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The Rum Diary

By: OUR STATE & Kathleen Purvis

Tall tales of shipwrecks and smugglers on the Outer Banks inspired four young entrepreneurs to revive a storied tradition. Their Manteo distillery combines history and legend into a potent new concoction.

It’s hard to find many people along the Outer Banks who use the word boozhyot anymore. It sounds sort of like “BOO-shot,” and it helps to have a little booze in you when you try to get the slur in the middle just right. It used to be slang for “have a good time.” At least, that’s what they claim at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo, the home of Kill Devil Rum.

When you step up to the bar for a tasting or to order a cocktail, you’re surrounded by the mystique of rum’s history up and down the Outer Banks. There are maps of shipwrecks, historical pictures, and salvaged items like a big ship’s wheel. And there’s a sign explaining the definition of boozhyot, a term that comes from the Prohibition era, when smugglers aboard pleasure craft — or “booze yachts” — sometimes dumped illegal cargo that washed ashore.

Co-owner Scott Smith admits, though, that an awful lot of what you hear about liquor on the Outer Banks may be a wee bit embellished. “There’s a lot of legend that gets wrapped around truth,” he says.

The Outer Banks were made for legends and tales, especially when you mix in liquor: rum and pirates; remote beaches, marshes, and fog-shrouded inlets that were perfect for hiding treasure and, later, Prohibition-era contraband. According to Smith, Kill Devil Hills was even named for an old Caribbean version of rum created from wild yeast and the molasses left over from making sugar. Enslaved West Africans on sugar plantations used it medicinally, saying it “killed the devil inside” — the devil being bacterial contamination.

When people started to distill rum, making it a little — OK, a lot — easier to drink, they also figured out that it wouldn’t spoil on long voyages, the way water did. So ships started keeping barrels of rum on board for the crew. Since plenty of those ships wrecked on the jagged coast of what eventually became North Carolina, and since barrels float, locals along the coast liked to grab the barrels from wrecks and hide them in the dunes. “Anywhere you have the history of the sea, you’re having rum,” Smith says. “Rum was the common man’s drink.”

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