Is the Secret to Great Rum Molasses?
How an acclaimed New England rum distiller decided to switch to using historic and traditional molasses.
In the 19th century, recipes occasionally called for “two or three blurps” of molasses. A “blurp” is the sound molasses makes when being poured out of a jug. So that was the measure. A “blurp.”
This is to suggest how seriously molasses has been taken throughout its history. Which is to say, not very. Molasses was often regarded as the dimwitted cousin of sugar, a slow-moving, dense-looking, odd-tasting sweetener. In the Colonial era, refined sugar was exported from the West Indies to Great Britain and Europe. Less-desirable molasses went to the impoverished northern colonies, especially New England and the Canadian Maritimes.
Thanks to a sort of culinary Stockholm Syndrome, the Northeast over time embraced molasses. They treasured it in gingerbread, baked beans and various cookies and other oven goods. Also, in making rum. On the eve of the American Revolution there were some 160 rum distilleries in the Northeast.
This preamble goes some way toward setting the context for why I found myself one day last fall, along with two distillers from Privateer Rum of Massachusetts, in Saint John, New Brunswick, about halfway between Portland, Maine, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. We stood in front of a charmless brick building. A banner hanging from it read: “Molasses, Worth the Wait.”
We had arrived at the headquarter of Crosby’s Molasses, which was founded in 1879. We had come in search of the region’s best molasses.
For me, the trip was something of a lark—it was just a two-hour drive from where I spend much of the summer in Maine. And I’ve been a fan of Crosby’s Molasses for more than two decades, since I first moved to eastern Maine. (Crosby’s is distributed only in Canada and parts of New England. Too bad for you.) As a Mid-Atlantic boy, for most of my life molasses didn’t make much of an impression on me. I had tasted a spoonful of the stuff once, and I thought, “This is nasty. Why would anyone eat this?” When I moved to Maine years later and first tasted Crosby’s, my thought was, “This is delicious. Why aren’t wars fought over this?” I have been known to force spoonfuls of Crosby’s upon visitors regardless of their desire to sample it.
Maggie Campbell has been the head distiller at Privateer since 2012. Her husband, Peter Newsom, is the assistant distiller. They drove up to Canada less on a lark and more on business. They wanted to see their supplier.
Since they started at Privateer, the distillery has experimented with various types of sugar and its byproducts to make rum. Early on, they had mostly been using evaporated cane juice and boiled brown sugar in making their silver rum, and molasses for making rum aged in casks. They were happy with the rum they were making from all sources.
But then the world started to change.
The supplier who sold them sacks of sugar was purchased by another company, and the sugar took a turn for the worse. Privateer rejected two deliveries because of quality control problems and inconsistencies in sugar content. Then noted Barbados rum maker Richard Seale of Foursquare Rum visited and gave them a minor measure of grief about their use of evaporated cane juice, which he thought set a bad example for other distillers.
At the same time, Privateer’s customers were growing more sophisticated, and asking more questions—about how they made their rum, and where they sourced their rough materials. “People want the story of the ingredients,” Campbell said. “If you make whiskey, they want to know if it’s estate rye. If it’s apple brandy, is it from this orchard? We can’t just tell them nothing.”
Problem was, when she called the companies who sold them sugar and molasses, she found it all but impossible to get the information she wanted—such as how they treated labor and the environment. “They were like, well, it’s a global commodity—it’s whomever’s cheapest,” Campbell said. “It was like talking to a wall. They were like, we get it from wherever, why do you even care?”
Campbell did care. Eventually, that brought her and her husband to Saint John, New Brunswick.
The Crosby’s complex sprawls along a stretch of commercial road between railroad tracks and a busy road that’s home to Jason’s Functional Training Studio, a dentist office, and other non-landmark businesses. The buildings reflect several eras—Edwardian, mid-century modern—as if cobbled together piecemeal. But there’s also continuity. Next to the front door, for instance, is a parking spot reserved for “Mr. Crosby.”
Next to a display of vintage molasses labels inside (“King of Boston Pure Barbados Molasses” and “Queen of Boston Pure Barbados Molasses”), we met William Crosby, who is youngish, has bright blue eyes, spiky hair and was wearing a Madras plaid shirt and a blue jacket. His demeanor appears more relaxed than that of his great-great grandfather, who in photos was bald, favored dark suits, and did not appear to be given to ribaldry. William also seemed remarkably alert, given that his wife brought home their second child just nine days earlier.
Twenty-year-old Lorezno George Crosby started his grocery story in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in 1879. He soon began exporting dried fish and lumber to the West Indies; his boats returned with barrels of molasses. The molasses business grew and eventually took over. In 1897, Crosby’s Molasses relocated west to Saint John, where it had better access to both shipping and rail lines, as demand for molasses grew further west in Canada.
Crosby’s is constantly adapting to the times. While much of its early molasses came from Barbados—for decades, “Barbados molasses” signified a top-shelf product—in recent years Barbados molasses has all but disappeared, as the sugar crop has been replaced by condos and golf courses. Crosby’s now obtains its molasses from the Sierra Madre sugar farm and mill, founded in Santa Lucia, Guatemala, in 1963 by a brother and sister named Rudy and Pilar Martinez.
Sierra Madre makes both blackstrap and fancy molasses. (While blackstrap is a byproduct of sugar making, fancy molasses—an actual legal term of identity in Canada—is sugar cane juice that’s been evaporated and converted into a dense syrup, much like cane syrup in the southern U.S.)
When the company started, Crosby’s shipped wooden casks of molasses on sailing ships, then later by steamer. In the 1950s, casks were replaced by hulking tanker ships filled with molasses. These now arrive twice each year, in spring and again in the fall. The molasses is pumped out of the ship via a heated 900-meter pipeline to a small tank farm at the edge of the harbor. From here, tanker trucks haul the molasses as needed a mile or so to the factory, where it’s packaged in everything from industrial-sized totes for large-scale users, to cardboard cartons and plastic bottles for supermarket sales. (The factory also packages other sugar-based products, including the Marshmallow Fluff sold in Canada, but about 55 percent of Crosby’s business is molasses.)
A few years ago, Maggie Campbell was traveling through Maine when someone forced upon her a spoonful of Crosby’s molasses. (Full disclosure: that someone was me.) That started Privateer on the long process of looking into the possibility of using Crosby’s, and ensuring it was a good match—that it would make a quality rum, that they could tell a story about the source, and that it was made in a socially responsible manner.
Campbell looked into the sugar operations in Guatemala. She learned they paid more than average for the region, and that the mill directly employed the workers (no sub-contracting) and offered sick days, and free medical treatment and medication. The family that owned the mill also worked with a climate change research institute to address environmental issues, and funded a school that offered free classes to workers and had computer labs for local children.
She made some test batches of rum using Crosby’s, aging it in a cask for a year. She and her team tested it blind against the rum made from sugar, as well as from their America-sourced molasses. “All of us were blown away by the Crosby’s,” Campbell said. “We didn’t just feel good about it, we felt great.” Crosby’s molasses is now delivered from Canada via heated 4,000-gallon tanker trucks, heading down through Maine overnight for morning delivery.
For a time Privateer sold both their legacy Silver Reserve Rum, as well as their new White Rum, made with Crosby’s molasses. But then the time came; they gave their Silver Reserve a nice watch, and wished it a happy retirement.
Over time, all the aged rum coming out of Privateer casks will be able to trace it lineage to a fifth-generation, family-owned molasses importer in Canada, and in turn to a family-owned sugar mill in the Pacific Lowlands of Central America.
Should you choose to sample it, two blurps is the recommended measure.