The best books on alcohol in Latin America and the Caribbean

Why am I passionate about this?

Raised on happy hours on Cape Cod, MA patios with my Irish-American relatives, I long have been fascinated by how alcohol can bring people together and facilitate bonds that traverse both hardship and joy. During my travels and research in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador, I observed how alcohol could both render families asunder and unite communities. As addiction makes clear, alcohol could hold tremendous power over individuals. But it also marked the identities of even the most casual drinkers. Throughout my research on other topics—crime, gender, medicine—alcohol consistently emerges as a crucial avenue of inquiry. The books listed below offer innovative and insightful ways of centering alcohol in scholarly narratives. 


I wrote...

Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

By David Carey Jr.,

Book cover of Distilling the Influence of Alcohol: Aguardiente in Guatemalan History

What is my book about?

By tracing the lives and influence of those involved in the alcohol economy from bootleggers and moonshiners to government officials and professionals, the essays in this volume examine how liquor shaped the colony, nation, and society of Guatemala. Aguardiente (rum) was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions and policing policies developed. Spanning nearly two hundred years of history, this book explores women’s roles in the alcohol trade, taverns as places of social unrest and integration, and tensions between Mayas and State authority. Analyzing Guatemala’s past, people, and national development through the channel of a single alcoholic beverage keeps the narrative flowing.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages

David Carey Jr. Why did I love this book?

Revealing a relationship between alcohol, violent crime and rebellion, this book pioneered historical studies of alcohol.

I love the way Taylor uses alcohol as a lens through which to think about the past. Examining the social meanings of alcohol, he demonstrates how the beverages one drank helped to determine their identity. Indigenous consumers who turned to alcohol to temporarily escape their plight and privations also played upon colonial Spaniards’ assumptions about their penchant for alcoholism to subvert colonial rule.

Among the first to study governments’ contradictory goals of controlling inebriation and profiting from the alcohol economy, Taylor reveals the complex roles that alcohol played in colonial Mexico. His approach and insight inspired and informed my pursuit of the influence of alcohol in Guatemalan history. 

By William B. Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study analyzes the impact of Spanish rule on Indian peasant identity in the late colonial period by investigating three areas of social behavior. Based on the criminal trial records and related documents from the regions of central Mexico and Oaxaca, it attempts to discover how peasants conceived of their role under Spanish rule, how they behaved under various kinds of street, and how they felt about their Spanish overlords. In examining the character of village uprisings, typical relationships between killers and the people they killed, and the drinking patterns of the late colonial period, the author finds no warrant…


Book cover of Enslaving Spirits: The Portuguese-Brazilian Alcohol Trade at Luanda and Its Hinterland, C. 1550-1830

David Carey Jr. Why did I love this book?

By exploring the intertwined transatlantic trades of enslaved Africans and alcohol, Curto reveals how Latin American libations bested European stock in ways that altered the course of history.

West Africans’ taste for Brazilian cachaça (sugarcane brandy) dislodged Portuguese wine and liquor facilitating Brazilian merchants’ dominance in Western Africa and spawning a vibrant trade based out of Luanda. What impressed me most about this book was how Curto turned conventional wisdom on its head by demonstrating how a Latin American nation shaped trade and tastes across the globe.

Portuguese efforts to regain their privileged trading position by outlawing the sale of cachaça in Africa failed. The direct trade between Africa and Brazil that alcohol facilitated challenges traditional descriptions of the transatlantic triangle trade. 

By José C. Curto,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Enslaving Spirits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume deals with imported alcohol at Luanda and its hinterland, where it was heavily used to acquire captives for the Atlantic slave trade. Aside from highlighting the complexities of this singular economic component of Atlantic slaving, its focus on changing West -Central African alcohol consumption patterns through the importation of foreign intoxicants reveals an important element of the social history of African societies before the modern colonial period.


Book cover of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History

David Carey Jr. Why did I love this book?

Smith traces the historical arc of rum from local colonial consumption to becoming a major export by the nineteenth century.

I am amazed at how much history Smith captures by focusing his study on one type of alcohol. With his attention to how European and African drinking habits shaped rum consumption, he demonstrates how rum cut across gender, class, and race relations.

With their knowledge of distillation and introduction of resources new to the Americas, Europeans increased alcohol’s potency. Alcohol took on political as well as economic significance when colonial officials used alcohol revenue to govern. Without displacing fermented drinks, distilled liquor introduced new dynamics in the production and consumption of alcohol.

I love that he emphasizes how common consumption spurred taverns and other drinking establishments, which facilitated socialization that frequently contravened social norms, such as elite men who conversed with poor and working-class women and African and mulatto drinkers who cavorted with Spaniards. 

By Frederick H. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Caribbean Rum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the New World on his second voyage. By 1520 commercial sugar production was underway in the Caribbean, along with the perfection of methods to ferment and distill alcohol from sugarcane to produce a new beverage that would have dramatic impact on the region. Caribbean Rum presents the fascinating cultural, economic, and ethnographic history of rum in the Caribbean from the colonial period to the present.

Drawing on data from historical archaeology and the economic history of the Caribbean, Frederick Smith explains why this industry arose in the islands, how attitudes toward alcohol consumption have impacted…


Book cover of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause

David Carey Jr. Why did I love this book?

I love how Gjelten made me reconsider the ways histories of alcohol and nations were intertwined.

With his study of a rum company that survived the transition from capitalism to communism, the journalist Tom Gjelten observes that Bacardi rum executives advanced legislation designed to undermine their competitors and ultimately forged a brand that shaped Cubans’ and foreigners’ perceptions of the island.

This political and cultural history of Bacardi reveals alcohol’s integral role in forging newly independent nations. More specifically, Gjelten demonstrates how alcohol companies shaped nations.

This study made me think about how types of alcohol—like rum in Cuba, tequila in Mexico, pisco in Chile—were often at the heart of national movements and identities, and could become symbols of national pride. 

By Tom Gjelten,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this widely hailed book, NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten fuses the story of the Bacardi family and their famous rum business with Cuba's tumultuous experience over the last 150 years to produce a deeply entertaining historical narrative. The company Facundo Bacardi launched in Cuba in 1862 brought worldwide fame to the island, and in the decades that followed his Bacardi descendants participated in every aspect of Cuban life. With his intimate account of their struggles and adventures across five generations, Gjelten brings to life the larger story of Cuba's fight for freedom, its tortured relationship with America, the rise of…


Book cover of ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico

David Carey Jr. Why did I love this book?

With clear and engaging prose, Gaytan reveals the power dynamics that shaped tequila’s trajectory in Mexico and abroad.

She traces tequila’s meteoric rise past other agave-derived drinks like pulque and mezcal. I really appreciate how she approaches her study as a sociologist but does not eschew history in her analysis. Although ancient Mayas were among the first to produce and consume tequila, its association with modernity can be attributed, in part, to modern marketers disassociating tequila from indigenous inebriation.

Even as she firmly grounds tequila in lo Mexicano or being Mexican, Gaytan also explores tequila’s influence and popularity in the United States. Her book reminded me how different my experience of drinking tequila in the United States has been from my enjoyment of tequila in cantinas in Mexico. 

By Marie Sarita Gaytán,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked ¡Tequila! Distilling the Spirit of Mexico as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Italy has grappa, Russia has vodka, Jamaica has rum. Around the world, certain drinks-especially those of the intoxicating kind-are synonymous with their peoples and cultures. For Mexico, this drink is tequila. For many, tequila can conjure up scenes of body shots on Cancun bars and coolly garnished margaritas on sandy beaches. Its power is equally strong within Mexico, though there the drink is more often sipped rather than shot, enjoyed casually among friends, and used to commemorate occasions from the everyday to the sacred. Despite these competing images, tequila is universally regarded as an enduring symbol of lo mexicano.

!Tequila!…


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Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

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What is my book about?

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What is this book about?

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Interested in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the history of alcoholic drinks?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Latin America, the Caribbean, and the history of alcoholic drinks.

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