Wayne Curtis on All Things Rum

wayne-rum-verticalWhen Wayne Curtis’ book And a Bottle of Rum was published in 2006, it sparked a trend of spirit-focused books. Ten years and 14 editions later, we caught up with Curtis—also an Imbibe contributing editor—to chat about how the rum category has evolved in America since the book was released.

Imbibe: What sparked your interest in writing a book on rum?
Curtis: I wasn’t much of a spirits or cocktail drinker, but I was very interested in American history. I had been working for Preservation Magazine for a few years as a contributing editor, and rum just kept cropping up. I’d see it mentioned in connection to the slave trade, the American revolution, piracy, etc. I went to see if there were any books on it, and there was one from the ’60s or ’70s that was decent, but I thought it could use a more “popular history” approach. I thought it would be fun to spend a couple of years researching it, found an agent who agreed with me and then a publisher signed on, too.

Were there other books that looked at a specific spirit through a historic lens out at the time?
W.C.: Not on spirits. It was during the era of the micro-history genre that started with things like cod, salt, and longitude. People would take one specific slice of the world and write a whole history of it; the subtitle for almost all of them was “the ___ that changed the world.” There were dozens of those, and every publisher wanted one, which was to my benefit when trying to sell my idea. There were a few books out on the Martini, and William Grimes’ book on the history of the cocktail had come out just prior—that was inspiring. I also discovered Jeff Berry’s books on tiki over the course of my research, so there were some slices of history out there, but none that had taken a narrative approach to a specific spirit that I was aware of at the time.

When you were in the research phases, did you take the 2004-ish drinking landscape into consideration to gain more context for the subject matter?
W.C.: The book came mostly from history, so I spent the first year and a half getting through the slave trade era, and then started getting into Prohibition. I spent a lot of time reading books and journals to get a feel for what people were drinking and why at the time, and then I looked at the calendar and realized I needed to get up to the present day, because my proposal had included a chapter on tiki, the rum and coke during WWII and the Mojito, so I started to hustle. That was more fun and eye-opening than I expected, because I was comfortable with library and academic research—I love digging into old files to find references to rum—but when I got to the modern day, I realized I had to change my approach. I started calling people like Jeff Berry, Ted Haigh and Dale DeGroff. The thing that really impressed me was how generous everyone in the cocktail history sphere was. They didn’t know me from Adam and here I was writing a book on rum–Ted Haigh told me all these things I should look up, DeGroff was very generous, and Wondrich pointed me in some good directions. It was a surprise, because I came from the travel writing world where everybody was guarded and territorial about what they knew and their connections. I was taken aback by how gregarious—I guess it’s not a surprise that drinkers are gregarious—and friendly and helpful everyone was. They all wanted the research to expand on cocktails and spirits because it was a new and exciting time.

It’s funny how you met all these personalities who—looking back nowended up helping kickstart this cocktail revival and craft spirits movement. Did you imagine people would ever consider you to be part of that group?
W.C.: Never. It’s been fun, and it’s definitely a case of “right place, right time” because it’s not something that I expected. I didn’t predict that the cocktail thing would continue, I just knew I was interested in rum and when I looked around, other people seemed interested too, so this was a benefit for getting the book published. I truly didn’t think that 10 years later I would still be writing about this. I tend to have professional ADD, so I’ll pursue things for a few years until I’ve tapped it out and move on to something else that interests me, but 10 years on, I’m still on the spirits path. Cocktails not so much, but spirits I feel is in some ways what needs to be written about. Over the last few years it’s harder and harder to find interesting, compelling stories in cocktails. It seems like slicing the pie thinner and thinner. Whereas with the spirits world, with craft spirits booming and all the personalities and characters taking different approaches and some of them are horrible and others outstanding, to me that’s the fun stuff. I love talking to craft distillers and trying to figure out what makes them tick and sampling their products and finding out what’s good and what’s not. 80% of it’s not good, but it’s fun to find those easter eggs that are really outstanding.

Why do you think there aren’t there more craft distillers focusing on rum right now?
W.C.: There definitely aren’t as many as are doing whiskey, but I think rum has been all the more impressive than the other stuff. I’ve judged craft spirits competitions for ADI and ACSA for a couple of years or more—been tasting rum for 10 years—and the craft stuff has always been interesting, but not that great for the most part. In the last year or two there have been some really great rums coming out. It seems to be pulling ahead.  Some of the best rums I’ve ever had are from small craft distillers. Privateer’s Queen Share is one of the best rums I’ve had anywhere. Maggie’s Farm out of Pittsburgh has a really great one. Richland Rum in Georgia is outstanding. Some exciting stuff going on in the craft rum world.

Do you think American drinkers will ever take to rum as fervently as they have whiskey?
W.C.: I’d like to say yes, but people have been saying that for the last 10 years. Saying, “it’s about to take off; it’s the next big thing.” It’s come a ways, but I don’t know if Americans will embrace rum the way they have whiskey. I’ve given up on trying to predict that. With the way craft distillers are making great rums, it could educate some palates and get people more excited, so possibly. I hope!

People like Paul McGee and Martin Cate using the tiki framework as a way of educating people on the category must bode well for its rise, though, right?
I think it does bode well. The tiki persistence has been sort of extraordinary. I really thought that way going to flare out about 6-8 years ago, but it keeps going, which means most tiki drinks were pretty good and people will come back for them time and again. It’s not a flash-in-the pan type thing. That has been helpful to educate people about rum. And one of the things that Richard Seale of Foursquare rum has said is that rum has trouble getting traction because it’s not regulated enough and there are so many different points of production and they each have a different standard, so the tastes vary—that makes it harder on the consumer. Bourbon is easier because it’s all within a set range. Rum is all over the place. That makes it harder to get traction, because you buy a bottle from this shelf and this other bottle over here, and it tastes different. Why is this one black and this one clear? It’s hard. On the other hand, the case I make in my book is that what makes it American. It can be all sorts of things and the consumer can sort it out. That’s the ultimate freedom of choice, to keep trying new things and stick with the one you like.

Flipping through your book and looking at how the chapters are focused on tracing back a specific drink to it’s origins, it’s funny to see how cocktails like the Mai Tai, Daiquiri and Planter’s Punch have regained popularity. Do you think others have a shot at the modern-day spotlight?
W.C.: I don’t know about the Mojiito, because bartenders hate it so much. It is a great drink, though. I make them for myself in the summer, and they can be really interesting if you get the right rum. There are two that have shocked me that I mention in the book. The first one is shrubs. I say in a parenthetical line that I doubt there will be any demand for vinegar-based drinks in the future, because there were zero people making shrubs when I wrote the book. Now they are all over the place. That one surprised me. The flip is the other one. I went to a bar in Louisville last winter and somebody ordered flip, so they brought out a stove and a piece of metal and heated it up and made someone the drink. I thought, “What the hell?” I know Dave Arnold has his high-tech loggerhead, and Martin Cate experimented with it, though I don’t think he found a way to be efficient with it. I’ve also been invited to parties where people want to show me their loggerhead because they read about it in the book or elsewhere and had one made. That one has come back, but I think that will always be a novelty drink because it’s so cumbersome. It’s also a little funky tasting.

Have there been any other surprises since the book was first released?
W.C.: One of the things is the return of funky Jamaican rum. It started with Smith & Cross and Scarlet Ibis, and then Ed Hamilton bringing in his rums. That’s fascinating. I like seeing historic-style rum that’s faded from popularity come back. Once people get educated they want to try it, so it circles back around. It’s been good to see.

Would you consider doing another spirits book?
W.C.: Yes. I still think it’s interesting, and there’s a lot going on right now. Bourbon has been exhaustively covered, and there have been some great books in the last couple of years on that, but there are some other spirits that could use a little more sunlight. I haven’t committed to anything, though. There’s room for another book on craft spirits, because it’s still early. There are still stories to tell. Might be something there as well.