A Spoonful of Molasses: Colonial Rum Makes a Comeback
When thinking about the origins of rum, consider what ‘waste’ meant to those living in the 17th century. The Caribbean sugar farmers of that time were faced with managing a significant amount of waste. When producing sugar, the sugarcane was crushed, the juices boiled, and the results were cured in clay pots. Liquid would seep out of the pots, leaving behind what we know as cane sugar. The expelled liquid was molasses.
Today we may consider molasses a nice treat, perfect for gingerbread, anadama bread, or the ever-delicious shoofly pie. However, Barbados planters in the 1600s couldn’t give it away. It was an inconvenient industrial waste; two pounds of sugar generally yielded a pound of molasses, typically dumped directly into the ocean.
Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum, documents the history of how molasses was saved from a food waste and matured into a true spirit. Different sources attribute the discovery of rum to the Caribbean slaves and ingenuitive plantation owners alike. Regardless of the origin, Curtis explains that during the 17th century, someone realized that by mixing molasses with liquid skimmed off cane juice as it was boiling, then fermenting it created a solid structure for further distillation. The rough mix would be distilled to remove imperfections and create a stronger, more appealing drink.
Rum spread like wildfire from the islands of Barbados, becoming a staple drink of the Americans up until the introduction of whiskey.
Small distillers are beginning to make their presence known along the New Hampshire Seacoast, promoting their product as a throwback to colonial rum due to much smaller-scale operations and approaches with greater similarities to their distant 17th century cousins.
Tall Ships Distillery of Dover, NH, is one of these rum distilleries establishing an informed product. Owned by John Pantelakos, Tall Ships opened its doors in August 2014, establishing itself as the first Dover rum distillery since the 1700’s.
Matt Witham, distiller at Tall Ships, has a fascination with the history of rum that borders on encyclopedic. He explains that there are a few different types of rum, of which Tall Ships currently only makes two: a white rum called “White Island,” and a spiced rum dubbed “Cedar Island.”
“You start running into references to rum in the 1650s not too long after the English showed up in the Caribbean,” says Witham, acknowledging the fact that the Caribbean islands still win out when it comes to the best rum. “The ships would come up the coast from the Caribbean with blackstrap molasses. Some of it would be used for sweets, but most would go to distilleries in New England: Newport, Boston, Salem, Portsmouth, and Portland. The product would turn into “trade rum,” a cheap variety. Merchants would load up their boats with trade rum, timber, hides, grain, fish, and sail from New England.” Everything was sold save the rum. “They then sailed off to West Africa and sold off the entire cargo for ivory, gold, slaves, and gemstones. There were some African tribes that wouldn’t trade at all unless the captain rolled a barrel of rum off deck. That’s what the cheap rum was for.”
Not unlike the original methods of rum distilling, Witham uses molasses, sugar, water, and yeast. A significant amount of hot water is used to melt all of that sugar. Everything is melted at 110 to 120 degrees. At the end of the “mashing” period, he adds cold water, dropping the temperature down to 90 degrees and then lets the yeast bloom in the warm liquid for roughly a week. He’s left with a product akin to strong wine, which is then further distilled into a clear, distinct rum.
“Our rum is probably a higher proof and a cleaner spirit than what folks were drinking in the 17th century in Dover,” says Witham. “I certainly think we have a better flavor, because we use a Grade A ‘Golden Molasses,’ rather than Blackstrap.” Witham also points out that their still is somewhat different, citing one of the most accurate representations of pre-Revolutionary distilling equipment can be found at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.
One of Witham’s most significant nods to pre-revolutionary rum is his use of real, infused spices in his Cedar Island rum. He adds lemon extract, whole cloves, orange zest, and cinnamon, rather than making separate simple syrup to add to the rum.
“These days everyone thinks bourbon is the American spirit, but that wasn’t until the Revolution,” says Witham. “We had access to scads of rum, and plenty of molasses, so everyone was drinking rum. During the war, the British told us that we weren’t allowed to trade because we were a bunch of dirty rebel scum. That didn’t mean that we all stopped drinking because we are Americans. Instead that’s when whiskey started taking off.”
The distilleries in New England continued cranking out the popular spirit until prohibition.