Spirit of the Cane - The Story of Cuban Rum
Investigating Cuban rum and Cuban cocktails is an undertaking both daunting and thrilling. Daunting, because political turmoil and scarce digitalisation are not the historian’s best friends. Thrilling, because Cuba’s one of the key rum islands, its cocktail tradition is second to none and there’s still so much to uncover. For the last 12 years, Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have devoted a growing portion of their time to doing just that. They’ve dug up so much that they’ve now published three books on the subject. The latest one, out last month, is called Spirit of the Cane and is their state of the question… so far.
For the cocktail couple, everything started in 2005, with their first trip to the Caribbean island. They were already well known to cocktails aficionados worldwide, having run the Shaken, Not Stirred website since 1995 (from which sprung a bestselling book), and were quite the experts on all things cocktail. Still, they were blown away by what they found in Cuba. So much history, so little awareness of it on the international bar scene! Soon enough, they were writing a book. This first volume, called Cuba: The Legend of Rum « only touched lightly upon the iceberg we discovered two years before we published it », Anistatia Miller told us. « The book was actually written by four people who all had a different take on the history of Cuban rum and Cuban rum drinks ». For Spirit of the Cane, Brown and Miller could count on almost ten more years of research - and, as the sole writers, didn’t have to compromise their vision. « It is our first effort into explaining the influence of French and British inventors and innovators on the development of what we know as Cuban rum. It also sets the stage for readers to understand how Cuban planters, unlike their Jamaican, Barbadian, and Martinican counterparts, were early adopters and adapters of the latest inventions and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. »
It would however be wrong to assume that Spirit of the Cane is ‘just’ a complete rewrite of the first volume. It also improves on their second Cuban book, published in 2012. Cuban Cocktails focused, if its title didn’t make it quite clear enough, on the classic Cuban drinks, from the Daiquiri to the Piña Colada. It also told the story of the cantineros, the pioneering collective of professionals who turned Havana bars into some of the best drinking holes in the world. For Spirit of the Cane, Brown and Miller have streamlined the narrative and, of course, made some changes where changes need to be made: « it adds even more details about the origins of the drinks and the importance of Cuban drinks in the bartending legacy. » This latest work is not just a history volume though. It also looks at the present and the future of Cuban rum and Cuba-inspired drinks, with new classics invented by some of the world’s best bartenders.
That the legacy of yesteryear’s cantineros lives on through the work of bartenders all over the world is only natural. As Spirit of the Cane shows, Cuba’s rum industry and bar scene has always been about setting up a dialogue between the island’s idiosyncrasies and what was happening in the world at large. « The most amazing epiphany was when we realised how much French and British invention and technology made the birth of Cuban rum possible. », Anistatia told us. « From the way the cane was planted and harvested to the way in which it was processed as sugar and as rum to the way it was transported to the port cities, every aspect was an adaptation or an adoption of new ideas at a time when many cultures preferred not to invest time or money into the unknown. »
Of course, it would be unfair to only focus on what today’s star mixologists do with Cuban rum. 2017’s Cuban cantineros are also following in their forefathers’ footsteps. Making a mockery of the material difficulties they constantly encounter, Cuban cantineros have won more Havana Club Grand Prix than any other nation - Amaury Cepeda, for example, convincingly overcame all competitors at the 2016. His winning drink can be found in Spirit of the Cane. Away from the Grand Prix, the Cuban cocktail scene is growing. According to Miller, « What is happening in the paladares and the new bars across Cuba is refreshing. Once again, Cubans are exposing themselves to new ideas and techniques, adapting them to suit their needs and thus creating a new era in Cuban drinks creation. » Maybe these young cantineros will soon be documented in a fourth book… In the meantime, you can (and probably should) buy Spirit of the Cane here.
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