Screech is rum. Rather Harsh, Unforgiving, rum of the type drank by a bunch of fishermen stuck on a desolate rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Way back in the day, when the Grand Banks still had fish, Jamaican Rum was a mainstay of the Newfoundland diet, being traded to the West Indies for salted cod.
Originally, rum was shipped to Newfoundland in massive wooden barrels, which would be emptied and distributed upon arrival. During the long ocean voyage, a lot of the rum would be absorbed into the barrel, along with a lot of the impurities. Now, some Newfoundlanders, not wanting any of the precious dark rum to go to waste, would purchase the empty barrels.
They would place some warm water into the empty barrels, and slowly rotate them. After a few weeks, the Rum would diffuse out of the wood, until the concentration of alcohol and impurities would be about the same as what was originally stored in the barrel. This would be the product that would come to be known as Screech. Originally, it wasn’t sold by the bottle, but by the bucket. You would go down to the store, carrying your own bucket, and walk back home trying not to spill any of the precious booze.
When the Government took control of the traditional liquor business in the early 20th century, it began selling the rum in an unlabelled bottle. The product might have remained permanently nameless except for the influx of American servicemen to the Island during World War II.
As the story goes, the commanding officer of the original detachment was having his first taste of Newfoundland hospitality and, imitating the custom of his host, downed his drink in one gulp. The American’s blood-curdling howl, when he regained his breath, brought the sympathetic and curious from miles around rushing to the house to find out what was going on. The first to arrive was a garrulous old American sergeant who pounded on the door and demanded, "What the cripes was that ungodly screech?"
Newfoundlander who had answered the door replied simply, "The Screech? Tis the rum, me son."
Thus was born a legend. As word of the incident spread, the soldiers, determined to try this mysterious "Screech" and finding its effects as devastating as the name implies, adopted it as their favourite
liquor board pounced on the name and reputation
and began label
ing Newfoundland Screech, the most popular brand on the Island, even today.
Now a days however, Screech is no longer made from the dregs of a barrel. It is instead shipped from Jamaica, in plastic containers, not wooden, and is aged for 5 years in Newfoundland before it is sold. As a result, the quality of the rum has vastly increased. It has far fewer imperfections, and a much smoother taste.
Sources: Information on how Screech was first made from a CBC Radio 1 broadcast
on the subject. The story about the origins of the name was found, exactly verbatim, on about 12 different websites that I checked, so I shall assume that it’s not under copyright