September 21, 2006

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And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, by Wayne Curtis (Crown Publishers, 2006, 294 pages)
The title says “Rum” but it also says “History,” and the best part of this book is the history lesson. It might be the most readable little skip through American history you’ve encountered in some time. It’s only a skim of the surface, but you’ll pick up important facts nonetheless. Like:

(1) pirates do not equal grog

Grog, which is watered-down rum with lime juice or brown sugar, was part of British navy rations in the mid-1700s, well after the decline of piracy. (Grog was still on the books of the Admiralty until 1970.)

(2) Captain Morgan was a very very very bad man. Not really the sort of person one should celebrate in any fashion.

(3) “In July 1723, twenty-six pirates were hanged in Newport, Rhode Island, on a single day.” (In July 2006, dozens of moneyed tourists parked their yachts in Newport, Rhode Island, every single day, and dozens more milled about Starbucks and Gap.)

But the book is more than factoids. It nicely brings America’s colonial past smack up against the present, emphasizing the continuity between them.

Curtis, a magazine writer who lives in Maine, begins with rum’s invention in the West Indies as a byproduct of sugar-refining and follows the ups and downs of rum from there. The story works its way through the gauntlet of pirate ships to the northern British colonies in America, where residents both import rum and learn to make their own (there were three distilleries in New Hampshire). Then the British government starts imposing taxes and tariffs on rum, which ticks off the colonists, and here we have pivotal American history—it wasn’t all about tea; the response to the Sugar Act of 1763, well before the Boston Tea Party, was groundbreaking.

Soon the rum is moving west as colonists share it with native Americans. (Discussion topic: Is it a good idea to give alcoholic beverages to your enemies? To your friends? Why or why not?) A few more years and along comes the temperance movement, then Prohibition, which led to a rum resurgence (Bonus question: In what ways did Prohibition make alcohol more respectable?), then Hemingway drinking daiquiris in Cuba, and next thing you know Curtis is sitting in a collector’s house in the present day sipping hundred-year-old rum.

Toward the end of the book Curtis loses the broad strokes of history and delves into too many particulars about today’s rum-lovers, which become forgettable unless maybe you’re a connoisseur. But the earlier portions are well worth anyone’s read. If you like to spend a weekend night out on the town, this is history you can relate to: “Drinking contests were not unknown. At the Red Lion in Philadelphia, a man named Thomas Apty bet other customers that he could suck down twelve pints of fortified cider in a half hour. He won, but failed to collect his winnings, as he promptly keeled over stone dead.”

The book closes with several pages of recipes from throughout rum’s history. Curtis likes his drinks on the dry side but allows for variation; he does say in no uncertain terms, though, that “The current crop of coconut rums … have about as much in common with a coconut as a Glade scented air freshener has with an alpine meadow.”

Note: Don’t confuse And A Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails with the contemporaneous A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage. B

— Dan Brian