So Captain Morgan, Ben Franklin, and Hemingway go out for a daiquiri...
Wayne Curtis begins the second paragraph of And a Bottle of Rum, his “history of America in a glass,” with an admission. While touring historic Philadelphia in search of a long-lost vinegar libation called shrub, he is eyed by a young man in frilly Colonial costume. “People in period dress always unsettle me,” he says before receding partially behind the curtain of his narrative. I knew immediately that he and I would get along.
And a Bottle of Rum follows in the line of blandly titled history lessons in long-story-short form. Fortunately, Curtis one-upped Salt and Cod by adding some grammatical filigree to the noun that is his focal point. This tramp through the major crossroads in American history is always intriguing and often enlightening, but whether And a Bottle of Rum is more entertaining because of the author’s witty ingenuity or his approach towards his subject, I cannot say. Curtis’ storytelling is compelling, however, even when the story is a familiar old yarn – served in this case, of course, in a tall, frosted glass with a twist of lime. The book is threaded with historical minutia and enlivening detail, and some of the primary sources Curtis channels – such as the journals of an 18th-century traveler whose entries are less travel writing than tavern writing – are laugh-out-loud funny. If nothing else, And a Bottle of Rum awakens and engrosses your inner nerd.
It helps of course if your inner nerd is a drinker.
But I feel, and I’m certain you’ll agree, that I would be shirking my writer-ly duties if I didn’t put my heart and soul into each of these treks between the covers and into the world of words. Which is how, after I finished And a Bottle of Rum, I came to be standing in line at the liquor store with two liters of rum, some soda water, a four-pack of Guinness, Curacao, Angostura bitters, and a small, essential box of multihued, Smurf-sized paper umbrellas.
I don’t know if Curtis would approve of my research methods, but, regardless, I called five friends and scheduled a play date to test drive the ten (10) rum drinks that introduce each of And a Bottle of Rum’s chapters. Curtis pairs the drinks with American eras to form a chronological path cut through pre-colonial history and into modern times. But he leaves actual judgment of the drinks themselves to the reader (and reviewer).
We were conducting research of a sort, so I tried to keep the experience as authentic as possible. For that reason, we skipped chapter one’s shot of rum – the rum Curtis introduces at the book’s opening was closer to sipping rubbing alcohol and chewing on a lit match than the Captain Morgan and Bacardi that American rum drinkers are familiar with today. Though the origins of the terms “kill-devil” and “rum” are a mystery, kill-devil seems to bear some relationship to its caustic relationship with the tongue.
According to Curtis, however, this did little to stop 17th-century West Indian islanders from drinking rum in exceptional quantities. As Captain Thomas Walduck put it in 1708, Spanish settlers, upon arriving in a new territory, first built a church, and Dutch settlers immediately built a fort. The English prerogative, however, “be it in the most remote part of ye world, or amongst the most barbarous Indians, is [to] set up a tavern…” Sir Henry Colt complained that soon after arriving on Barbados, the locals had upped his daily liquor habit from three drams to 30, and that if he hadn’t left, he’d soon be sharing the local ration of 60drams. Another traveler through Barbados noted the locals’ habit of getting so schnockered that they’d pass out wherever they stood.
The colonists in Barbados at this time did much of their drinking at tippling houses – at one point, Bridgetown had one of these taverns for every 20 residents and Port Royal had one tavern for every ten. Little wonder, when you consider the demographic: almost every non-native in the Caribbean was European, male, very poor, and worked long, arduous days in the sugarcane fields.
Of course, pirates’ rum habit is well documented, as is their fondness for a vague rum-related concoction called grog. And they all had eye patches, wooden-leg limps, and a habit of interrupting polite conversation now and then with a monosyllabic hiccup, spelled ARRRGGG (AR-g), which roughly translates into modern English usage as “um.”
This is, of course, mostly false; Robert Louis Stevenson created the icon, and it stuck. One of Curtis’s most scintillating scraps of trivia: Captain Henry Morgan, whose caricature ornaments the popular line of rum today, probably drank very little rum himself. Morgan was a pirate and a feared privateer under the employ of the British crown before that. But he spent most of his time sacking Spanish colonies whose wine makers and Brandy distillers made certain that rum didn’t edge into their market. Also, he was probably responsible for the violent torture and murder of many Spanish and Portuguese citizens, including at least one unfortunate who Morgan hung upside down by his testicles. You simply can’t get branding like that these days.
But, hey, pirates are fun, right? Yo-ho-ho, and all that.
Grog, by the way, was not the drink of pirates, but was rather the vessel chosen to ration rum to the British navy beginning in the 1700s. Originally, this was both to promote the psychological and physical health of the sailors, whose missions were under constant threat of mutiny and scurvy, respectively. Since tipsy sailors enjoy an elevated morale and scurvy was abated by the squeeze of lime dribbled into the drink, Admiral Edward Vernon – the eponym for both George Washington’s estate and grog itself – ordered in 1740 that British sailors drink a half pint of rum a day. The British navy ultimately repealed the order, but not until July 31, 1970 (whereupon British sailors around the world held mock funerals).
My friends and I had always imagined grog to be some mix of rum, water, mud, sinew, and bitterness. We were surprised at Curtis’s recipe. One taster immediately cried out, “Gatorade!” And that’s about right. It’s exceptionally refreshing – it’d make a great drink to take along for a summer softball game in the park. Our grog was so refreshing in fact that no one noticed that in my (increasingly lame) attempt at authenticity, I’d served it hot, since the sailors wouldn’t have had ice.
Flip was up next. Good thing too, since it requires plunging a hot iron into a mixture of rum, stout, and molasses – and drunkards oughtn’t plunge scalding loggerheads into anything. Strange as the drink sounds, all but one of us enjoyed flip. The dissenter decried the taste as too medicinal, a byproduct I’d imagine of the mingling of smoky-sweet molasses and the bitter stout. Regardless, we were finally sharing in rum’s very American heritage.
Curtis’s purpose in And a Bottle of Rum is to restore rum to its rightful place as the most American of liquors, and he presents his case more through the exhumation of the overlooked historical fact, which the contemporary drinking culture has traded for candy-colored branding. Today, rum is about islands and coconuts and little umbrellas lilting in a frothy, blue, shaved-ice surf. In fact, much of rum’s history is integrally tied to the development of the United States itself.
To the chagrin of evangelicals, beer was among the supplies the Pilgrims brought to America, and our founding fathers commonly congregated at taverns where they drank in abundance, flip being one of their favorites. Among Ben Franklin’s terms for drunkenness: “juicy,” “crump-footed,” “wamble crop’d,” and, the modest but thorough, “fuzl’d.”
When their cane-field jobs were passed along to slaves, white island laborers moved north, and Boston quickly became the major distillation center in colonial America. In the 18th century, rum was the second most important manufacturing industry in the colonies and was a crucial foundation for the economy in the 26 British colonies. That’s right – we easily forget that only half of the colonies actually rose against the Crown. When New England merchants began landing in Martinique to trade for French molasses (which was cheaper because French wineries ensured that rum distillers couldn’t encroach on their business), the Crown panicked. The funds England anticipated from its sugarcane fields evaporated, and it was no trivial sum.
After several impotent attempts to curtail international trade, the French and Indian War did what no act of Parliament could: it motivated England to painstakingly police the colonists’ trading habits, primarily because the colonists’ pursuit of molasses for rum had directly financed the French army that England was supposed to be protecting them from.
To fight the Sugar Act, the colonies banded together for the first time. And they won, primarily because they argued that the act would ruin the North American economy to the extent that it’d no longer trade with England. The (presumably rum-soaked) colonial victory was short lived, though, because the Crown responded with a tax on tea that left a bad taste in American mouths.
Curtis sees us through the end of the revolution with a glass of vile darkness called bombo. Two qualities give bombo a distinction in the book: It’s the only drink that Curtis doesn’t even loosely relate to some historical happening, and it’s the only one that should be served as a punishment at frat initiations rather than at happy hour. In fact, I refuse to describe it further, as doing so brings to mind a range of offensive sensations. If you’re still curious, follow this recipe:
1. Purchase And a Bottle of Rum, by Wayne Curtis
2. Make bombo; sip slowly
3. Reflect on how I told you so
The development of rum punch marked a new era the American libation, as well as a new level of research-induced inebriation among our crew. Curtis’ punch recipe is delectable and is probably the best of the ten. A dash of nutmeg and a shake or two of Angostura bitters brings the drink’s citrus-laced sweetness back down to earth. After a couple slow draws, everyone in our party knew we’d hit a milestone.
Thanks to the book, I knew just what was up: Enter the cocktail, or at least an early form of it. From just before the Revolution through Antebellum times, rum punch was in fashion. It was served in ornate bowls in the high-class hotels that had popped up around the U.S. after the revolution. Punch’s development is perhaps more sensible than it is phenomenal. Rum’s qualities – especially the harsher rums’ – beg for sugar, citrus and ice, and were it not for the temperance movement, who knows what recipes Bacardi would publish on the backs of their bottles?
Still, the cocktail suffered and suffered dearly when bathtub gin became a necessary evil, primarily because molasses wasn’t as readily available as grain. The slackening was also due in part to a change in the perception of rum as a British liquor. Rum was considered, believe it or not, snooty. Regardless, temperance leaders chose rum (over the more popular whiskey) as the demon to be exorcised, and Curtis claims that, more than anything, it was the word’s very character that led it to vilification. This was the day of the great American rhetoricians, and rum makes for a simple rhyme and is easily delivered in a guttural harangue. Whiskey, on the other hand, sounds more like a four-cylinder coupe manufactured by Kia.
As a special surprise for my fellow researchers, I saved chapter one’s shot of rum for the temperance movement. We’d been drinking Mount Gay Eclipse from Barbados (light-bodied with a pleasant spiced-and-floral aroma) and Appleton Special Jamaica (darker in appearance and taste, but smooth). For our toast to temperance, we took a short sniff and shot of Captain Morgan’s Private Stock, and the difference was evident. Cap’n Morgan’s is spiced rum; the flavorings added after distillation drown the natural taste of the rum.
After the Dry Era, Curtis walks us through a sozzled Modern America and introduces us to Hemingway and his love of the (true) daiquiri, post-war Americans and their poor palates’ responsibility for the provincial rum and coke, and ’60s tiki huts, where the Mai Tai evolved from an American invention into a Disney-esque toy of the tongue.
Here, Curtis’ rum snobbery shows through. There are solid rums, most of which few drinkers could name, and there are the rums that we drink in bulk, often over shaved ice and colored by a mix that bastardizes the original, flavorful flair of the rum cocktail. He’s right – we think rum is about pirates and saccharine sweeteners because that’s what large liquor manufactures want us to think. I think what bothers him most of all – just like that costumed actor at the book’s beginning – is disingenuousness. And cliché and falsity and any example of manufactured experience taking the place of the Real Deal.
His recipes exude authenticity. The rum and coke is, of course, just that. But the Mai Tai, served in a martini glass, is sweet and cool, perfect for a night out on the beach. The daiquiri will become a regular at my own bar (read: kitchen). This daiquiri bears no resemblance to its uglier cousins that have become so popular in tourist traps haunted by neon and 32-ounce cups. The recipe calls for both crushed and cubed ice, which lends the drink a no-frills resilience.
After trying out some of his recipes, I have to say, Curtis is right on. The Real Deal abides, in backyard distilleries and collectors’ cluttered closets. With And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis has crafted an engaging introduction to his world of rum. I doubt the world is going to replace its bottle of Bacardi with Prichard’s anytime soon, but maybe if Curtis buys a round for the world, we’ll all start to catch on. Regardless, And a Bottle of Rum is a good start.
Maybe I was a little fuzl’d when we came to the mojito, the drink that’s bringing rum back. Part of rum’s allure is its easy-going nature, and for my final (unsteady) reach toward research, I toyed with what instruction Wayne Curtis provides for the mojito. And I submit to you the freshly minted cup of my labors.
Add to a tall glass:
Four mint leaves
Two teaspoons of powdered sugar (not simple syrup)
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
Two quartered lime wedges (after squeezing)
One quartered wedge of plum
Add two ounces of Jamaican rum
Fill with ice
Top with soda water
Garnish with a sprig of mint
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.