A Tale of Molasses and Honey: Two Rum Drinks

Many absolutely confounding drinks are included in the Gentleman's Companion, but just as many of them are quite simple, like the Jamaican Black Stripe and the Jamaican Black Strap. What's more simple than variations on the old-fashioned and the toddy? But then again, as Charles Baker has inadvertently proven time and again, easy to make doesn't always mean tasty. Even after only 15 recipes, I have learned to never prejudge a Baker cocktail or even my own tastes. Regardless of how I wince, groan, or even smirk at one of his recipes, each drink will contain a bit of mystery in one way or another. The most important lesson is that to truly experience something a certain amount of letting go is required, and sometimes that isn't easy or comfortable. But by relinquishing control, I have been able to stretch my sense of taste in ways I never could have foreseen. We all have ideas about what we think we like. Sometimes opening the window to something new lets in more than what we  bargained for, and it can change everything.

The Jamaican Black Strap is not a scary drink. You may or may not believe me depending on your view of the two primary ingredients: molasses and Jamaican rum. I happen to love Jamaican rum. This fact alone would have floored Mr. Baker, who many times asserts that most ladies have a strong dislike for the stronger, more pungent Jamaican rums. I do not particularly disagree with his assertion--indeed, some women probably would find the funkier rums a bit too, um, well, funky for their liking. I would add, however, that, as with most things, this fact does not apply to women alone. Leaving bold statements about gender stereotyping aside, why is Jamaican rum so challenging? The easy answer: it comes down to production.

For every place where rum is manufactured, there exists a different, usually very traditional distillation procedure that characterizes the product. That is why so many styles of rum exist--why Haitian rum tastes different than Martinique rum. Traditionally, in Jamaica, a portion of the material left over in the still after a distillation run, called dunder or setback (for all of you sour mash whiskey lovers), is collected and added to the next batch of mash that is fermenting. This process introduces the slow-acting wild yeasts used during the fermentation process, wards off other unwanted yeasts, and maintains consistency across a product line. But this also creates a lot of the funkier flavors that Jamaican rums are known for. Limings, the scum that forms on the surface of the molasses during the sugar extraction process, can also be added for additional pungency, as well as other things like cane juice, or molasses. Additionally, many Jamaican rum distillers blend spirits produced from a pot still, which typically produces more congeners and thus fuller flavors, with spirits from a column still to create a bolder rum. All of these factors work together to create bolder, more pungent flavors that are more challenging and eye-opening. But my goodness Jamaican rum is delicious.

But we haven't forgotten about molasses. If Jamaican rum is a challenging rum, molasses is a challenging sweetening agent, if you can even call it that. Dark, thick, and slightly bitter, molasses is the byproduct of the sugar making process and serves as the raw material in most rums. Molasses used to be the sweetener of choice in colonial times, or at least until refined sugar became readily available. Molasses does have its devout fans who drizzle it on such things as cornbread or pancakes. Not me though. Though I have added it in small doses to simple syrups to create a funkier, bolder flavor, the only way I like to eat molasses is in a cookie, where its earthy, rich flavors shine but its bitterness is thankfully suppressed. So with only a bit of hesitancy, I progressed to Mr. Baker's version of a very old drink, the Black Strap, which was exceedingly popular both as a warm and cold beverage in the United States at least as late as the eighteenth century.

Jamaican Black Strap (for two)

3 ounces Jamaican Rum
2 tbsp water
2 tsp molasses
1 dash Angostura Bitters

Shake ingredients with lots of cracked ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a pineapple spear.

Notes on Ingredients: I used the mighty Smith and Cross for the rum, and after an initial taste or three upped the amount of bitters to 3 dashes for two drinks.

The aroma was filled with the recognizable smell of Smith and Cross: strong, funky and full of promise. Of course the molasses was there as well, though I am still not sure if I was smelling the actual molasses or the Smith and Cross. Also, the pineapple spear, which was an utter garnish failure, awkward protuberance that it was, added a bit of undefinable fruitiness to the nose. The first sip was very molasses-y, though the hogo of the rum carried through at the end. You would think that there would be some sweetness in this drink, but it was dry and earthy, with a vague powdery texture that made each sip seem almost chewy. After I increased the bitters, the spices became more detectable on the swallow. The flavors of the molasses were also enhanced by the increase in bitters--the drink seemed sweeter, in that pleasing molasses cookie way, and the flavors in general seemed more balanced. Overall, not bad but not great.

If the Jamaican Black Strap is the darker side of a Jamaican rum drink, there is always a lighter side. The Jamaican Black Stripe is similar to the Jamaican Black Strap, except honey replaces the molasses. This drink is even less scary. Just looking at the recipe, I could imagine the bountiful aromatics of the funky rum mingling with the floral honey and fresh ground nutmeg. My only sense of hesitation was linked to the amount of honey. Considering how easily honey can overwhelm a drink, I think this was a valid hesitation. But, if anything can stand up to it, I would bet on that Smith and Cross, pot-stilled, funky and 100 proof. Not much pushes that rum around.

Jamaican Black Stripe (as interpreted)

1 1/2 ounces Jamaican rum
3/4 ounce honey syrup

Combine honey and rum with ice and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with fresh ground nutmeg.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Smith and Cross rum and a 1:1 honey syrup, which is sweeter and more fragrant than the proportions in Baker's syrup.

Unsurprisingly, the aroma was dominated by the nutmeg. No complaints so far. The light smell of molasses was detectable as well from the Smith and Cross. When I first tasted this drink was, I noticed that it was a bit sweet. On the second go, I could detect the other flavors better. The Smith and Cross contributed its customary swagger, though it seemed less funky and more earthy. The floral notes of the honey were most apparent at end of each sip, but the rum was back with its molasses and funk just in time for the aftertaste. It was surprising just how well the flavors matched up. The drink on the whole was exceedingly smooth and creamy, and the sweetness dissipated as I made my way through it. I do think that in general the Jamaican Black Stripe was a bit sweet and I still wonder what a dash of bitters would do. Maybe orange bitters? All in all, it was a very pleasant sipper that would work well, ice cold in the summer heat.

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