The Global Barfly’s Companion #16 by Nancy Caronia (Photos by Nancy Caronia)
Location: 26 Marlborough Street, Newport, RI 401-849-3600
I often refer to Rhode Island as the postage stamp sized state. No matter where you are located, it takes about an hour to get from one side of the state to the other since it’s only 48 miles from North to South and 37 miles from East to West. Even though it’s tiny, Rhode Island has more contradictions than any other place I’ve lived. The last of the original thirteen colonies to enter statehood, it was the first to secede from Great Britain in 1776. Although institutions like Brown University were built on slave profits, Rhode Island was also the first colony to turn away slave traders and make slave importation illegal in 1774. And during the colonial period, there were almost 30 rum distilleries located within the colony. Cotton Mather called Rhode Island “the sewer of New England,” but that may have had as much to do with the religious freedom practiced by its inhabitants, including Roger Williams, a Baptist preacher, who founded Providence in 1636, as to any seeming debauchery through the rum trade.
Newport, located on Aquidneck Island, is rife with Rhode Island’s incongruities. Newport touts some of the oldest religious establishments, including the Quaker meetinghouse, the oldest house of worship in Newport; St. Mary’s, the oldest Catholic Church in Rhode Island (and where John F. Kennedy wed Jacqueline Bouvier); and the Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in North America. It’s also home to “America’s oldest tavern.”
Established in 1673, The White Horse Tavern was more than a watering hole during the colonial and revolutionary periods. It served as a meeting hall, courthouse, inn, and surgery hall. British soldiers, colonists, revolutionaries, and privateers—aka, pirates—all had cause to meet up at the tavern. It was where political and business deals were brokered, where British soldiers and revolutionaries plotted their next military moves, and where everyone came to down a pint.
I’d been to The White Horse Tavern a few times for dinner, but didn’t know much of this history. I grew up in New York City and, as a writer, the only White Horse Tavern that counted was the one in the West Village (see Global Barfly’s Companion #1) where Dylan Thomas supposedly took his last drink. Newport’s Tavern is much older with a more storied history having to do with the founding of the United States.
It has changed in the over three hundred years of its existence. Today, there are no rooms to let, no surgeons performing needed operations, and the dining rooms serve upscale fare to what I found to be mainly business and tourist clientele. But tucked in back of the entrance to the tavern is the bar, a cozy, dark paneled affair where the ghosts of privateers and colonists seem to sit beside you and the locals that come in for a quick pint or a deconstructed artisanal cocktail, or as I found them sitting at the bar, in for the burger and beer Thursday night bar special.
Stephen, a long-time waiter of The White Horse Tavern, greeted me at the entrance and escorted me to a barstool.
He told me any questions I had, Nick could answer them. Stephen was right. The bartender Nick was a walking history book.
When I asked him about Newport’s signature cocktail, the Dark and Stormy, he regaled me with stories of the seventeenth century privateer Thomas Tew, aka the Rhode Island Pirate. What I learned was Newport had 22 of the 30 rum distilleries for which the colony was known and that earned the town its moniker as rum capital of the world. Rum production broke down only after the tax for sugar was increased in 1764 and British soldiers took up residence in Newport during the Revolutionary War. By 1817 only two of the 22 distilleries still operated.
The Dark and Stormy was also a medicinal elixir since its combination of rum and ginger beer helped with both seasickness and scurvy. Nick’s modern day version of the Dark and Stormy was made with Thomas Tew’s single barreled rum, ginger beer, and a dash of Giffard’s Vanille de Madagascar liqueur. It went down smooth. Thomas Tew rum has been made since 2006 by one of two distillers in Rhode Island today: Newport Distilling Company, the makers of Newport Storm, a beer known throughout New England. The other distiller, Sons of Liberty Spirits was founded in 2001 and focuses on whisky and vodka.
Nick kept up a steady banter as he mixed drinks and took food orders for the customers that filled in the tables and barstools around us. Whether mixing a deconstructed martini or pulling a pint of Newport Storm, he was gracious and made me feel like I never wanted to leave. All of the customers seemed happy to be there.
For our second drink, Nick whipped up a gin, St. Germain, and Lillet cocktail after we ordered a dozen oysters. If there are only two distilleries in Rhode Island today, there are a plethora of oyster farms throughout the state. Before I moved to Rhode Island, I’d had oysters once in my life. Now that I’ve lived here six years, I eat them almost every week, and have learned to shuck them myself. Still, it’s always nice to be served a freshly shucked dozen of local oysters on a bed of ice with a little lemon wedge on the side.
In the summertime, you can also sit outside on the small patio and look up at the stars, but for me, the bar is the place to hang out, make new friends, and listen to Nick give a history lesson. Nick told me he’s there from Thursday through Sunday evenings. I look forward to a return visit where I’ll find out more stories about Newport’s colonial days.
Nancy Caronia is a Pushcart Prize nominated author whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including most recently The Missing Slate, Animal Literary Magazine, and Lowestoft Chronicle. She is the co-editor of Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Culture, and Teaching in the Work of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press 2015).