2023 was supposed to be a big year for rum, or so said several reputable booze trend analysts. Well, we’re two thirds of the way to 2024, and I still don’t feel like the category has had its moment yet. And I’m honestly not sure why. Rum is as venerable as whiskey or tequila, and it’s made all over the world with no shortage of variety and nuance to explore. That ubiquity has perhaps made it more challenging to understand, never mind the industrial heavyweights whose market dominance relies more on brand recognition than actual product knowledge. If education really is a barrier to rum’s ascendance, this latest tome from husband-and-wife team Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith should go a long way to remedying that.
As its to-the-point title suggests, Modern Caribbean Rum is more a textbook than a casual page turner, going lightyears beyond other respectably compact rum histories with 850 pages of extensive detail and illustration covering every sticky corner of the complex and complicated world of Caribbean rum. It’s dense with rum data but not nearly as unentertaining as that may sound. And the authors have achieved a near miracle organizing everything in chapters and sections that are easy to digest and reference.
You can learn about the history of sugarcane cultivation and the rum trade from lots of other books, but Modern Caribbean Rum is most valuable in its explanation of the nuanced and opaque aspects of the industry, the things that are frequently most challenging and confusing for casual consumers and aficiandos alike. For example, an entire section titled “The Business of Rum” lays out each Caribbean nation’s specific rum regulations in surprisingly succinct subsections and tables. For that alone, the book is an invaluable reference manual for those rum fans or educators that want to better understand the many differences, big and small, between Caribbean producers.
The distilling section is so thorough and well organized, it should be recommended reading for anyone wanting to understand the basics of spirit distilling, not just rum production. There’s even a section on flavor science that transforms mountains of chemistry and biology into less science-y morsels with pages of illustrated tables depicting skunks and pineapples, among other tastes and aromas. Why use a long Latin word when a cute picture will do?
While all the background and science and regulatory minutiae is invaluable, and certainly worth muscling through, it’s the “Rum Producers” section that really justifies the significant space this book will require on your shelf. (Make sure it’s sturdy.) The bulk of Modern Caribbean Rum, more than 500 pages in fact, is a country by country overview of every major rum distiller in the Caribbean, complete with numerous, fantastic photos (the book has over 900) highlighting operations and facilities, many from distilleries not even open to the public. It would take a dedicated rum fan a lot of plane tickets and sunscreen to see half of what this book manages to reveal.
To be honest, I haven’t even finished Modern Caribbean Rum, but I’ve read enough to happily report that it’s a rewarding read for the rum fan willing to enroll in a college-level course on spirit history and science. Luckily, this particular class is taught by a pair of passionate and well-organized teachers who use lots of pictures and are clearly invested in our collective rum education.
A / $100