During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, sugar was rare and expensive commodity. Beginning in the 15th century, however, sugar cane plantations developed in the West Indies, then South America, particularly in Brazil. Sugar was the top colonial commodity. It was at the root of the ‘triangular trade’, where European shipowners exchanged trinkets for African men, who were then sold as slaves in America. The ships then returned to Europe with products from the colonies, including precious sugar.
Before the opening of “New World” sugar plantations, all European sugar was imported through cartels Italy. The port of Venice was a major processing center for sugar coming from the Near East and their process for refining sugar was quickly adopted in the Caribbean. The ‘Venice Cone’ or sugar loaf is a conical block of crystallized sugar and it is produced during crystallization, the final stage of the refining process. The sugar liquid was then alternately re-boiled and allowed to evaporate a few times before it reached the optimal thickness, and was then left in a vat to cool. As it cooled, the liquid began to crystallize, at which point it was poured into cone-shaped molds. The pointed end of the mold had an open hole in it, but this was initially plugged with a twist of paper. Once the sugar began to harden, the paper plug was removed so remaining liquid could drain out. The sugar loaves were then removed from the molds and dried. Many loaves during the period were wrapped in blue paper for shipping.
The prices for sugar outrageous by today’s sugar fueled expectations! A 50-pound sugar loaf of average purity cost £3, 15 shillings. That’s about $103.88 in today’s currency whereas today a similar bag of much more refined sugar today would only cost about $30. Sugar was BIG business in the 18th Century and its little wonder that the Admiralty wanted to tax it and John Hancock wanted to smuggle it. Households kept their sugar in locked boxes and if you were offed sugar at a dinner or tea, you must have been a highly valued guest (sort of like being offered single malt Scotch at my house).
But wait, the white crystalline sugar in the cone is only PART of the production. If you remember, as the sugar is refined, we open the tip of the cone and allow liquid to drain out. We may even have “washed” the sugar in the cones to drive out the brown caramelized impurities which were called “bastard liquor” but you don’t throw that away! The “bastard liquor,” a waste product, is set aside to make an even move valuable product — rum.
Rum’s origin lies in the 17th century Caribbean Islands. On Barbados, slaves discovered that by fermenting molasses, a byproduct of refining sugarcane, they could create alcohol. Then by distilling this alcoholic drink, they could create a concentrated and purer spirit. It was only a matter of time before the slave owners wanted in on this industry and soon were exporting the “bastard liquor” to the American Colonies (especially New England) to be fermented into rum.
Rum became such a popular drink before the American Revolutionary War, that it’s estimated that every man, woman or child was drinking an average of 3.6 gallons of rum each year. This popularity of rum continued to grow exponentially after the war. George Washington even required a barrel of rum from Barbados for his 1789 inauguration into the presidency.
The Regimental Brewmiester is developing a demonstration program on rum production (on a micro scale). Stay tuned for dates and come learn why Thomas Jefferson thought King George “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…” HINT- This wasn’t about tobacco grown at Monticello.
How to Make a Sugar Loaf/Cone
- 1¾ cups Granulated Sugar
- 1¾ teaspoons Water
Mix the sugar and water in a bowl until it forms into a uniformly damp, sandy consistency (about 15 seconds). Spoon ¼ of the mixture into a conical-shaped Pilsner glass and tamp firmly with a muddler. Rough up ½-inch of the flattened surface with a fork and add another ¼ of the dampened sugar and tamp firmly. Repeat until all of the sugar is firmly pressed into the glass. Invert the glass onto a piece of parchment paper and tap the glass onto the counter to free the cone. Allow to sit on the counter for 1 week to harden.