Before we get into the nitty gritty of this review, I just want to clear something up - pirates didn't go around drinking rum - Johnny Depp lied to you! (Or rather Robert Louis Stevenson did when he was writing Treasure Island). While the Americas did indeed have a golden age of piracy, it occurred around the time that sugar (the base material from which rum is made) was being established on the islands, so some time before rum would have been found on ships. Pirates were much more likely to have enjoyed fine wines and brandy.
As with all of Tristan Stephenson’s previous books (covering cocktails, coffee, whisky and gin), The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution is bursting at the seams with information. It begins by taking a look at the history of sugar, it covers in some detail how sugarcane came to be in the Americas after initially only being found in New Guinea, how the industry created by this crop instigated years of slavery and how as a commodity it affected the global economy. I'm a bit of a nerd, so I find this insight into West Indian history fascinating. It also helps that Stephenson is such a rich and passionate storyteller; his enthusiasm is contagious and he writes in digestible paragraphs, making detail on trade and economy not only easy to understand, but interesting too.
Following on from a thorough history lesson, part two explains "How Rum is Made". Firstly the sugarcane plant is described, what it looks like, its structure (in particular how it stores energy as sucrose rather than starch) and how it is grown. Next you are taken through the refining process at the sugar mill and then on to how the by-product of this process, molassess, is converted into rum via fermentation, distillation and maturation. The processes for making rum from cane honey and cane juice are also included. Stephenson discusses other variables that can have an affect on the final product, such as blending, filtering, sweetening and colouring, as well as a rather mind-bending attempt to explain rum classification - the problem being that rum doesn't have a standardised system of classification, so producers have a tendency to make up rules to suit themselves (although efforts are being made to improve this). In fact Stephenson has to explain how he has categorised the rums, that he goes on to mention in the next chapter, by coming up with his own rules based on age, base material, distillation and blend.
Chapter three takes you on "The Rum Tour". As mentioned above, in this section a large variety of different rums are commented on, but this is merely a small part of the "tour". You begin the tour in The Caribbean, working your way through the islands and casting an eye over some of the distilleries at each location. You are given some general background information on The Caribbean, then more detailed information on each island/country/territory (starting with Antigua) before being told the history and present day practices of an individual distillery - you are also given a handy little map which marks where the distilleries are located and a flag identifying the geographic location. It is alongside the stories of each distillery that Stephenson gives his opinion on the rums that they are producing. After hopping around the Caribbean you also visit distilleries in Central and South America - covering just over twenty different islands/countries/territories in total. At the end of the chapter you are introduced to the "Blenders and Bottlers" too. Here you will actually find some stories about pirates (thanks to a couple of brands being named after them), but more importantly Stephenson puts emphasis on how crucial these companies have been to the story of rum, essentially bridging the gap between producer and wholesaler and the consumer.
By the time you reach the final part of the book "Rum Cocktails" you will be rummaging in the back of the cupboard to see what dusty bottles you have lurking there, while you consider booking a holiday (you can only read about so many far flung sunny islands before wanting to hop on a plane). The recipes featured in part four include: Mai Tai, Mojito, Pina Colada, Hurricane, and Dark and Stormy, but before you think that you already know how to make those drinks, maybe think again; quite a number of rum cocktails are trademarked, so they can't legally be known by their name unless they follow a specific recipe (who knew?). Each recipe gives you a list of ingredients and a method, along with some extra background information and a full page image of the finished cocktail. There is also a selection of spiced rum recipes. Stephenson omits from mentioning spiced rums during the tour as most of those produced aren't very good, so here he offers guidance on creating your own.
Finally, at the very back of the book there are two glossaries, the second, as you might expect, includes useful terms that you will come across in the book, but the first, a "Glossary of Distilleries" is a nod to a variety of distilleries, categorised by country, that didn't make it into the main text.
The thing I love most about this book (and all the other 'Curious' books) is how I come away from it with a head full of knowledge (it could make me tough competition in a pub quiz). From this particular read I have learned (amongst other things) that Columbus went to his deathbed still convinced that he had reached the East Indies when he had in fact stumbled upon the West Indies, that Captain Morgan was not a good man, and that the number on the bottle of rum or its colour can not be trusted to tell you anything about its age or flavour, (in fact I'm convinced that the only way to have any idea what a rum tastes like without trying it, is by reading this book).
I love how Stephenson writes; I can only imagine that he is the best company to have while spending a lazy afternoon in a pub (although he would undoubtedly drink me under the table). He manages to explain a complex subject with a complex history with clarity and personality. I love not only his storytelling but also his descriptions of places and flavour, how he can include his honest opinion with both fervour ("Woody and taut. Boozy trifle, marzipan, almost sherried, shortbread, caramel and marmalade. Long and concentrated through the finish. Hours of fun.") and disdain ("Banana milkshake and sweet nutmeg on the nose. Simple and confected. Artificial banana, flabby, sickly, and boring.").
If you happen to be interested in rum, or if you have a general interest in history and how things work, then you are sure to find The Curious Bartender's Rum Revolution a fascinating read. Considering the amount of knowledge and insight that has been so generously shared, I think it is rare that one book can offer such excellent value for money. Of course there is always a downside to a book, in this case it is that some of the rums mentioned are only available in their country of origin... trip to Jamaica anyone?
The Curious Bartender's Rum Revolution by Tristan Stephenson
Photography by Addie Chinn
Published by Ryland, Peters & Small