I could kick myself for digging through a shelf of quotation books to find Lord Byron's "There's nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion." Rum, by Dave Broom, a luxuriant keeper volume published by the Wine Appreciation Guild, has got the very same quote emblazoned on the back cover. Of course, Byron used the term "rum" to refer to all potent alcoholic beverages. If anything, the usage attests to the wide historical and social reach of rum. "Here is a drink," Broom writes, "that has been the catalyst for the birth of nations." The scope of Rum, the book, aided immeasurably by the superb photography of Jason Lowe, does true justice to the beverage.
Rum is distilled from sugar cane, and like sugar, it reveals a history of misery and pain. "Rum was slavery's currency; it made some people vast fortunes and helped others forget their misery," Broom reflects. Caribbean sugar production was so labor-intensive that it almost mandated that slaves be worked to death and periodically replaced. The rum and slave trade went hand-in-hand, enriching cities like Bristol in England and Newport, Rhode Island. American rum, sugar and slave trade with the Caribbean led to the first major commercial rifts between the American colonies and England; these soon escalated into heated debate, then gunfire and revolution. America's founding fathers reached for rum above all other beverages when they needed to stiffen their resolve.
In the nineteenth century, technical innovation spurred the creation of a modern rum industry. The Caribbean nations stratified into various "schools" of rum production: Don Facunado Bacardi in Cuba developed light rums; Jamaica kept to fuller-flavored rums ("Jamaicans are hard-headed people. They weren't going to change.") In the twentieth century, changing beverage tastes in Britain (favoring whiskies), prohibition in the US, and the Great Depression of the 1930s signaled a decline in rum's popularity. Today's swing away from the whiskies and towards exotic mixed drinks heralds a revival.
After covering the history of the beverage in great depth, Broom moves to an exacting study of how rum is manufactured. It all begins in the sugar fields. Harvesting and processing sugar cane and its derivatives is "hot, hard, brutal work that has not changed over the centuries," Broom writes. Manufacturing processes vary throughout the Caribbean. You'd never imagine that photographs of pipes and distilling equipment-much of it aged, all of it dignified-could be so exquisite. The passion for the machines and the processes cannot be separated from the passionate beverage itself. Rum is more than a drink; like salt, cotton, pepper or gold, it is a human story.
The key core of Rum is a section entitled "Pure Rums." Broom covers each nation's rum culture and industry in detail, starting with Cuba, "the island that first elevated rum from an interesting to a modern classic spirit." Cuba, the largest Caribbean island, is "the cradle for most of the world's great rum-based cocktails and is home to some of the finest barmen on the planet." Jamaica, of course, has its own ideas. Rum is integral to Jamaican life. Even non-drinking Jamaicans use the beverage as a medicinal rub for wounds and to ward off colds. Jamaicans drink their strong rums-which may at times be distilled illegally-with passion and quickly-voiced opinion. Yet all the islands, and mainland South American nations like Guyana, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, have their own rum heritage. French-speaking Martinique has its own rhum agricole-cane juice rum-subject to strict appellation regulations. Guadeloupe's rhum traditionelle is extremely popular in France as a cooking ingredient. Puerto Rico, home of present-day Bacardi, has become a major rum producer for the American market. The British have their variants; the Royal Navy long motivated its sailors by dispensing (or withholding) rations of rum. Rums are produced in India, Nepal, the Philippines, and all over the world.
You don't just sip or "nose" rum, Broom insists, "you pull all your senses to work: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch-plus that remarkable reference bank in your head known as memory." And, yes, Broom recommends a certain type of glass for your tasting, in this case a tulip-shaped sherry copita, a brandy snifter, or even a white wine glass; anything but a tumbler. Once you've refined your sense and taste for rum, you can try a hand at some of the "ancient cocktails" (Classic Daiquiri, Rum Flip, Tom and Jerry) or "modern cocktails" (Between the Sheets, Floridita, Mai Tai, Mojito). An extensive final section explains and reviews more than 180 major rum brands, many with evocative label illustrations. Ultimately, Rum-in all its ebullience-could hardly pretend to calm the spirit as Byron suggests; you'd require the real thing for that.
Food writer Elliot Essman's other reviews and food articles are available at [...]