Rum, enlightenment meet in 'history' book
By Clarke Canfield
By Clarke Canfield
Wayne Curtis was never a rum enthusiast until he noticed how it kept showing up in history.
Paul Revere likely had a swallow of the stuff to stiffen his resolve for his famous midnight ride. Blackbeard liked to mix his with gunpowder before igniting and swilling it while it flamed and popped. On election night in 1960, John F. Kennedy sipped daiquiris over dinner at his house in Hyannisport, Mass., before watching the election returns and, "while infused with the glow of a daiquiri," learning he would be the next president.
Those are among the stories that Curtis recounts in "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails." The book chronicles the history of rum and how it shaped, and was shaped by, American history.
"Rum is like the disreputable uncle that nobody talks about but keeps popping up," said Curtis at his home on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, Maine. "Whether it's the slave trade or piracy, or hanging out with Hemingway, or rum running or Trader Vic's, rum keeps cropping up in history."
On a recent day, he lined up a dozen or so bottles on his kitchen counter that came from Barbados, Cuba, Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Martinique, Nicaragua, Trinidad, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands.
The rums were light and dark, new and aged, sweet and dry. Curtis took a sip of Ron Zacapa Centenario, a 23-year-old rum from Guatemala, and described its sweetness, a trace of oak from its cask, the caramelization and the hints of cherry and vanilla.
Rum has all the complexities of wine, Curtis said, but not the pretentiousness. Rather than talk about the "nose" the way a wine connoisseur might, a rum drinker, Curtis said, is more likely to take a taste and say something like: "This one sits you right up and spanks you on the bottom."
A freelance journalist, Curtis, 48, spent three years researching his book. He went to Barbados, which claims to be the birthplace of rum, as well as to Cuba, New Orleans and Hawai'i. He consulted with "cocktail historians" and read colonial diaries, historical newspaper accounts, and old tavern ledgers.
The 294-page result covers rum drinks ranging from the "kill-devil" swill of the 1600s to mai tais. The book links the evolution of rum to political, economic and cultural developments in U.S. history.
In the world of spirits, rum is a "newcomer." Nobody knows for sure, but it probably was created some 400 years ago when someone discovered it could be made out of molasses, a sugar-making byproduct.
Rum was the most important spirit in America in the 18th century before falling in standing in the 19th century. It has had a comeback and is now the No. 2 liquor sold in America, behind vodka.
Rum's role in history cannot be downplayed, Curtis writes. During colonial times, for example, rum was a tonic for colonists trying to show their independence from gin-drinking Britain.
The book, he said, is really a microhistory. And the readers, he added, will be "people who are interested in history, but not in history with a capital H."