Wayne Curtis tries to downplay the ambitions set in the title of his book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, implying that he’s not going to credit human existence or history to rum the way other authors have to cod or salt or other mundane foodstuffs. That’s all to the good in my opinion, as he sticks mostly to the history of rum and various people and products associated with its rise from “the distilled essence of industrial waste” to a top-shelf liquor commanding premium prices for aged varieties as you might pay for whiskey or brandy.
Rum is, of course, distilled from molasses (or, rarely, sugar cane juice), which was originally discarded by plantation owners as the unwanted, unsaleable waste product of sugar production and refining. It gained popularity among sailors, even becoming part of a daily grog ration for members of the Royal Navy (a practice that was only discontinued in 1970), and then became the main liquor in colonial America, first as an import from the Caribbean and later as a homemade product, playing a role along the way in the Sugar and Stamp Acts. (Curtis also attempts to dispel the myth of the triangle trade, with a few references, saying that there’s no evidence any ship actually sailed those three legs or that the trade was as simple as the middle-school story indicates.) Rum faded from view in the U.S. only to regain popularity during and after Prohibition through Cuba tourism, the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” and the rise of the tiki bar. It is a tumultuous history with plenty of associations with major world events, even if rum itself wasn’t always the cause of them.
Along the way, Curtis provides digressions about the real Captain Morgan and his namesake rum (which wasn’t always spiced), the American temperance movement against “demon rum” even though rum was rarely consumed at the time, the history of the mai tai and the tiki bar trend, Coca-Cola (and the Andrews Sisters’ song about the two), and Paul Revere’s ride with its possibly-apocryphal stop for a dram of rum. He weaves these stories into ten chapters, each covering a specific drink, including planter’s punch, the daiquiri – not the frozen sickly-sweet concoction, but the original rum-lime-sugar-crushed ice beverage that was the libation of choice of Ernest Hemingway – and the mojito. To his credit, he has proper scorn for flavored rums, pina coladas, and Coca-Cola, since all of the three take the focus of the drink off rum by inserting a dominant alternate flavor.*
*Curtis hits on a distinction I’ve been thinking about between cocktails and mixed drinks. If you read about the history of alcoholic drinks, you’ll come across two kinds – those that try to enhance the flavor of the central liquor or push it to the front of the drink, and those that cover it up because the liquor is of low quality or because the drinker can’t abide the taste of alcohol. The former group, what I think of as cocktails, comprised drinks that were seen as masculine, like you might find a Bertie Wooster drinking at the club, while the latter, simply mixed drinks, were seen as either girly or just déclassé. Curtis even mentions the rise of vodka, a liquor devoid of character and nearly devoid of taste, and its rise as younger male drinkers in the 1950s refused to acquire the taste for strong drink. A true daiquiri remains an acceptable drink in this dichotomy, as the rum is the star ingredient with the rum and sugar as supporting players. A pina colada isn’t, as Curtis explains, because “pineapple and coconut are the linebackers of the taste world,” obliterating any indication that there’s rum in the beverage. A dark-and-stormy (dark rum and ginger beer) works because ginger and rum are complementary flavors, much like mushrooms and onions or haricots verts and almonds, but a Cuba Libre doesn’t work because it’s just a Coke with a higher proof content. I’m not quite sure how a mai tai passes muster with Curtis – I think that’s only an acceptable drink if you’re on a tropical island, and even so, there are likely better options – but in general he’s pretty consistent.
Curtis also includes recipes for modern drinks as well as brief recipes for ten classic (or just old) drinks that lead into the ten chapters. One of them, just called “punch,” looked familiar, and after making it I realized it’s the drink called “planter’s punch” in Bermuda, where my wife and I honeymooned and to which we returned for our fifth and tenth anniversaries. It’s strong and the predominant flavor is rum (Gosling’s Black Seal in Bermuda), and while you can garnish it with all manner of garbage, at its heart it’s a daiquiri with some water and maybe a pinch of nutmeg, the latter a nod to the classic punches of Britain. And it’s very easy to assemble:
Juice half a lime into a glass. Add one tablespoon of sugar, simple syrup, or agave nectar; 1 1/2 ounces of rum; and two ounces of water. Mix well and add ice.
The end of the book has a brief selection listing Curtis’ favorite rums from a cross-section of countries and multiple price ranges. I found most of them at a nearby liquor store (the one at Fresh Pond next to Whole Foods, for those of you who live around here). They’re sipping rums rather than mixing rums, for more serious drinkers than myself.
Next up: Booth Tarkington’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Alice Adams.