Let’s drink our way through history
The number of books that pile up by my bedside is shocking, approaching a case of hoarding. Half the stack is fiction and the other non-fiction. Eventually I have to clear them away and start over. It’s also a good chance to dust. It’s rare that I find a book that belongs in both stacks. The book that both entertains and informs at the same time. A book that you don’t want to end because you feel you have so much more to learn. A book that takes a refreshing stab at what is often handled poorly. Such is the book I recently finished, by Wayne Curtis. “And a Bottle of Rum – A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.”
Wayne’s writing style is familiar, the reader easily falls into a conversation with him. He says that he has professional Attention Deficit Disorder. Being a freelance writer addresses and solves such an attitude towards work by allowing him to constantly write about varying topics. In this case, he set out to learn about rum and makes us all smarter in the process.
Wayne’s premise is to follow the birth and life of rum up to modern times. Told through, you guessed it, ten cocktails. This structure gives both him and the reader a touchstone by which to navigate our beloved spirit. Before he even gets started, he tells us an important point about rum. After extensive research he has no idea who really made rum first. Then says that Barbados is a good place to start for anyone who wants to learn about rum as we know it today.
Kill-Devil was rum’s original name for more than 100 years. Wholly undrinkable and very strong by today’s standards, this was the infancy of rum. Grog came along as a Navy drink. Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy had rum mixed with lime, sugar and water to dilute the daily ration of rum in order to increase the productivity of his fleet.
Flip was a popular revolutionary war tavern drink. Flip was made with porter style beer, rum and molasses. All were mixed then a red hot poker or loggerhead was thrust into the drink and left there until the fireworks subsided. Medford rum was also a revolutionary period drink and Paul Revere reportedly stopped during his famous ride in Medford, Massachusetts for a drink. I was not taught that in grade school.
Punch or Planters Punch was made using the the general recipe, one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak. Many styles have emerged over the years. The key point is it became the socially accepted way of welcoming guests into one’s home. Thus the punch bowl became a very ornate and important part of the home. Rum itself became labelled, “Demon Rum” in the years leading up to prohibition. It became the temperance movements rallying call. Which in the end backfired during prohibition when rum itself once again became popular and more easily gotten than whiskey or brandy.
The prohibition years became a boom time for Cuba, as many Americans made the quick journey from Miami or Key West to Havana to drink legally. It was in these ensuing years that the modern Daiquiri became famous as did another drink, the Cuba Libre. Coca-Cola became available in Cuba in 1900 and when mixed with the newer higher quality Cuban rum made a great drink. Coca-Cola made it a point to ensure that all American troops had access to it’s soda which made for a ready mixer for thirsty military men. When they returned to the U.S. they brought the drink with them.
Fast forward to World War 2 and the era of Trader Vics and Don the Beachcomber. Both men claim paternity with Don the Beachcomber creating the drink in the early 30’s and Trader Vic in the early 40’s. Most people believe it was Don the Beachcomber who first mixed the drink but those same people will agree that Trader Vics recipe is the better one, and more complex. Regardless, the Mai Tai is a difficult drink to make insofar as keeping the right balance of flavors. It is very easy to make too sweet or too boozy. Made correctly it remains a rum and overall cocktail classic. Such was the time of mulit-milliion dollar Tiki Huts and the Tiki movement. Tiki huts had a good run for 30-40 years before the bulldozers starting taking them down to make way for parking lots and Walgreen’s drug stores. The great news is recently, we are seeing a resurgence of Tiki culture.
The final cocktail of the list is the Mojito. Also made popular during the early 1900’s and espcially during Earnest Hemingway’s time in Havana the Mojito fell out of fashion. Why? Wayne can only speculate pointing to the lack of fresh mint in the U.S. and the popularization of pre-packaged food such as Wonder Bread and Spam during the time frame. Eventually sometime in the 1980’s the Mojito began to gain a new foothold in Miami and has grown in popularity ever since.
The quality of writing and research for this book shows through on every page. The author is all to happy to admit in many cases he just couldn’t figure the real answer but easily moves the reader through with a comfort that a best guess is good enough. One fun thing I did while reading this book was to make the drinks as described which really helped bring the pages to life. If you are even half the rum lover that I am, you will throughly enjoy this book.