There's a theory out there that says sugar was discovered as a by-product of making rum. It's not true, but it sounds cool. The process of boiling cane juice to make sugar was discovered in India in the first millennium, B.C. Herodotus knew of it in the fifth century, B.C. The plants slowly spread from India and South Asia to the Mediterranean, probably thanks to Alexander the Great, and then Columbus took it to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493.
The first attempts at cultivating sugar in Louisiana were dismal failures. Jesuit priests brought it from the Caribbean islands to New Orleans in 1751 and attempted to cultivate it without much success. The variety they brought in didn't like the weather. After much trial and error a variety known as Creole cane finally took root and grew very well in our strange, borderline sub-tropical climate.
But it still wasn't making money. Enter Etienne de Bore, a French Creole. The year is 1795. the place is Destrehan Plantation. De Bore was an innovator and figured out if he could streamline the process of making sugar and speed it up, untold riches were available. So that's exactly what he did in 1795. The same year the cotton gin was invented.
Sugar is still a vital part of Louisiana's economy. We produce thousands of pounds of sugar every year, along with cane syrup and molasses. I freely admit it, I'm partial to Louisiana sugar. It's available at every store with Domino's Sugar on the shelf. Sugar is also produced from sugar beets and corn, but those two can't make brown sugars, cane syrup and molasses.
Many people think white sugar comes first in the process. That's not true. Raw sugar comes first. Then dark brown, light brown and finally white. The crystals don't turn white until the last drops of molasses have been extracted. The juice itself looks and feels like slimy water that's been sitting in a bucket for two weeks. It has a slightly sweet scent, but most people never guess it holds white gold.
Which brings us to the rum. And pirates. Rum is fermented cane juice and it comes in many varieties. The clear stuff is the lightest grade. The darker the rum, the higher the molasses content. Some brands of dark rum are so dark and thick, at first glance you could mistake it for molasses. Only the bite of the alcohol when it hits your nose or taste buds tells you it's not molasses. Dark rum makes great eggnog, according to my dad.
In the 18th century sugar came in cones, like the ones pictured here. They can be purchased from Jas. Townsend and Son, Inc. You can also buy the pictured sugar nippers.
Back then, making sugar smelled like molasses cookies fresh from the oven. I know it first-hand from working at Kent Plantation House. Every second Saturday in November is Sugar Day, when the reproduction 1840's sugar mill is lit and sugar is made. Nowadays it smells like an elephant died under your window.
Tons and tons of waste is produced, and many Louisiana mills now burn that waste to generate the electricity the mills use. Some of it is now being turned into paper, which is heaven to write on and more environmentally friendly than other papers.