Sunday, August 16, 2015

Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Rum - Today!

Yes, you guessed it: today is National Rum Day. Americans should be very happy about this event for two reasons. First, rum as we know it is a New World drink. Its distillation first occurred in the Caribbean about 400 years ago. It became wildly popular in the American colonies by the 18th century because of its proximity to and abundance of the main ingredient. That brings us to our second reason: rum production was a massive recycling project. Rum is a by-product of the sugar industry. After all that sugar boiled off the cane juice, refiners were left with a gooey, black, and useless mess we know as molasses. Enterprising slaves discovered that fermented molasses, when distilled, produced an alcoholic beverage. Soon a new industry emerged out of a vast overabundance of the waste product from sugar production, the relatively brief fermentation period required, and a close-by market eager for cheap spirits. But there's more.

In his fascinating book, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis says this about rum:

Rum is the history of America in a glass. It was invented by New World colonists for New World colonists. In the early colonies, it was a vital part of the economic and cultural life of the cities and villages alike, and it soon became an actor in the political life. 
Rum's genius has always been its keen ability to make something from nothing. Rum has persistently been among the cheapest of liquors and thus often associated with the gutter. But through the alchemy of cocktail culture, it has turned into gold in recent years. Rum is reinvented every generation or two by different clans, ranging from poor immigrants who flocked from England to the West Indies, to Victorians enamored of pirates, to prohibitionists and abolitionists, right down to our modern marketing gurus, who tailor it day by day to capture the fickle attentions of customers attracted to bright glimmerings of every passing fad.

My first serious encounter with rum didn't involve a bottle or a drink. It was 1966 and I was hiking across St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands with the intent of documenting the remains of its many sugar mills. Over the next forty years, my career returned me to St. Thomas and St. John many times where I became more familiar with the most famous byproduct of sugar production.

Though not really a staple in our household, we've come to enjoy rum occasionally. Today, we pour it in the summer to make classic mojitos when there's fresh mint in the garden. When it's time to entertain on the porch or patio, it's time to mix up a batch of Painkiller. Makes for a fine dessert all by itself and doesn't need to be powerful to be enjoyed.

St Croix [Virgin Islands] Sugar Mill                  Pre-20th century, artist unknown

What better way to celebrate National Rum Day than sinking into a comfortable lounger with drink in hand and a good book. Atlanta's high temperatures are expected to be quite seasonal -  highs in the upper 80's - these next two weeks. That's perfect  weather for an icy Mojito or Painkiller on the porch. Time to check the liquor cabinet and fridge!

Happy National Rum Day, y'all!



Wayne Curtis, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Broadway Books, 2007
David Wondrich, Imbibe!, revised edition, Penguin Group, 2015

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