The drink was the toast of many an early American town throughout the 18th century. For New Orleans-based writer Wayne Curtis, it's noteworthy as high-end rum brands proliferate on retail shelves. Curtis has prepared and imbibed his share of flip and uses the artifact of a drink to give some perspective to the storied history of rum in his 2007 book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
The earliest rum, distilled from the leavings of Caribbean sugar plantations, was harsh stuff, Curtis says. Production methods were primitive and quality control was nil. If distillers found empty salt cod casks at hand when it came time to barrel a batch, the rum would probably taste like salt cod when it reached the local tavern.
'Whiskey is distilled beer, and brandy is distilled wine," Curtis says. 'Rum is distilled industrial waste."
But rum was plentiful, portable and potent. Making it palatable called for all the creativity its first enthusiasts could muster to disguise the taste.
'With all these early drinks, you were taking a spirit and adding to it to make it taste better, which with rum had to be essential," he says.
Curtis is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times and American Heritage magazine, among other publications, and moved to New Orleans from Maine in 2006. He became interested in the history of rum after constantly seeing it crop up during research for history pieces. A friend told Curtis that exploring rum for historical reasons was like 'getting interested in sex because of Darwin," he says. Still, his interest comes at a time when rum is enjoying the latest in its long line of resurgences.
Rum's popularity has been affected by many historical turns, including the end of slave labor in the Caribbean, the American Revolution and its impact on regional trade, the vast wheat harvests of the country's cultivated Midwest and the ensuing flood of cheap whiskey, the scarcity of Scotch and Irish whiskey during both world wars, and the logistics of smuggling during Prohibition. But he believes rum's current boom stems from the curious tides of modern American consumers.
'We've had this resurgence of bourbon and tequilas and even gin. What's left? Rum," he says. 'It's the same thing you see in culinary trends. There's more interest in fine ingredients and techniques. The American palate is better educated now than 20 years ago."
Better rums are now available to American drinkers.
'Rum has a stigma because it was the cheapest drunk, and that's because of the cheaper production costs," Curtis explains. But he says rum is now following the same growth trajectory as American microbrewed beers, a segment of the market that skyrocketed in the 1990s after decades of dominance by industrial-sized brewers. He praises Old New Orleans Rum from Celebration Distillation, a distillery begun in Gentilly in 1995. There's plenty of American rum produced by major brands, but Curtis credits Celebration Distillation as the nation's first rum maker of the sort generally recognized today as a microdistillery turning out an artisanal product. The major producers are scrambling to catch up by expanding their own lines of high-end products, Curtis says. Quality distilleries in the islands are now pursuing distribution here.
While an appreciation for rum's finer points may be spreading, the original colonial spirit may always prove the maverick. There are firm rules for what liquor producers can call cognac, bourbon or Irish whiskey, but no such guidelines exist for rum. In taste, content and appearance, it can range from clear whites like Bacardi to tar-dark black rums like Gosling's.
'What it comes down to is rum has been made for a long time on so many small islands that don't necessarily talk to each other," Curtis says. 'Now you have more players in the game than ever, and it's the Wild West out there with rum."