Wayne Curtis: The Accidental Authority
Words by Jeff 'Beachbum' Berry
New Orleans has always been a magnet for eminent cocktail connoisseurs and chroniclers, mixologists and alcohologists. At Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29, my bar-restaurant on Peters Street in the city's French Quarter, I've had the privilege of hosting quite a few of them. Some have even become regulars.
This is the second installment of The Peters Street Regulars for Difford's Guide, in which I profile those regulars who are likely to interest you as much as they interest me.
If you come into Latitude 29 and ask for Mr. Curtis, your question will be answered with a question. Which one? There's Mr. Steven Curtis, our General Manager. There's "Mr. Curtis," a cocktail on our menu. And then there's Mr. Wayne Curtis, the regular for whom said cocktail is named. Which does not sit well with Steven Curtis, who's quick to remind us that he spends much more time on the premises than that other Mr. Curtis, and if the cocktail should be named for anyone, it should be him.
But we're not here to talk about Steven Curtis, even though he does have a point. This column is about that other guy.
If you're in the Difford's Guide demographic, Wayne Curtis needs no introduction. Chances are you already know him as the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, the 2006 book that restored rum to its rightful place as the true Spirit of America. You may also know him as the drinks columnist at The Atlantic, where he covered the craft cocktail beat from 2008-14. Perhaps you've seen his gonzo seminars at Tales of the Cocktail, where he's attempted to ignite gunpowder soaked in Navy-strength rum to see if the old shipboard test for "proof" actually worked (it did), had his audience wear cabbage leaves on their heads to see if the ancient Roman hangover cure had any validity (it didn't), and made 125 Ramos Fizzes in under a minute using an electric paint can shaker (they were delicious, and the perfect shade of Eggshell White).
Like many of us, Wayne fell into the spirits world by accident. Unlike many of us, before that he'd narrowly escaped violent death in Central America and, almost equally catastrophic, a career in library science.
"Like every freshman English major," recalls Wayne, "I wanted to be a famous novelist. I realized that wasn't really going to work out. Then I thought, I can write essays. I could be Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe." In search of suitably Thompsonian material, he headed to Central America in 1982. There was civil war in El Salvador, the Contras were terrorizing Nicaragua, and Guatemala also was in flux, "so when I got down there I thought maybe I should be a war correspondent."
He sought counsel from the New York Times war correspondent stationed in El Salvador. "I found out where he was staying and went to his house every day around sunset to ask if I could be his bagman. I would just do whatever needed doing, and maybe some of his war correspondent-ness would rub off on me. But he was never home. I never got to meet him. But I do remember leaving his house one day and crossing the plaza, when all of a sudden there was gunfire from soldiers lined up around the plaza, all aiming directly over my head. I'd always thought, 'Never run. Running shows you're scared.' This is the one time I thought, 'Maybe running's cool.' So I ran."
It was the first of several close calls. "I got stopped a couple of times in El Salvador by teenagers with assault rifles who'd been drinking heavily, and were very suspicious of me being CIA or something. And I got pulled off a bus in Guatemala by a soldier who went through my backpack and found this book I happened to be reading about Vietnam, which had a yellow cover with a big red Chinese ideogram; just that morning there'd been a raid on a communist cell where they'd found all these guns, and Chinese documents that looked just like my book. When the guy pulled it out of my bag he froze, and I could see him reach for his gun as he flipped through the book. Then I realized he was illiterate. He was looking at it upside down. So I had to talk my way out of that." While hitchhiking in Nicaragua, "at one checkpoint we got pulled over and the guard shook down the driver for a bribe. He said, 'You got any money?' 'No.' 'You got any cigarettes?' 'No.' Then the driver pointed at me and said, 'I got a gringo. You want him?' The guard laughed and let us through."
Wayne sold a few free-lance stories "about life down there, but I never quite figured out how to be a war correspondent. It was sort of my stupidity that saved me, I think." 1983 found him back home in New York, and contemplating a career in rare book restoration. But in the end he opted out of Columbia Library School to pursue an advanced degree in International Relations.
After graduating he applied twice to be a foreign service officer at the U.S. State Department - and was offered three different jobs. To help him make up his mind, "a college friend who'd got a job in the State Department told me I could shadow him one day. We spent the entire day walking down halls trying to find the people to initial a memo, and I thought, 'Really? This is your job? I would just shoot myself and get it over with right now.'"
At the end of that day Wayne did make up his mind - to turn down all three jobs and move to a cabin in the Maine woods. There he wrote freelance magazine articles about travel, architecture and history, until the fateful day in 2004 that he stumbled on the subject that would eventually take over his life. "I was a contributing editor at Preservation magazine for a while, so I was reading a lot about American history. And I kept coming across references to rum. And I thought, what the fuck? Why is this always cropping up?" Slavery, the Revolution, Prohibition - wherever American history was being made, rum, for better or worse, was part of it. Wayne got himself a book deal and dug deeper, rummaging through libraries across the eastern seaboard and government archives in the Caribbean. In order to experience what an 18th century Hot Rum Flip truly tasted like, he paid an ironmonger to re-create a piece of antique barware that hadn't been used, let alone seen, for hundreds of years: the loggerhead, a metal rod heated over an open flame and then plunged into a drink to warm it up. "I went to two ironsmiths. The first made me a loggerhead but it was a little bit unsatisfying, not heavy enough to conduct sufficient heat. So I went to a second guy who made it with a big solid head on it; it took 45 minutes to heat it up, but that made a fine Flip. It's fun to go into craft cocktail bars now, like Meta in Louisville, and seeing them heat drinks that way all over again."
In addition to bringing the loggerhead back from the dead, And a Bottle of Rum brought Wayne to the city he now calls home. "I never would have moved to New Orleans if it hadn't been for rum," he says. "I came down here at the very end of my book research, when I had to write about modern cocktails. I read somewhere that the Museum of the American Cocktail was opening up in New Orleans, and Ted Haigh and Robert Hess and Dale DeGroff were all there speaking, so I went down to interview them, purely because it was easier than tracking them all down individually. After checking into the Bienville House, I went out to try some New Orleans food and I saw the French 75 Bar, which I'd just read about on my flight down. So I walked in there, totally randomly, and the first person I talked to in New Orleans was Chris Hannah." Now a local celebrity but then a fledging bartender, Hannah made Wayne his first French 75. "I took a sip and he said, 'How do you like that?' I said it was good. He turned to a guy at the end of the bar and said, 'You hear that? He said it was good.' And I realized I'd walked in on an ongoing argument. The guy at the end of the bar was Ted Haigh, who happened to be there and who I hadn't met before. They were arguing about gin versus cognac in the French 75 cocktail. And Ted was with Robert Hess, so I met him too that night. So we ended up talking about drinks, and at some point Johnny Knoxville came in with two friends." From this point on Wayne's memory gets fuzzy. "The night just went on and on. I woke up the next morning with two questions. The first one was, 'Did last night just happen?' The second was, 'Why don't I live here? This is a really amazing city.'"
New Orleans also happened to be a rum-producing city. Taking advantage of Louisiana's sugar cane fields, micro-distillery start-ups had begun reviving long-extinct local rum again, joining an independent craft spirits movement that by the late aughts was booming across the country. Over the years Wayne found himself drawn to the center of it - first as a chronicler, via his drinks column for The Atlantic, and then in a more participatory role as distillers began seeking his advice, initially on obscure historical production methods but ultimately on all aspects of the business, which he'd come to know intimately after reporting on it for years.
"Some people come knocking with an idea and capital," says Wayne, "and some people come with just an idea. I've got a pretty good long-range view at this point, not only about how far we've come over the last 300 years in rum production, but also where we might be moving - where the openings are, what's happening in the spirits world - so I can help people out at the outset. Just over the course of 10 years I've met a lot of people involved in all that, gotten pretty good at who really knows their stuff and who's blowing smoke, and I can direct people to the former, help them meet the people that they need to talk to. And then help them decide what kind of still they want, what to do when it's time to start marketing, who they should talk to to understand distribution. It's fun being a part of it, getting your hands dirty. Well, I'm not getting MY hands dirty, I'm instructing other people how to do that."
From rum historian to cocktail columnist to craft distillery consultant, Wayne has worn a lot of hats in the spirits world that he accidentally fell into just over a decade ago. But rum remains his first love. "There's a lot of good craft rums coming out right now, which was not the case three or four years ago. When someone sent me a bottle of craft rum back then I was like, 'Oh no, another bottle of craft rum, this isn't gonna taste good.' Now when I get a bottle it's like, 'Maybe this will be one of those great ones.' And there are some great ones. That's what I love about judging competitions. It can be tedious. Fly to Louisville, fly to San Francisco, and spend three days in a windowless room, drinking. It's one of those things that's more fun to tell your friends about than to actually do. But now I really love that process. To discover that there's somebody - even if it's one or two people, in some small town, whether it's in Massachusetts, Maine, or Colorado - who've figured something out that nobody else has figured out? That to me is pretty exciting."