From Imbibe! by David Wondrich. By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
In a small bar glass, combine molasses and water together first.
Add rum. Stir.
Top with freshly grated nutmeg.
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Time for a 12 Bottle Bar Pop Quiz, no studying required. Molasses is:
(a) a sugar byproduct that is distilled to make rum
(b) used for cattle feed
(c) responsible for the deaths of 21 people in 1919
Would it surprise you that the answer is all of the above? We’ll get to Rum production soon enough, so let’s jump to the burning question – what’s all this about cattle feed and death? Yes, molasses has led a sordid existence since it was first “discovered” as the leftover goo from sugar cane and sugar beet refining. In the refining process, the juice extracted from cane or beets is boiled down to a syrupy consistency, allowing the sugar crystals to be extracted. “Light molasses” remains after the first boiling of this sugar syrup; its mellow flavor makes it a nice pancake topper, much like maple syrup. The second boiling produces a thicker, less sweet “dark molasses”, whose flavor shines in foods like Boston baked beans and gingerbread. And finally, we reach the dregs — blackstrap molasses. Bitter, dark, and viscous, and most often used as, yes, cattle feed.
But, before the cows came home, blackstrap played a major role in the American colonial economy. In the 18th century, molasses was the sweetener of choice, being far cheaper than sugar. American enthusiasm for the syrup encouraged Britain to pass the much-denounced Molasses Act of 1733. A few decades later, after the Act was repealed, John Adams pronounced molasses as “an essential ingredient to American independence” — in fact, some historians claim that Paul Revere stopped for a few drams of Rum on the night of his fabled midnight ride. Adams’ comment is both ironic and somewhat short-sighted, considering the role of molasses in the triangular trade, which brought the syrup to New England where it was made into rum, which was then in turn traded for slaves in West Africa.
Like molasses, Rum has its own tales to tell, although it is shrouded in far more mystery. While the island of Barbados claims to have invented the spirit, the Spanish, Portuguese, and even the French all have certain claims. Regardless of how it came about, Rum production in the British-owned West Indies boomed during the 17th Century (akin to a Caribbean Gold Rush). The process was and still is relatively simple – molasses is combined with water and yeast, fermented, then distilled. It wasn’t long before Rum made in the West Indies and, later, in New England became a mainstay of colonial life.
Now cocktail history is a funny thing. Back in 17th and 18th Century America, people didn’t care how the drinks were made – as long as someone made them. Until Jerry Thomas came along, no one had codified drink recipes or lore on any discernible level. We have to assume that bartenders of the day simply passed their recipes from one to another, much like bibulous storytellers of yore. And, like all storytelling, names got changed or perhaps lost in translation. Let’s take the Black Stripe, whose name and presentation change depending on the region and the recipe book. In New England, the folks are partial to the moniker “Black Strap”, while folks in North Carolina use the Caribbean pirate name of “Bombo”. Jerry Thomas calls it a Black Stripe and serves it either hot or cold. George J. Kappeler’s “Modern American Drinks” offers the Black Stripe only over ice, while “Cocktail Boothby’s” lists it as a hot drink. And Charles H. Baker Jr.’s travels chronicle two versions — an American friend’s recipe for Jamaican Black Strap (rum, molasses, ice water, and either Angostura or orange bitters) served cold with a stick of pineapple and a Jamaican Black Stripe, served hot or cold (rum, honey, water, nutmeg).
Regardless of the name, all of these drinks are toddies. Today, we hear the word “toddy” and immediately think of grandma, but this style of drink –referred to variously as Toddy, Sling, Sangaree, or Bombo – is essential in the evolution of drink. As a preamble to the Cocktail, it is a seemingly simple combination of spirit, sugar, water, and often a spot of nutmeg. In Imbibe!, Wondrich has carved out a niche of rarefied mixological reverence for the Toddy. It is, he explains, “a simple drink in the same way a tripod is a simple device: Remove one leg and it cannot stand, set it up properly and it will hold the whole weight of the world.” With its use of molasses – and the blackstrap variety in particular – the Black Stripe is a bit more rough and tumble than the typical Toddy, but then the world was a bit more rough and tumble when the drink was in vogue. Given the season and Wondrich’s advice, here we offer up the hot version – Wondrich says that when served cold, the Black Stripe is “a drink I shudder to recall” and that’s enough for us.
Now, back to our tale of cows and death – specifically, the death part. How did dark, bitter blackstrap become killer molasses? Well, it went something like this. Molasses maintained its popularity as a sweetener in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, being used for everything from taming the strong taste of salt pork to producing candies and cookies. That popularity proved deadly on an unseasonably warm (it was 40 degrees — that was considered warm) Boston day in 1919. On January 15, a molasses storage vat – measuring 50 feet tall and 90 feet wide – collapsed, sending a wave of molasses (about 2 million gallons) cascading through North Boston at roughly 35 mph. The catastrophe – variously referred to as the “Boston Molasses Disaster”, the “Great Molasses Flood”, and the “Great Boston Molasses Tragedy” – left 21 people dead and 150 injured. Boston marked the event by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Talk about a bad year.
Esoterica: The pirate Blackbeard was said to favor a “cocktail” made from Rum and gunpowder, which he lit aflame and drank as it sputtered and popped.
The Great Molasses Flood has a sibling in the London Beer Flood (1814) when a series of a beer vats collapsed sending more than 300,000 gallons of beer into the streets.