearance. I start to wonder about the physical impact the sugary Rum Jumbie is having on my athletic ability.
7:24 — Fix another drink to steady my nerves and quell the spice of the jerk chicken. I’m about one-third of the way through the bottle’s drum.
7:50 — Research jumbies further. Learn that placing shoes outside a home’s front door will protect inhabitants because the spirit has no feet and will endlessly attempt to fit into the footwear instead of stalking a victim. Wonder how such an easily distracted creature could instill such fear. Control the urge to put my shoes out.
8:05 — Make a Jumbie Ambrosia cocktail with watermelon juice and lime following the brand’s recipe. Find it satisfyingly summery.
8:07 — Still no urge to dance.
8:30 — Can’t decide if I’m getting drunk or paranoid.
9:02 — Girlfriend plays the Jumanji drum song very quietly to freak me out. It works magnificently.
9:20 — Listen to The Wailers’ cover of the 1950s song “Jumbie Jamboree,” then switch to the Harry Belafonte version “Zombie Jamboree.” The latter is legitimately toe-tappingly good. Feel the most tempted all night to dance, but alas, not quite enough to send me onto the dance floor.
9:50 — Make a nightcap of Rum Jumbie and OJ.
10:17 — Pass out from drinking most of a bottle of Rum Jumbie.
6:30 a.m. — Wake up with no memory of dancing and no visible signs of amnesic nocturnal revelry.
6:35 — Discover shoes I “accidentally” left by the front door.
So, will Rum Jumbie Liqueur make you dance to the congas all night long? No. But will it make a surprisingly decent Watermelon Cooler? Yes.