Wayne Curtis was never a rum enthusiast until he noticed how often 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. Ernest Hemingway drank tall “Papa Doble” daiquiris in Cuba, once consuming 16 in one sitting at the El Floridita in Havana.
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 his new book, “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, writes Curtis, is the history of America in a bottle.
“Rum is like the disreputable uncle that nobody talks about but keeps popping up,” Curtis said at his home on Peaks Island in Casco Bay. “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.”
Before writing “And a Bottle of Rum,” Curtis considered rum a “back of the liquor cabinet” spirit. He now appreciates its variety and complexity, and his homemade mojitos draw neighbors to waterside home at sunset.
On a recent day, he lined up a dozen or so bottles on his kitchen counter that came from Barbados, Cuba, Belize, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Martinique, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala and Haiti. One bottle, Prichards’ Fine Rum, came from Tennessee.
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 without pretentiousness. Rather than talk about the “legs” or 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 longtime 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 Trinidad, Cuba, New Orleans and Hawaii. He consulted with “cocktail historians” and read colonial diaries, historical newspaper accounts, and old bar guides and tavern ledgers.
The result is a 294-page book divided into 10 chapters devoted to different rum drinks ranging from the “kill-devil” swill of the 1600s to the modern-day mai tais and mojitos. 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 relative newcomer. Nobody knows for sure, but it probably was created some 400 years ago when somebody discovered it could be made out of molasses, a sugar-making byproduct that held little value.
Although the Caribbean represents rum’s historic epicenter, there was a time when large amounts were made in the United States as well; in 1763, the book tells us, there were 159 rum distilleries in New England alone by some estimates.
Rum was the most important spirit in America in the 18th century before falling in standing in the 19th century. It has since climbed its way back; it 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 became a tonic for colonists trying to show their independence from gin-drinking Britain.
“Rum not only appealed to the colonists’ love of speedy inebriation, but also brought a measure of status and suggested the first steps toward cultural independence,” Curtis writes.
Historically, rum was all too often considered a second-class spirit to the likes of gin or scotch, one that provided a cheap and fast high and appealed to the rugged classes. The word rum is possibly derived from a truncated version of rumbullion or rumbustion, British slang for tumult or uproar.
“But over the course of four centuries, rum has transformed itself from swill to swanky, and moved from the gutter to the great room,” the book reads.
A new reputation
Jeff Berry, who has written three books about tropical drinks, said rum has gotten a bad rap over the years as something to be imbibed over spring break or simply to pour with Coke. Curtis’ book, he said, “fills in a lot of the blanks” about rum over the ages and comes at a time when rum sales are going up.
Rum sales in the United States grew 23 percent between 2003 and 2005 to $1.8 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
“I think this comes along at the right time because people are getting more interested in rum,” said Berry.
Rum promoter Edward Hamilton, who has written three books on rum, said Curtis brings to life the romantic and raucous side of rum by putting it in a historical context.
“I’m really fascinated by what he’s done,” Hamilton said.
Curtis came across many surprises when researching the book. Back in colonial times, tavern keepers routinely flavored rum with cinnamon, clove, mint, cherry juice, bilberries, juniper berries, milk, nutmeg, vinegar, beer and even dried pumpkin.
“That was an eye-opening thing, to see how creative the colonists were,” Curtis said.
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.”
Rum drinks come cold and hot, tart and sweet, simple and complex.
In his book, “And a Bottle Rum,” Wayne Curtis lists recipes for 30 rum cocktails that he likes that date back to the 1700s. Four to consider. -AP