A History of Molasses

Molasses is traditionally used to make which type of liquor?

And the answer: rum.

Photo courtesy: public domain. 

Through a fermentation and distilling process, the thick dark syrup known as molasses can be turned into rum. Originating in the West Indies in the 1600s, today rum is primarily made in Jamaica, Barbados, and the South American country of Guyana.

Rum has a rich history in drinking culture throughout the world. The cultivation of sugarcane dates back thousands of years, all the way back to expeditions of Alexander the Great. While his military campaign made the crop known, it wasn't until specialized cultivation by Persian and Arab farmers in the seventh century that sugarcane was taken seriously for its health and cuisine benefits.

Though sugarcane remained native to Arab territories, Portuguese exploration of the coast of Africa (specifically the Madeira Islands, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands) offered a new venue for European control of this valuable crop. Soon after, the Portuguese embarked on a colonial history dependent upon enslaved labor. Establishing some 200 plantations in the Madeira Islands, the sugarcane industry became one deeply entrenched in the horrors of slavery.

Eventually, someone realized that distilling the molasses from the sugarcane plant would reduce the product into a tasty alcohol. This discovery was highly influential in early American drinking culture – rum was one of the most well-loved alcohols of the early 1700s and well into the century. Around 1765, Americans distilled some 4.8 million gallons of rum along the East Coast, making it more available than whiskey in major cities such as Boston.

While whiskey soon after became the classic American alcohol, rum remains a well-loved staple of any American bar today. Learn more about the history of rum's parent syrup and the implications of the sugarcane trade here.


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