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BOOK REVIEW: "Rum Curious" by Fred Minnick

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BOOK REVIEW: Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit by Fred Minnick (Voyageur Press) 2017

In Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, his novel (eventually released in 1998) about his time spent as a journalist in Puerto Rico in the late 1950’s, the character of Paul Kemp, based on Thompson, goes on for pages about the heavy drinking that took place amongst reporters in those days. And Kemp was no exception.

Talking about a “meet-and-greet” event, where there “was no shortage of free liquor for the press,” Kemp and his photographer pal Bob Sala attend a San Juan Chamber of Commerce event where he “would steal as many bottles of rum as I could carry.”

Writes Thompson: “Then we would head for Al’s, dropping the rum at the apartment on the way. We put all the bottles on an empty bookshelf and sometimes there were as many as twenty or thirty. In a good week we would hit three parties and average three or four bottles for each half-hour of painful socializing. It was a good feeling to have a stock of rum that would never run out, but after a while I could no longer stand even a few minutes at each party, and I had to give it up.”

Rum is romanticized to a great degree in Thompson’s novel, but then the famed “gonzo” journalist made drinking alcohol in excess a sport that many others tried to emulate, but failed to live up to, at least not to the degree Thompson took his love of liquor in various forms.

And like Thompson, a Kentucky native who loved the bourbon of his home state, transplated Oklahoman Fred Minnick, now living in the Louisville area, has broadened his horizons, going beyond writing about bourbon whiskey, as he did so well in fantastic books like Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and the Rebirth of American Whiskey. Yes, the engaging and utterly readable Mr. Minnick has looked southward, toward the blue waters of the Caribbean, where rum is most associated.

Minnick is obviously more comfortable with amber-colored bourbon in the Bluegrass State, but we give him immense credit for taking on the popular subject of rum and all that goes with it, from its relationship to “commerce, nation building, wars at sea, or wars in court.”

And then there is the issue of slavery. Slave labor was initially used on the Caribbean islands controlled by the British, Spanish and others, where sugarcane was grown and harvested - and where rum was ultimately created. It was through this sugarcane production process, where sugar was removed and molasses was left behind, where fermented molasses was distilled, and "rum was born." And that word allegedly came from an interpretation of the Romany word "Rom" which meant "excellent, fine and good." Many around the world would agree.

So, in this beautifully-made, hardbound book, complete with countless photos, recipes, historical information and more, Minnick, once again, takes the reader on a journey through (more or less) the four centuries of rum history, while letting the reader know that rum is on a major comeback, and with its link to pirates, adventure, tropical islands, beach vacations, and fruity and even sweet, rum-flavored drinks (Rum and Coke, anyone?), it's only natural. 

When you're catching the Garth Brooks concert next week and he sings “Two Piña Coladas," (or hear that Yacht Rock favorite, "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes), know that two ounces of rum, along with healthy additions of pineapple juice, lime juice, cream of coconut ... always goes well with a pineapple wedge and a cute little umbrella.  

But rum's acceptance was not always so universal. We also learn about the trouble rum faced during Prohibition and those who saw the liquor as “demon rum.” Propaganda ran high in those days. But rum persevered, as Minnick tells us.

Again, being a big fan of history, I particularly appreciate Minnick's attention to detail and lost bits of history, like the devastating 1902 volcano that erupted on the French Caribbean island of Martinique and killed a shocking number of islanders - 30,000 - and destroyed 50 distilleries on the island. But, rum would not die that easily on Martinique, and the rum industry returned, with a writer in the 1950's - some five decades after the volcanic eruption - said Martiniuque's rum was the "ideal strong drink on warm days."

Sidebars about "tiki drinks" tells us of Trader Vic's and how the "culture of Hawaiian shirt wearers" flock to these places where "delicious rum punches" and Polynesian and Pacific Islander culture is hailed. 

Soon after that, in the 1950's and beyond, the cocktail scene took off, particularly as the parents of Baby Boomers spent money on vacations and air travel became more common, leading many to go to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the many islands in the Caribbean, learning more about the wonders of rum.

There is some more dense material related to the rum snobs and connoisseurs who embrace information about whether proofs are met and so forth, but overall Minnick keeps the material more on the lighter side, and makes it appealing for people not familiar with rum, or those, like me, who assume rum is too sweet to really enjoy. 

And the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have rum taxes and subsidies supporting rum production, including that of Captain Morgan, a popular brand that the company that owns the brand "spends about 35 percent of this subsidy on advertising," allowing the dashing, swashbuckling Captain Morgan to be so synonymous with rum, albeit of a more common and sweeter variety.

We get some recipes for rum-infused drinks, including the Hemingway Daiquiri, which requires unaged rum (2 oz.), some fresh grapefruit juice (3/4 oz.), lime juice (1/4 oz.), Luxardo Maraschino Liqeuer (1/4 oz.) and simple syrup (1/4 oz.) and was a favorite of the booze-loving and brilliant Ernest Hemingway, of course.

And unlike bourbon, for instance, rum can be made pretty much anywhere on the planet, as long as certain rules are followed, related to sugar content and where it comes from. Some rules are more strict than others. It largely depends on where you are.

In later chapters, Minnick tries various aged and unaged rums, for instance, and gives scores for the ones that have, in the case of aged rums, has the best "complexity, mouthfeel and finish." 

For instance, a Foursquare 2013 Habitation Velier Single-Pot Rum, from Barbados, gets a score of 90 out of 100 due to its "very rich and layered" palate (with an oak, cherrywood, tobacco, molasses and sugar cookie aroma) and, while not recommended for cocktails "because it deserves to be suppoed on its own," it pairs well with a Cohiba Esplendido cigar. And it goes on from there. It's clear that Minnick is very comfortable in the tropical and laid-back environs most associated with rum, not to mention the drink itself, doctored, but preferably not.

And this is why Rum Curious is a great book to have on hand near your drink cart. A great tome to have on hand if you want to explore this delightful drink even further. I certainly learned a lot!

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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