Cane stalks are crushed to extract the juice, which is clarified, boiled, evaporated, and precipitated into big sand-colored crystals of raw sugar. Mountains of raw sugar are trucked from the mills to refineries to be melted, refined, and granulated. At Levert—St. John we persuaded our guide to let us taste "impure" raw sugar, which was full-flavored and good—though a bit disappointingcompared with the irresistible muscovado, pillon, and other dark-brown sugars from the Caribbean and Central America, which include more molasses. (Commercial brown sugar is just white sugar given a brief molasses rinse.) The by-products hardly go to waste. Bagasse, the fiber left after the stalks are pressed, is burned to power the mills. Molasses goes into nutritious and iron-rich animal feed—and once its remaining sugars are broken down and fermented, it is the base for rum.
In Colonial times rum was distilled in the Northeast—the Triangle Trade meant that molasses arrived in distilling centers like Boston and Newport on ships that had carried slaves to the West Indies, and left for Africa as rum. Rum helped both to spur the Revolution, because of the British tax on molasses, and to warm its soldiers and commanders. Rum was also, of course, distilled on the islands where sugarcane grew; Barbados and Jamaica, its original strongholds, remain famous for it. It was not, however, distilled in the South. By the time the sugar industry was enjoying its brief period of might in Louisiana (it never achieved anything like its antebellum prominence in the Reconstruction South), rum was falling out of favor. Whiskey, which Scotch-Irish immigrants could make from locally grown grain away from big ports, became the most popular American liquor. And rum was associated with slavery. During Prohibition rumrunners smuggled it in on ships from the West Indies, but the quality was low and did little to improve rum's reputation. Prohibition escapees to Cuba and a vogue for Latin music and exotic cocktails brought rum back into favor and even made it glamorous (see "The Old Man and the Daiquiri," by Wayne Curtis, page 131). A buildup of the Puerto Rican rum industry, in the 1950s, made rum and Coke the standard teenagers' starter drink.
Celebration Distillation, in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, occupies an old brick warehouse with a romantic address: off Elysian Fields, near the corner of Frenchmen and Abundance. The whole operation—tasting room in the front, exposed-brick back room with damply aromatic barrels resting on open wooden scaffolding, as if in library stacks—has a pleasantly homey and easygoing atmosphere; the owner, James Michalopoulos, is a painter, and an artist's eye shows in the renovation and the handsome, simple labels.
The distillery makes both light and dark rums, using molasses from Edgard, in southeastern Louisiana. I tasted molasses out of a plastic hose as Jon Blair, the day's distiller, an ambitious young Tulane graduate, began making a batch. The room smelled powerfully of the slightly medicinal and sulfurous molasses, which tasted much rougher than Steen's cane syrup but was not unpleasant. Blair mixed to a milky foam water and dry yeast that had been isolated, he told me, from Louisiana cane sugar. He climbed up a tank to pour the foam into the molasses; the mixture would ferment for a few days before being distilled in a very rustic still that looked like a sideways water heater. Then it would be filtered and bottled for light rum, or put into old charred-oak barrels, bought from Jack Daniel's, to be aged for dark.