Book Review: Modern Caribbean Rum by Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith
by Ken Gargett
Every now and then, a topic gets the book it deserves. Min Ron Nee’s extraordinary ‘An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Post Revolution Havana Cigars’ might be nearing its twentieth anniversary, but it is still by far the leading tome on the topic. Jancis Robinson’s ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’, the fifth edition just released, occupies a similar position for wine lovers.
Sometimes, one looks for something a little bit more specific and there are plenty of examples, perhaps none better than Jasper Morris’s ‘Inside Burgundy’, now on its second edition.
Now, rum, more specifically Caribbean rum, has joined this illustrious company. Matt Pietrek and Carrie Smith have produced an outstanding reference guide called, not surprisingly, ‘Modern Caribbean Rum’.
It has already been dubbed the bible on the subject of rum (although I suspect there is far more fact to be found in this book).
Matt will be known to many spirit fans for his excellent blog, Cocktail Wonk. I have always enjoyed his writing as he is not afraid to dig deeply into whatever takes his fancy.
Some topics might be obscure and perhaps not to the relevance of everyone (who can please everyone?), but you can be sure that you’ll come away knowing far more than you did before.
Matt describes himself as a ‘spirits industry author, historian, consultant, and rum nerd’. Matt wrote, edited, and selected the images, and his wife Carrie did the design, layout, and coordination of the book. Between them, nothing is left to the imagination.
Matt does note that there may be a few tiny distilleries that did not make it into the book and one distillery chose not to assist. But otherwise, consider this as comprehensive. But it is far more than just information on distilleries.
The book has already won, deservedly, the ‘2023 Spirited Awards, Best New Book on Drinks, Culture, History or Spirits’.
The first thing you are going to notice about this book is its size. It is massive. Indeed, carry it around for a bit and forget about the gym for the next week. 830 pages. 3.6 kilograms.
The book kicks off with sections on what is rum, its history, classification of rums, and then addresses the many misconceptions of the spirit. We then move to the making of rum, through every stage. If you could not make your own rum after this, you are simply not trying.
He then tackles a more prickly sector, the business of rum. Finally, the bulk of the book addresses the various islands (and relevant parts of the mainland) and producers/distilleries. Twenty locations are covered and more than some seventy producers or so.
My first reaction, on finally getting hold of a copy, was to settle back outside near the beach in a couch with a good cigar and a glass of Foursquare rum, the 2010 if one wanted to be specific. Foursquare are one of my very favorite distillers and it was a perfect way to start exploring.
Naturally, I went straight to the section of Foursquare. Despite having written about that very distillery myself, it was enlightening to learn so much more.
Suffice to say that every aspect pertaining to Caribbean rum is covered in exceptional depth. That said, if there is one slight exception, that would be Cuba. The information on rum production, like almost everything else, is basically government-controlled controlled and Matt notes that he was not able to get full confirmation of some aspects.
That said, there is as much detail here as I have seen on Cuban rums, and a good mention of the famous Havana Club Museo del Ron (which has one of the largest train sets I’ve ever seen).
It does include some fascinating information on the island’s history with this spirit, and also the eternal dispute between Bacardi and Havana Club. That issue also arises in the section on Bacardi in the chapter on Puerto Rican distilleries.
It is very easy to dip into the book to whatever section appeals on the day. For me, the issue of age statements and the rules, or lack thereof, which form part of misconceptions, was a great read, although common sense, and if time permits, starting at the beginning and working through it would be a better idea.
Among the many highlights, those interested in learning more about rhum agricole need only to look to the chapter on Martinique. You want to visit any of these distilleries, this is a great place to start. The history of rum is a fascinating essay that will shine a new light on this spirit for many. Likewise, the section on classifying rums.