Authentic Spirit

"That workers are toiling so hard for authenticity amid a wholly artificial environment, meant to evoke another time and another place, causes my heart to skip a beat in admiration of the utter complexity of American life."

- Wayne Curtis in And A Bottle Of Rum...

The United States of America is a mix of so many different backgrounds and ethnicities that has, over time, merged into one steady American culture.  As immigrants continue to make their way to our shores, they and their families become Americans too.  Their kids grow up speaking English and soon forget the native language of their parents, losing in the process the identity that their ancestors once held true.  It's a natural part of cultural integration in any country, but in America it's a bit different because every tradition in the New World is, in a sense, new.  Let's take me as an example - I'm a mix of Scottish, Irish, Portuguese and a bit of German, yet, as I'm the product of fifth generation Americans, I have absolutely no connection to the practices or heritage of my people.  I am not alone in this situation either.  Millions of other Americans have completely lost touch, or simply lost interest with their ancestral past and that's fine because in most places it's not seen as a negative thing. 

In hip, young, urban America, however, cultural authenticity is the new dogma for what's cool and interesting.  No one wants to go to Cancun for vacation anymore because that's an uneducated American tourist outpost.  Cool, educated people want to be in Oaxaca where you can get the "authentic" Mexican experience - real culinary adventures (no burritos) and no cheesy holiday packages.  As a teacher in San Francisco's largest Asian community, I was well aware of the distinction between "fake Chinatown" (Grant Street which is the Disneyland version for tourists) and "real Chinatown" (Stockton Street which is where the actual residents shop and eat).  No cool San Franciscan would be caught dead eating on Grant Street because it's not "authentic" and if it isn't authentic, it isn't good.  I can only surmise that the disdain and fear of the inauthentic stems from an inner embarrassment about our own disassociation from our culture.  Our own insecurities about our lack of heritage have created the need to make up for them in full force, which inevitably has lead to snobbery.

Today I watch my generation of Americans without a culture flock with an almost religious ferocity towards the adoption of chosen foreign cultures, always making sure to point out what is commonly misunderstood about them by most of us ("I lived in Italy for a year during college and no one actually eats red sauce.")  While I certainly have a desire to fit in and respect the cultural practices and travel the world in the hope of experiencing them, I don't advise doing so at the expense of pleasure or enjoyment.  However, there is something genuinely romantic about authenticity when it comes to booze and it's based more on getting something made to standard than mass produced.  No one wants to drink tequila from a factory because where's the fun in that?  We want tequila made with agave being crushed by a donkey-powered mortar and pestle!  We want wine made by a farmer out in the middle of rural France who is making it with the traditional, regional practices handed down to him from generations of other family winemakers!  We want to drink single malt in small Scottish pub in downtown Bowmore with a dozen inhabitants of Islay while bagpipes play in the background!

While I've spent the last few years researching the authentic practices of making Scotch whisky, Mexican tequila, French Cognac, and American Bourbon, I've spent very little time dabbling in the world of rum.  However, I've been plowing my way through a few history books recently and have found that rum is considered to be the true, "authentic" American spirit.  It's been around since the beginning of the New World and has played a role in many historical movements. It's never really been the cool thing to drink and it's never seemed to speak to artisans of the authentic the way the above spirits have.  Maybe it's because rum is made in so many different ways in so many different places?  That might be the case, but ironically enough rum might be the most authentic spirit our culture has! Wayne Curtis writes in his book And A Bottle Of Rum...: "Bourbon fanciers, who often claim for their tipple the title of 'America's spirit," drink one of the most regulated spirits known. To be labeled bourbon, it has to be made with a cetain percentage of corn and aged in a certain kind of barrel.  But excessive regulation is not the spirit of America. Unrestricted experimentation is. Rum embodies America's laissez-faire attitude: It is whatever it wants to be. There's no international oversight board, and its taste and production varies widely, leaving the market to sort out favorites. Rum is the melting pot of spirits - the only liquor available in clear, amber, or black variations"

The melting pot of spirits!  Yes, our own lack of a definable culture fits in perfectly with the culture of rum itself!  Like rum, America is a mix of so many different influences and different styles, so it only makes sense for rum to be authentic to what we are as a culture.  As the weeks go by I'm going to be educating myself more about rum and hopefully passing on some interesting facts to all of you.  Maybe we'll all learn something cool and authentic about America that makes us proud to know a bit more about ourselves - a combination of many authentic cultures.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll