First of all, let’s talk about writing: Wayne Curtis is a good writer. He’s primarily a travel writer, writing for magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly
and other notable publication, so his writing is clear, enjoyable, and easy to digest. His is a no-frills approach to writing that makes history read like story and story weave perfectly through the history. He punctuates portions of history with his own anecdotes of traveling to a colonial-style pub and visiting a rum aficionado. In other words, this is not your typical history book.
And that’s why I like it.
Sure, I like history, but I like stories more, any kind of story, even if it’s actually history. I really like it when the two are mixed perfectly, which is what Curtis does.
The setup of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
is interesting, as it takes us through ten literal cocktails (some are not really cocktails, but we’re not being stingy here), from rum as Kill-devil, Grog, Flip, Medford Rum, Planter’s Punch, Demon Rum, Daiquiri, Rum and Coca-Cola, Mai Tai, to Mojito. It’s a gimmicky kind of setup, but it works pretty well, except, well, when it doesn’t, and Curtis has to stretch the definition, trying to tie in the cocktail to the history of America. The chapter on Demon Rum, for example, isn’t really about a drink; it’s about how rum was the catch-all demon representing all alcohol. Those teetotalers latched onto rum even though people weren't even really drinking it anymore.
Still, I like the setup, and Curtis is full of great information. He has done his research. In a few places, he goes into the history all of us learned and debunks it. Such as the history of the trading triangle that said ships dropped slaves off in the Caribbean, took molasses to New England, and then took rum to Africa, where they traded it for more slaves. Sure, rum was involved in the trade, but it wasn’t the strict triangle we were all made to believe in junior high. Curtis takes his time and describes what appears to be the true history.
The best chapter is the one on Cuba and Daiquiri, and the worst is probably the one on the Mojito. Still, they’re all worth reading, even if it does get a little bogged down when rum goes into decline in the nineteenth century.
I haven’t tried any of his cocktails listed in the back of the book yet, but they seem pretty good. I plan on trying his version of the Zombie as soon as I get a chance. He has a rum blog at Republic of Rum
and another more updated blog at Slow Cocktails