There are age-old tales of hauntings on the North Carolina coast, especially in the Wilmington area and along the Outer Banks. I thought it apropos to explore the legends as we inch toward Halloween.
Folks say that Wilmington, which is nestled in a triangle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, is particularly prone to hauntings because of an old superstition that says ghosts—or haints, as the Gullah people call them—cannot cross over water. The Gullah people, in case you aren’t aware, are direct descendants of formerly enslaved people brought over from West Africa, and though they once inhabited the coastline from the Outer Banks to the north coast of Florida, only a remnant of the subculture remains today in the Sea Islands near Charleston, South Carolina. The heritage of the Gullah people is largely Creole, and superstitions abound, especially in their folklore about the dead. Whether or not the water theory is true, people all across the South still paint their porch ceilings blue, presumably to keep the ghosts at bay.
But the Cape Fear region has plenty to offer for adventurous souls who come seeking those ghostly encounters. And smart marketing teams have capitalized on the legends that persist there, with everything from ticketed ghost walks to haunted pool halls. Don’t believe in it? Suit yourself.
If you venture further north of Wilmington, especially toward the inlets along the Outer Banks, you might catch a ghostly glimpse of one Edward Teach— notoriously, the pirate Blackbeard. He is said to have made his home in those parts, probably for the cover it provided him in between his plundering of unsuspecting cargo ships headed for Port Wilmington. Some modern thrill seekers claim to have witnessed a mysterious light moving around in the waters there, or experienced a spooky wailing that sounded like someone crying out, “Where’s my head?”
They say it’s Blackbeard.
Now, if the notion of pirates conjures comical images of Johnny Depp in Hollywood garb and black eyeliner, well, you can forget that. Blackbeard was no such flamboyant, clever-tongued misfit. He was a badass—a wild, fearsome figure with a long, braided black beard. Some historians say that when he was about to attack a ship, Blackbeard would weave hemp cords into his beard and torch them to make it look like his head was smoking—a tactic to further terrify his unsuspecting victims so they would give up without a fight. Indeed, he was the bulliest of all the bullies of his time.
Blackbeard’s reign of terror came to a violent end in 1718, when the governor of neighboring Virginia dispatched a military ship to take him out, and in the end, Blackbeard was shot, stabbed to death and decapitated. His gnarly head was hung from the mast of the military ship and later put on display atop a pole in Hampton Roads, Virginia—let that be a lesson to other would-be nautical thieves, I guess.
When my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary on the North Carolina coast earlier this year, we didn’t find Blackbeard—OK, we weren’t actually looking for him—but I did find inspiration in a cocktail we enjoyed at End of Days Distillery in Wilmington. The distillery produces vodka, gin and rum—I’m cool with all three and ordered a frilly gin drink, and Les gravitates toward sweeter, dark liquor. He ordered the rum old fashioned, which is pretty much the same as a classic old fashioned, but with rum rather than bourbon, and a splash of cherry syrup in place of the usual sugar. It was delicious!
We bought a bottle of the End of Days “Castaway” barrel-aged rum, and I promised Les I would re-create the drink at home, but it took Halloween and a deeper dive into the history of Blackbeard to properly motivate me. This cocktail embodies a few points of the Blackbeard story—rum, because we all know it was a pirate’s drink of choice—cinnamon syrup and spicy Jamaican Jerk bitters for a little bite, and cherry juice to symbolize the bloodshed of Blackbeard’s last stand.
Cinnamon simple syrup is easy to make at home, and I highly recommend having a jar or bottle on hand for the upcoming holiday season because it works with so many spirits. Combine equal parts water and cane sugar and heat to a slight boil, then add cinnamon sticks to steep a warm, spicy flavor into the syrup. The longer it steeps, the more intense the flavor. The bitters are a specialty item, and I’ve linked to the company’s website if you’re interested in checking them out. For this cocktail, I turned to Woodford Reserve’s brand of bourbon cocktail cherries, rather than my usual Luxardo, because I wanted the color more than the sweetness. Look for the Woodford brand in the mixers section of Total Wine or Bevmo, or the Tillen brand would also work in a pinch.
I combined all of the above with ice in my cocktail shaker and then poured it over a spooky, skull-shaped ice, drizzling in a little more cherry juice for effect, and a cherry as a garnish. Tovolo makes the skull mold for ice, and I found it on Amazon.
Finally, the dramatic moment! This past summer, our friend, Bob, introduced us to a nifty cocktail smoking kit and I promised I’d be getting one to make a fun Halloween drink. Our kit included several varieties of wood chips—apple, pecan, hickory and oak—and I chose oak to echo the essence of that in the barrel-aged rum.
When the smoke cleared from the cocktail, it was far from spooky; the sweetness of the rum and cinnamon syrup were prominent, and the spicy bitters kind of sting the tongue. But just thinking of mean old Blackbeard as we sipped our cocktails made for a fun evening.
Blackbeard’s Comeuppance – a smoked cocktail for Halloween
A fun twist on a classic cocktail, dedicated to the memory of the infamous pirate who terrorized the North Carolina coast more than 300 years ago.
- 2 oz. End of Days Castaway Barrel-Aged Rum (or another dark, aged rum)
- 1/2 oz. cinnamon simple syrup (see recipe notes for details)
- 2 bar spoons (about 1 teaspoon) cocktail cherry syrup (mine were Woodford Reserve bourbon cherries)
- 3 drops Bitter End’s Jamaican Jerk bitters (or aromatic bitters)
- Boozy cherry to garnish
- Oak chips and cocktail smoking kit (optional, but fun!)
- Measure rum, simple syrup, cherry syrup and bitters into a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Add one cup of ice and shake or stir vigorously until outside of mixing container is frosty. Strain over new ice in a rocks glass. Add a cherry to garnish, and drizzle in another spoonful of the cherry syrup to mimic Blackbeard’s blood.
- Place smoking accessory on top of glass and light the oak chips until smoke begins to appear. Cover the accessory until the smoke fills the open space in the glass. Remove the accessory and allow smoke to dissipate before enjoying.
If you’re interested in the cocktail smoking kit, Aged & Charred is the company that made ours. We didn’t receive any payment or product for my mention of them, but I wholeheartedly recommend it!