On Monday, Feb. 2, he will host a seminar and cocktail tasting all centered on the versatility and history of rum at the Museum of the American Cocktail, which is housed within the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in the Riverwalk Marketplace. The event starts at 6:30 p.m.
Throughout, Curtis will be mixing and serving several different rum cocktails, including a hot toddy, a rum swizzle made with white vermouth and a Martinique ti' punch, a simple concoction of lime, sugar and sugar-cane rum. He wants this all to serve as a glugable demonstration of rum's wide-ranging tastes.
"Because rum is so unregulated, especially compared to, say, bourbon, it can be a challenge to find the right rum for the right drink. But that challenge is a large part of the fun, you really get to experiment," he says. "My goal is to get people to think about using rum in all sorts of drinks, drinks that might call for whiskey or gin often are even better when made with rum. Basically, the evening will be an exploration of my favorite theme: all roads lead to rum."
Curtis is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and American Heritage magazine, among other publications, and moved to New Orleans from Maine in 2006. He became interested in the history of rum some years back while researching history pieces.
"I kept running into rum, and the more I researched I discovered it was the quintessential North American drink. I wondered if you tracked the history of rum, what kind of story would it tell," he says.
A friend told Curtis that exploring rum for historical reasons was like "getting interested in sex because of Darwin," he says.
But his interest eventually led to his 2007 book "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails."
The end of slave labor in the Caribbean islands, the American Revolution and its impact on regional trade, the vast wheat harvests of the country's cultivated Midwest and the ensuing flood of cheap whiskey, the scarcity of Scotch and Irish whiskey during both world wars, the logistics of smuggling during Prohibition they all had a role in either the rise or fall of rum's popularity through history, as Curtis convincingly details in "And a Bottle of Rum."
But he believes rum's current boom time stems from the curious tides of the modern American consumer rather than changes in economies, migration of peoples or geopolitics.
"We've had this resurgence of bourbon and tequilas and even gin now with people starting to learn the difference between gin from London or Holland. What's left? Rum," he says. "It's the same dynamic you see in culinary trends. There's more interest in fine ingredients and techniques. The American palate is better educated now than 20 years ago."
And rum itself is getting better, or at least the good stuff is becoming more readily available to American drinkers.
"Rum has a stigma because it was the cheapest drunk, and that's because of the cheaper production costs," Curtis explains. "Everyone has a recollection of some unfortunate incident in high school that probably involved a bottle of Bacardi and shrubbery."
-- Ian McNulty