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Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 Hardcover – July 7, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Nation's Williams (Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families) offers a spirited—if rambling—discussion of the history and spread of rum, from the field-side stills of 17th-century Barbados to the scientifically calibrated factories of modern multinationals like Bacardi. His main point? That the "role of rum and drink in both causing and effecting the American Revolution has been filtered out" of our history books. Williams details the mechanics of the pre-Revolutionary triangles of trade: African slaves for the Caribbean sugarcane plantations were purchased with rum distilled in New England from Caribbean molasses. He deftly describes how the American colonists evaded British taxation of rum-making supplies, and relishes the notion of our patriotic forefathers as a bunch of rum-sozzled smugglers. His other discussions—on the use of rum rations by various countries' navies, the production of rum in other parts of the world, the efficacy of Prohibition and his own rum-tasting forays—are less focused. Readers also may tire of Williams's tendency to overwork the liquor metaphor: "cultural alembic," "heady cocktail," "good spirits," "the equation in a small tot," etc. 10 pages of b&w illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

A connoisseur of rum, a distillate of sugar cane, Williams (who writes for the Nation) cheerily discusses the liquor but keeps the reader in mind of its dark underside, which was slavery. Structuring matters chronologically, Williams selects anecdotes about rum as if to set up his own witty observations: he is out to entertain, not to bore. The Caribbean Sea's signature contribution to the world's bar, rum originated in Barbados as a by-product of sugar refining--molasses. Williams establishes how molasses became fixed in transatlantic trade in African slaves and, in the mercantile minds of the British, as a revenue source. Williams may oversimplify things by attributing the cause of the American Revolution to New England molasses smugglers, but his product-based interpretation of history will appeal to readers of similar books on cod, sugar, and salt. Tracing rum's run on the frontier, its run from the law in Prohibition, and its contemporary incarnation in popular brands, Williams concocts a stimulating saga. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Nation Books (July 7, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560256516
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560256519
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #910,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Cynthia Clampitt on September 3, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If I could have, I would have given this 2-1/2 stars -- but I couldn't really give it three. This is a period of history and a topic I have studied at some length, and while there were some interesting facts and solid quotes, there are enough errors that I would never consider picking anything up to use in a lecture without checking at least one other source. A couple of examples: he attributes the Coffey still to Andreas Coffey, but it's Aeneas Coffey. Kind of an amateur mistake. More problematic is the author's snarkiness in many places, which is compounded by being wrong -- such as when he quotes a satirical poem by William Cowper, stating that the poem demonstrates Cowper's approval of slavery (or, as the author states it, "he struggled with his conscience and lost"). Cowper was an abolitionist who wrote the satirical poem at the request of William Wilberforce -- the man who fought slavery his whole life and eventually got slavery banned throughout the British empire. To have attributed to Cowper a pro-slavery stance based on this satire (which laments that one would have to live without sugar and rum if slavery were ended) makes me wonder how many other things he may have misinterpreted.

So I'd suggest that, if you really know this topic and want some new facts (though you'd want to double check them), this is a good source, especially of lengthy quotes from a handful of early rum and Caribbean historians. However, if you only care enough to read one book, I'd definitely recommend William Curtis's "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails" over this book -- it's more accurate and it's a much more entertaining read.
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Format: Hardcover
Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 does a decent job of painting the picture of rum in the lives of early American colonists. It's been praised as "rambunctious, rollicking history, sodden with tasty lore," (Kirkus Reviews), but I find the writing style a little lackluster, actually. The play on spirits (distilled alcohol), spirited (lively), and spiritual (in a religious context) can only be funny for so long, but Williams stretches it to the last drop. A minor quibble, though the author does occasionally give in to the temptation to use as much verbiage as possible without ending a sentence. It gives the book a much less scholarly attitude that it would otherwise have had.

That said, the information Williams presents is interesting, in its context. The author's focus is clearly early American history, which is not unreasonable, given that rum's very origin was in the New World, the Americas. However, the reader is occasionally left with the feeling that there may be a broader context he is missing out on. Of course, the title of the book does limit the focus, but limiting the focus of a book which is already very narrow in scope (rum, as a topic, is not especially broad compared to, say, trade in general, or even alcohol in general) doesn't help matters. Williams occasionally seems to be a little bit too eager to prove his points, sometimes grasping at straws; however, in a book about a subject often lacking in documentary evidence, some conjecture is not out of place.

Williams cites most of the same sources most other histories of rum use, mainly because there aren't many solid primary sources out there. He then proceeds into less murky areas, to the American Revolution and rum's role therein (which he exaggerates from time to time).
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This book is a quick, interesting and fun read. It is, as the title suggests, the story of rum - the invention of rum, the manufacture of rum, and the place of rum in world history and culture.

There is a surprisingly large amount of information to be had here, and it is presented by the author in a tongue-in-cheek, bantering style which makes it easy to remember and to connect with many other points of reference. You'll learn all about `kill devil', `scuttlebutt', `Nelson's blood', and then be overcome with the urge to wash down the lesson with a shot of `Barbadoes waters' as you contemplate the grog ration, and how Britannia actually came to rule the waves.

Like coffee, chocolate, tea, opium, sugar, methamphetamines and tobacco, rum is a product for which there is great demand -a craving no less- and that demand creates all sorts of consequences-it becomes a great driver of human events, for both good and ill. The by-product of Jamaican sugar refining is molasses, which is distilled in New England to make rum, which is shipped to West Africa as a trade good in exchange for slaves, who are taken to Jamaica to cultivate sugar cane...

If you want to learn more about subjects as diverse as the drinking habits of our Founding Fathers and why they were indebted to medieval Arabian alchemists, or the triple scourges of `Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion' (to say nothing of `Rum, Buggery and The Lash'),or the pirates of the Caribbean, or the one and only quality export coming out of Haiti these days, or what those fifteen men were up to, you really should pick this book up today.
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Ian Williams "Rum: A Social and Sociable History" chronicles the birth of Rum in the new world and its global impact to modern day political maneuvering. Mr. Williams offers the reader an uncut and honest accounting of the events surrounding the rise and fall of the triangle trade, prohibition, as well as the modern rum market circa 2005. I particularly enjoyed where he reintroduced details that others chose to omit or modify to promote their own sociopolitical agenda. From Washington to Kennedy I promise you will either learn something new or be reminded of a fact that others tend to shy away from.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in learning more about Rum's history, or would like to read a different perspective concerning the exploration on the New World. Mr. Williams manages to take what can be a dry or uncomfortable subject and offers it with an honesty that is bound to make the more politically correct or revisionist squirm. I personally found this enjoyable and am happy to have this book as part of my library.
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