Book Review: Spirit of the Cane

photo by Amanda Schuster
photo by Amanda Schuster

Since the Cuban missile crisis, Americans have been sorely missing out. There is an entire world of rum unlike any other produced so close, yet so far away. Though the U.S. travel ban to this island and its archipelagos off the coast of Miami has lifted somewhat in recent years with a yo-yoing of restriction policies, exports from the tiny nation are still under embargo, and under the current administration, it looks as though they will still be for some time to come. How to taste the rum? Travel, baby. Travel. How to learn more about this fascinating culture and its history from a rum perspective? Well, that’s where people like Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown come in.

Married drinks historians Miller and Brown, (who is also the master distiller for Sipsmith), have traveled extensively in Cuba and written about this subject for nearly a decade, but their new book, Spirit of the Cane: The Story of Cuban Rum, digs much deeper into the world of Cuban rum from its early origins to present day. Apart from local connections they’ve made over the years and good ol’ avid curiosity, microfiche is their best friend, and for this book, these two boozy sleuths have managed to follow some of the faintest of trails of fermented cane juice dropped along the passages of time.

The book is well organized into phases from the discovery of the New World and the planting of sugarcane, (including many blunt facts about the atrocities the colonial Spaniards inflicted on island locals and the significant role of the slave trade in rum’s early history) to the growth and economic impact of the Cuban rum ("sugar brandy") trade with the invention of the continuous still in the 18th century, to the rise of Cuba’s historic bars before, during and after Prohibition and, naturally, definitive explorations of the origins of some of the most famous Cuban rum cocktails such as the Mojito, Daiquirí, Cuba Libre and Piña Colada, among others. In between there is a well detailed crash course on rum production and how Cuban rum distinguishes itself from all others, and even instruction on how to nose and taste it. We also get a brief overview of some of Cuba’s storied distilleries that includes among others Havana Club, Ron Cubay and Santiago de Cuba.

What makes the book stand out is Miller and Brown’s intimate knowledge and reverence for the local bar culture. There is a reason Havana was once the center of the bar universe, drawing the world’s great authors, musicians, actors and well-to-do bon vivants (“...that weren’t yet called the ‘jet set’.”) - its grand architecture, the colors, the music, the food (anyone for an authentic Sloppy Joe?) and of course the rum and the highly trained cantineros (bartenders) who served the drinks. There is a detailed history of the famous early 19th century Spanish-born barmen such as Don Narciso Sala Parera, Constantino Ribalaigua, Emilio “Margato” González and José Abel y Otero, who transformed establishments such as La Florida, Hotel Florida and Sloppy Joes into what became the high standard of cocktail service. From there, the story unfolds to the time of Prohibition, the rise of American bartending in Havana, and the Club de Cantineros de Cuba - the prestigious bartending school that was founded out of the necessity to distinguish sophisticated, classical style Cuban bartending from the rise of “saloon”-type service that was becoming increasingly popular, and continues to be an important industry standard in present times.

The 1940s and 50s Cuba’s golden age of tourism and cocktails - the one we all associate with Hemingway and however many Daiquirís or Mojitos he could truly consume in one sitting - left a legacy of great rum drinks (the Mary Pickford, for instance, created at Hotel Nacional de Cuba for the frequent visitor and film starlet) for which we are provided useful recipes, anecdotes and historical details. For those in need of a reference, there is even a helpful A - Z list of drinking establishments that existed at the time, compiled from a list in a rare 1949 book. How did rum in tiki drinks become such a thing? There’s some history about that too.

Considering how much politics have shaped the current local economy, industry and culture, the book does steer pretty clear from them after a certain point in history, once the golden age of Cuban rum and its bar culture is established. And if you’re looking for insider gossip about Bacardí and Havana Club, well, you have the wrong book. Also, an index would be nice…

However, what is well conveyed (and organized, ahem) is a sense of tradition, and how Cuban society has managed to thrive despite the obstacles, albeit with a different definition of that word than the one most of us are accustomed to. Rum has been a strong part of Cuban tradition for centuries, and continues to have a firm place in everyday culture - one that takes the time to enjoy the present without the distractions and obligations that pre-occupy so many of us outside of Cuba. The writing here does an excellent job of describing that sense of celebration and emotional freedom, in a place that from otherwise ignorant vantage points seems suppressed and stagnant - even as it looks toward a changing future.

One could certainly judge this book with its fabulous cover illustration by Tea Filipi. However, because the story of Cuban rum is so uniquely and intrinsically tied to classic cocktails and the rise of modern cocktail culture in ways that aren’t apparently obvious, Spirit of the Cane is truly essential reading for anyone with an interest in cocktail or spirits history. However, as a historical book in its own right, there is a lot to drink in as well.