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Review: Modern Caribbean Rum

This review first appeared on AlcoholProfessor.com

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This beast of a rum book is 850 pages long, is illustrated with over 900 images, measures over ten inches square, and weighs eight pounds — all without containing cocktail recipes or brand tasting notes. Modern Caribbean Rum: A Contemporary Reference to the Region's Essential Spirit is a (very) close up look at rum history, production, and regulations in one part of the world. The text is a passion project of husband-and-wife team Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith, who previously wrote and published Minimalist Tiki (with plenty of recipes in that one) on their own publishing imprint Wonk Press.   

The text contains four sections. The first is a brief (compared to the rest of the book) history of Caribbean rum and a review of the classification systems that people have used to categorize it. None are perfect: We touched on that topic in another post but here I enjoyed the analogy to describing a car — if you were describing your car in order to identify it in a parking lot you might first mention its color, but if you were describing its performance abilities you might start by saying it is a four wheel drive. Similarly, whether a rum is dark in color or overproof might be relevant in different situations. 

The second section runs a hundred pages and covers how rum is made. There are detailed chapters on fermenting, distilling, aging, etc. At the end of this section is a super geeky chapter on flavor science that covers how flavors are produced in each step of the process, and included are several charts of phenols, esters, and aldehydes and what they smell like. Much of the information in this chapter is useful for understanding how other spirits beyond rum are made as well. 

The next hundred pages is the chapter that I didn’t know I needed: The Business of Rum. This section contains a listing of all the regulations on rum for the countries covered in the book, which I’ll surely refer to in the future. As the authors point out, some countries’ regulations are more concerned with distillation parameters (like how many plates can be in a column still) while other countries have more detailed regulations concerning barrel aging procedures than they do distillation.

This section also includes information on bulk/sourced rum that may originate in one place but be sold as a product from another, and how French overseas departments work more like states than independent colonies. It also lays out trade associations, taxes, and tariffs such as the gargantuan tax breaks and paybacks given to rum producers from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. This isn’t just detailed information on global trade for its own sake – all of it informs how and why rum is made and sold differently in different parts of the Caribbean. 

The remaining 500 pages of the book are dedicated to describing each producer of rum in the Caribbean (which for the purposes of this book includes some countries in Latin and South America like Guyana and Venezuela). These sections, organized by country, feature an overview of the island and its rum-making history, an individual history of each producer, and a walk-through of each distillery’s production equipment and process. This includes everything from the total number of liters of alcohol produced at a facility to the name of the manufacturer of each of the stills and how many plates are in them to the number of barrels in the warehouse and which types of wood they’re made from. Sometimes it’s like following along on a distillery tour.

 

How History Influences Rum Production

 

 

Modern Caribbean Rum focuses on production above all else, and that speaks to my nerd heart: I’m always trying to categorize things and understand why things taste the way they do based on the raw materials and equipment used to make them. But what I found even more gratifying about this book is seeing how the history, business, and regulations of rum have led to the current production equipment choices in different parts of the Caribbean. It’s not that people with Spanish heritage prefer one style of rum so rum is made to suit that taste, but rather that historic events led many Spanish colonies to produce rum using similar equipment and methodology. 

For example, during the early part of the colonial era, British-controlled territories produced a lot of rum in addition to sugar that was sold to the home country, while Spanish and French-controlled territories were often forbidden from exporting any rum made as to not compete with wine and brandy from the home country. (To solve this problem, French countries sold their molasses to distillers in New England.) British-controlled territories like Jamaica to this day are known for their pot still rum (or blend of pot and column distilled rum) due to their long tradition of it, while French/Spanish heritage countries that ramped up distilling later into the 1800s are more known for their purely column distilled rum. In the mid- to late-1800s the new French sugar beet industry competed with Caribbean cane sugar, motivating a switch to rum distilled directly from sugarcane juice rather than molasses.

Beyond home market protectionism, factors like socialist uprisings, revolutions and independence movements, the end of slavery, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, world wars, Prohibition, and other factors influence why different countries have different equipment and produce different tasting rum. 

After reading the book, now I find it easier to understand not just, for example, why Martinique agricole rum tastes grassy due to its distillation from fermented fresh sugar cane juice in column stills to a relatively low proof, but also the various forces of history and global economics that influenced the decision to make rum in that way. I wouldn’t say that this is the primary purpose of the book, but it is the thing that has stuck with me the most overall; a new ability to see the big picture of rum production from thousands of tiny details.

 

It's Also Very Pretty

Modern Caribbean Rum is not a narrative, romantic guide to rum in the Caribbean by any means. I’d describe it as a cross between a textbook and a reference book. I think you’ll really want to read it in order, at least the first 300 pages before the distillery profiles, to give you a solid foundation for the rest. (I read all 850 pages beginning to end and have no regrets.) That foundation allows you to quickly read each subsequent distillery’s section without getting confused about its equipment (described in earlier sections) and how it works and how it will impact the final flavor of the end product. A short fermentation then multi-column distillation and aging in neutral casks? I know how that is going to taste, even if it’s not restated in every instance.

For all its size and weight, the book is far from a slog to read. Sections are short; most less than a page, and there are tons of charts and other graphics to help clarify. The photography of distilleries and cane fields and equipment, collected from many different sources, deserves special mention as it is both pleasing and illustrative – rarely if ever is a piece of equipment described but not pictured. I found the photos compelling enough to keep me reading the next section and the next after I’d planned to read just one distillery profile at a time.  

Modern Caribbean Rum combines the depth and detail of a textbook with the design and photography of a distillery guidebook. It’s rewarding both to read and to flip through and it will probably also look great on your coffee table. It doesn’t easily fit anywhere else! 

Note: This book is not available on Amazon but directly from the authors at WonkPress. The website also lists a few international retailers where books are available. 

 

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