Treacly Tipples

Unctuous and earthy, molasses is becoming a go-to ingredient among bartenders. Especially around this time of year, when brown spirits, spices and heavier libations reign, molasses lends not just sweetness, but weight and depth of flavor that just can’t be matched by mere simple syrup.

Learn to Swim cocktail at South Water Kitchen photo credit Michelle Banovic
Learn to Swim cocktail at South Water Kitchen - Photo Credit: Michelle Banovic

Molasses is produced when the juice extracted from sugarcane or sugar beets is boiled a second time, rendering a thick, syrup-y, inky-hued liquid that’s at once sweet and bitter. “[Molasses] adds richness and length to a cocktail,” notes Brian Means, bar manager for Dirty Habit, a bar-centric restaurant in San Francisco. “It’s sweet upfront, but is so much heavier on the palate than standard simple syrup—it coats the tongue and allows the cocktail to crawl along your taste buds.”

Brian Washington-Palmer, owner of the Latin- and Caribbean-influenced La Bodega 47 Social Club in New York, agrees, adding that along with its rich mouth feel, molasses ramps up flavor. “It can impart an earthiness and funkiness that can really bolster the richness of cocktails,” he says.

Molasses Old Fashioned at La Bodega 47 photo credit Gabi Porter
Molasses Old Fashioned at La Bodega 47 - Photo Credit: Gabi Porter

Because of its rich flavor, Washington-Palmer suggests diluting molasses with water, or adding it to sugar, when using it in cocktails—his standard recipe for molasses syrup is 2 cups white sugar, 1 cup water and 2 tablespoons molasses. La Bodega 47’s Latin Old Fashioned stirs El Dorado 12-Year Old Rum with orange and grapefruit bitters, and a house made island spice syrup with sugar, water, molasses, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cloves, allspice berries and cardamom pods.

Darker and more robust, blackstrap molasses is produced when cane juice is boiled a third time. “Blackstrap molasses has more depth of flavor than sugar,” explains Sarah Mengoni, bartender for the Midwestern cuisine-focused South Water Kitchen in Chicago. “It has a bitterness and mineral component that you don’t find in any other sweetening agents.”

South Water Kitchen’s Learn to Swim cocktail mixes Banks Rum, Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, pineapple juice, hibiscus tea and Fee Brother’s Old Fashioned Bitters with a syrup made from cooking down bananas, demerara sugar and blackstrap molasses. “The earthy flavors of the blackstrap rum and molasses balance beautifully with the slightly sour hibiscus and the rich sweetness of the bananas,” muses Mengroni. Means adds blackstrap molasses to a shrub-like gastrique made with red wine vinegar; he uses it in The Commodore, with Rhum Clément and lime, topped with ginger ale.

If you see fruit-flavored molasses on a bar menu—like apple, or the grenadine-like pomegranate—keep in mind that the only thing it has in common with its sugarcane-based counterpart is texture and viscosity. “They are actually not molasses, but fruit juice boiled down with sugar to a syrup,” notes Washington-Palmer.

As far as the real deal, molasses is not surprisingly a great partner with aged rums and other brown spirits including whiskey and Bourbon. Mengoni likes to mix it with ginger, while Means thinks it works with just about anything—except maybe very distinctive flavors like Aquavit or Kümmel. The most important thing is to take a light approach. As Mengoni puts it, “[Molasses] has such a strong flavor that a little bit goes a long way.”