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Cane, Sugar, Molasses & Rum

Sugarcane (Saccharum Officinarum) originated in the jungles of New Guinea and spread to southeast Asia and the Pacific islands in prehistoric times. The first known mention of the juice of sugarcane was in the Buddha legends of the 4th century B.C. The Persian word for white sugar, kandi, is the root of our “candy” and the East Indian word shakar is the root of our “sugar.”


By 1000 A.D., sugarcane had migrated to Europe where the granulation process of the juice had become a significant industry in Spain. The European crusaders found cane growing in North Africa and by the early 1400s, sugarcane production had reached West Africa, the Azores and Canaries.

Christopher Columbus brought cane to the West Indies on his second voyage, in 1493, the same trip that found him up Salt River fending off the Caribs. Sugar production quickly spread throughout the Greater Antilles, Mexico and South America. But it was Dutch Jews who, after being thrown out of Brazil in 1626, started climbing the Lesser Antilles chain bringing cane cuttings with them.

Though there is a story of an English “Sugar Works” at Ha’penny Bay on the south shore of St. Croix around 1625, large scale production wasn’t viable until the French introduced a higher yielding and disease-resistant strain from Tahiti. They first planted the Tahiti strain on the island of Union—called Bourbon by the French—and cuttings were quickly spread throughout the Caribbean islands. The cane plants became known simply as Bourbon, Otaheiti or white cane.

Fifteen months from planting to harvest was the average, and planters were happy when one gallon of juice yielded one pound of raw sugar.

Slaves brought sugarcanes in bundles to the mills where it was cut into smaller chunks and fed into a grinding machine powered by wind, draft animals and in later days, steam. The juice that ran out of the grinder was fed into a large vessel called the receiver. The leftover ground cane is called bagasse.

“Any damn fool can circumnavigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.”
—Sir Francis Chichester

The receiver was connected to the sugar factory by leaden pipes that fed the copper clarifiers. There could have been as many as three clarifiers holding 300–400 gallons. A fire was lit under the clarifiers, and a bit of lye was added to encourage the impurities to rise to the top. There were spigots on the bottom of the clarifiers to tap off the liquid that was fed to an evaporating boiler called the “grand copper.” As the liquid boiled, more impurities were skimmed off the top. By and by, the liquid was transferred to the second and third copper for further purification.

The final evaporation took place in another copper, the teache. By this time the juice was very thick brown and transferred to the coolers. The coolers were shallow trays, seven feet long by four feet wide and held just enough to fill a 1,600 pound hogshead of sugar. As the liquid cooled, the unrefined muscovado, or brown sugar, solidified on the top leaving liquid molasses below. The muscovado was scraped off and put into hogsheads for shipment. (Some was saved for further refinement into white sugar.)

Every sugar plantation had a still house, and with the brown muscovado having been shipped off to Europe, tons of molasses were left behind to feed the still house for the production of rum, rumbullion, rumbooze, rhum or rumm. (The Indians called it ahcoobee while Carrie Nation called it demon rum.) Whatever it is called, it became every sailor’s dream and was so ingrained into naval traditions, that the dispensing of a daily tot of grog—watered down rum—to every British tar wasn’t discontinued until the middle 1960s. (The name “grog” was derived from the nickname of the English Admiral Edward Vernon who penuriously watered down the rum he dispensed to the crew (Vernons constantly wore a ‘grogram’ coat and was thus called ‘Old Grog’.)

In the still house stood several large wooden vats called butts. Each could hold up to a 1,000 gallons of mash which was usually one part molasses to five parts of water along with a smattering of the finest particles of cane residue resulting from the last straining of the pure cane juice. These fine particles of bagasse, called cush-cush, contained the mother, or natural, yeast necessary to cause the molasses to begin fermenting. Once the fermentation process was complete, the butts were tapped from the bottom and drained into the pot-still. When the still was filled, a fire was stoked beneath it and the resulting steam was directed through a long curled pipe called a worm or condenser that was suspended in a vat of cold water. Out of the end of the worm flowed demon rum.

It tasted like hell until it enjoyed a few years of aging in oak barrels, and the best and most expensive rum was made, not from a molasses mash, but rather from using expensive, pure fermented cane juice.


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