“And A Bottle Of Rum – A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails” is a book with a most appealing title to a few of us here at Barbados Free Press. We may have killed one or two bottles ourselves. Not lately, you understand – we are talking about in our youth. Honest. (hic!)
So the book by Wayne Curtis called to me when I saw it on a shelf in New York City this past August. Why not buy it? I love history and as Shona knows, I still (very occasionally) pour some of the devil’s brew into a shot glass. But time and money were tight and we walked on without purchasing the book.
Then came my birthday, and bless her kind heart, Shona handed me a strangely shaped package that turned out to be the book and a bottle of Barbados fine dark rumbullion by Mount Gay. We’ll leave the review of the rum for later, but the book is a worthy read – well written, sad, humourous, and full of history of Barbados slavery and how we – black, white and all shades between – came to this small island.
Sugar, Rum, Slavery Shaped Barbados
Here are some excerpts from two reviews I found online…
“If not for slavery,” Wayne Curtis writes in one of the capriciously titled chapters in this tumultous romp through four centuries of American history, “sugar might have been a minor economic footnote in the rise of North America.”
Indeed the linkage of slaves, spirits and sugar in the invention of rum leads to spirited reading during which Curtis misses no opportunity for famous name dropping.
The author begins his tale at the door of a Philadelphia tavern, a reconstruction of the original tavern on the site in 1773 frequented by, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and George Washington. It was an establishment that President John Adams referred to as “the most genteel tavern in America.” Curtis is there, a 21st-century visitor, seeking an old drink.
…In the wonderful new world, the imbibement of choice was usually a concocted mixture with the base of what was called “evil in a glass,” rum, a distillation that turned an industrial waste product into cash. For what was a poor or rich sugarcane farmer to do with the seemingly useless leftovers in the production of sugar?
Curtis, a contributing editor for Preservation Magazine, whose articles have appeared in Yankee, Down East and The American Scholar, spent three exhaustive years researching this project through reading, tasting and travel, especially to the islands that initiated the rum industry.
The first British settlers on the island of Barbados, in the early 1600s, were told to go forth and produce products scarce and in demand in England. Several crops failed, and tobacco, at first successful, soon became an inferior product, unwanted in London. Sugarcane, already an essential crop on islands off the coast of Africa, came to the new world as seedlings with Columbus, on his second voyage.
The byproducts of sugar production were considerable, when recognized: “A mass of useless scummings would be skinned off the boiling cauldrons during the canejuice reduction … What emerged was molasses. In the 17th century, molasses was a nuisance.”
How did a rum distiller turn industrial waste into cash? “He began by mixing in a large cistern a liquid mess – the blackish scum that rose to the surface during the sugar-boiling process, the dregs remaining in the still, and water used to clean out the sugar-boiling pots.” Left to ferment in the tropical heat, the distiller watched for bubbles, adding molasses. On occasion, impatient for fermentation to begin, a distiller might toss in the carcasses of dead animals, or dung “to kick-start” the process. One account suggests “the overseer will empty his chamberpot” into an already feculent mess. (Editor’s note: Hopefully, Mount Gay now uses other methods of fermentation!)
Curtis goes into detail concerning fermentation methods, and the growing market for varying grades of the fiery spirit called rum – a shortening of the British slang word, rumbullion, that meant a brawl or violent commotion, surely an apt appelation for the miscreants and Bacchanalians who soon demonstrated a global craving for the drink in all its mixtures and manifestations.
Beginning with the toxic “kill-devil,” “rum began its voyage from the sugar islands to the larger world beyond. Colonists were starved for cheap diversion.” Crossing seas, casks soon came to the attention of brigands, buccaneers and pirates. Curtis tells us more than we might want to know about the exploits of one such scrounging mariner whose name even today is emblazoned on bottles appearing on supermarket shelves – Capt. Morgan – one of the crassest, most-feared of sea rampagers.
We are told the first Puritans arrived with a thirst for drink, distrusting water sources in their new environment, “an apprehension imported from Europe, where crowded, contaminated cities made free-flowing water unfit to drink.”…
…read the complete review at Maine Today (link here)
The publisher, Random House, also has a review on their website (link here)…
And a Bottle of Rum tells the raucously entertaining story of America as seen through the bottom of a drinking glass. With a chapter for each of ten cocktails—from the grog sailors drank on the high seas in the 1700s to the mojitos of modern club hoppers—Wayne Curtis reveals that the homely spirit once distilled from the industrial waste of the exploding sugar trade has managed to infiltrate every stratum of New World society.
Curtis takes us from the taverns of the American colonies, where rum delivered both a cheap wallop and cash for the Revolution, to the plundering pirate ships off the coast of Central America, to the watering holes of pre-Castro Cuba, and to the kitsch-laden tiki bars of 1950s America. Here are sugar barons and their armies conquering the Caribbean, Paul Revere stopping for a nip during his famous ride, Prohibitionists marching against “demon rum,” Hemingway fattening his liver with Havana daiquiris, and today’s bartenders reviving old favorites like Planter’s Punch. In an age of microbrewed beer and single-malt whiskeys, rum—once the swill of the common man—has found its way into the tasting rooms of the most discriminating drinkers.
Awash with local color and wry humor, And a Bottle of Rum is an affectionate toast to this most American of liquors, a chameleon spirit that has been constantly reinvented over the centuries by tavern keepers, bootleggers, lounge lizards, and marketing gurus. Complete with cocktail recipes for would-be epicurean time-travelers, this is history at its most intoxicating.
Is the sun over the yardarm yet? Ah yes… I think so…