It wasn’t so long ago that I bore witness to — and maybe a little responsibility for — my underage cousins doing a bit of underage drinking. Zach was 17, Jake was 15 and I was 23, visiting them in Ontario. Living in B.C., I didn’t get to see them often, so when they suggested having a couple of beers one evening, I couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to be that lame older cousin who wasn’t on side.
At the end of the night, Jake made it in the door and past our Nana, my aunt and my dad without being found out; but when the sickness took him shortly after he went to bed, there was no hiding what we’d done. I received a hand-written letter from my Nana — who does not drink — a couple of months later assuring me that even though I’d shown poor, poor judgment, she still loved me.
Fast-forward five-and-a-half years to January 2013. I’m back in Ontario for the first time since that disgraceful evening. My cousins are now 23 and 21. I’m sitting around the kitchen table at their house with my aunt and uncle, my dad and my Nana. We’re playing dice. A couple of times throughout the evening, my uncle offers me a beer, but I decline.
My uncle tells me that if I’d rather have a cocktail, I should talk to Jake. Turns out my young cousin has been experimenting with whiskies and rums. My uncle refers to Jake’s activity as “working on the screech.”
Screech: that mythical moonshine-like rum from the East Coast. When I hear that word, I imagine grizzled old fishermen stilling near-200-proof swill in damp basements with poor lighting. It makes me think of rum-runners stowing barrels of the stuff in underground tunnels during Prohibition. It makes me think of pirates.
I take my uncle’s comment to mean Jake is sampling cheap liquor, but when Jake sits down and takes a sip of his beverage, my uncle refers to screech as “barrel wash.”
“Wait, that’s actually screech?” I ask. “You mean, you can buy it here? Legally?”
Jake goes back into the kitchen, comes back and thunks a bottle down in front of me. The modest white label, depicting a sketch of a fishing hamlet, reads Newfoundland Screech Rum. The myth I’d built up immediately dies — so much for XXX-etched barrels tucked in dark corners. But before my disappointment gets the best of me, Jake pours a couple of ounces into a rocks glass and slides it over. I’m surprised by the initial sweetness of the rum. Thin molasses comes to mind.
We keep playing dice. The rum warms me with a surprisingly smooth finish, but I pass on Jake’s offer for a second. He may be legally allowed to drink now, but this is the first time I’ve been with the family since “the night,” and getting screeched with Jake just doesn’t feel right.
Jake suggests I purchase a bottle when I get home. He’s sure it’s available at our government liquor store, and he’s right — 1.14 litres of the stuff for $36.29. As I watched his 15-year-old body heave over a toilet back in 2007, I never would have thought he’d be introducing me to booze the next time I saw him — especially not in the presence of Nana. Oh, how times change.