Every year for the past decade or so, writers and bartenders have prognosticated over whether this was “the year of rum.” Certainly for rum drinkers, these are high times for the spirit: American rums are breaking into the market, Tiki bars are experiencing a revival, and well-aged sipping rums are beginning to wrestle valuable menu space from whiskey.
All in all, it’s a good time for Kentucky-based author Fred Minnick to have launched “Rum Curious: The Indispensable Tasting Guide to the World’s Spirit” (Voyageur Press, $25) earlier this year.
His book is more than a march through the history of rum, and it’s more than a recipe dump. Though there’s enough of each in its pages to appease the curious.
Minnick takes a broader view of rum, a most unusual spirit that can be produced anywhere in the world and is significantly intertwined in politics and trade, influencing everything from the British Navy and pirates to the African slave trade and American Independence.
From the beginning, it’s clear that he enjoys the spirit in its many iterations and wants us to as well. But what Minnick is particularly interested in is highlighting premium sipping rums—carefully distilled and aged products that punch in the same weight class as, say, a fine scotch or cognac.
And though “Rum Curious” is ultimately a celebration of the spirit, Minnick isn’t afraid to voice his opinion on some of the industry’s biggest controversies, including sustainability, labor safety and much of rum production’s lack of transparency.
“I’m drawn to anything with a really cool history, and rum is loaded with history,” says Minnick. He has explored boozy history before in books like “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey” (Potomac Books, $26.95) and “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey” (Voyageur Press, $25).
“One interesting thing I found while researching “Whiskey Women” was the congressional pressure against rum in the 1820s and ’30s,” says Minnick. “Congress was specifically looking to penalize rum and molasses importers in order to help grain farmers and whiskey distillers in the U.S.”
As Minnick explains it: As the U.S. expanded into Kentucky and the rest of the West, Thomas Jefferson and other leaders promoted grain and corn farming as a means of settling the land. An overabundance of corn soon lead to the whiskey style that would become bourbon.
“They strategically penalized rum importers so whiskey could flourish,” he says. “And it worked.”
One of Minnick’s biggest goals with “Rum Curious,” he says, was to raise awareness. “Folks need to pay attention to some of the great rums out there,” he says. “If not, you’re missing out on quality spirits at great prices.”
To this end, the subsequent chapters on tasting rum and rum styles lay out details on hundreds of quality labels and expressions from around the world with in-depth tasting notes and no-holds-barred recommendations on consumption. (“Under no circumstances should this be used in a cocktail,” writes Minnick about how to best drink Appleton Estate 21-year-old rum.)
While some of the blame for our traditionally simplistic rum preferences can be attributed to the same evolution of tastes that have expanded interest in high-quality tequila and whiskey, Minnick sees uphill market challenges for rum in particular.
“I wanted to shed some light on the subsidized rum distilleries,” he says. “There’s a reason it’s mostly Bacardí, Cruzan and Captain Morgan. These facilities are well taken care of by their respective governments, and it puts smaller brands at a competitive disadvantage. I feel like people have a right to know why most liquor stores carry but a handful of brands.”
That’s not to say that “Rum Curious” is a wonky book for cocktail nerds only. Far from it. It’s easy reading, and the background sections are designed more for a casual spirits fan than the passionate enthusiast.
Minnick eschews popular industry descriptions like “gold” and “white” rum (since color, age, taste and quality don’t correlate in rum) for the categories “unaged,” “aged” and “spiced.” Recipes are scattered throughout, but there are specific sections dedicated to easy-to-make cocktails like El Presidente and the Hemingway Daiquiri, as well as “pro-level” recipes from award-winning bartender Max Solano.