Sugar Cane Honey?
By Andrew “the Alchemist”
Several rums are described as being made from “cane honey” or “sugar cane honey.” This is a translation from the Spanish miel de caña.
The use of the direct translation from Spanish as the English name for this substance is new. In English there are several terms for what miel de caña is: ‘light molasses’ (in the U.S.A.), ‘treacle’ (in Britain), ‘first molasses’, ‘mild molasses’ and ‘Barbados molasses.’ These are all centuries-old, traditional names. I see no good reason to suppress them now.
Molasses is cooked sugar cane nectar. There are three traditional grades of it. Light molasses comes from the first stage of heating the sugar cane nectar, and is mildest-in-flavor and lightest-in-color (the image above shows light molasses in a dark glass jar). When heated past the light molasses grade, it becomes ‘second molasses.’ When heated and processed even more, it will become the very dark and strongly-flavored type known as ‘blackstrap molasses.’ Refining common white sugar from sugar cane nectar produces blackstrap molasses as a by-product.
Perhaps, the rarity of light molasses in some parts of the English-speaking world is the problem. Any mention of molasses will probably make most Americans think of blackstrap molasses. Its strong flavor is unpleasant to many people. So, it is perhaps good marketing to use the direct-but-non-traditional translation of miel de caña. Even some non-Spanish-speaking rum producers have adopted the “cane honey” terminology – for the same reason that the Patagonian toothfish was renamed the ‘Chilean sea bass.’
This is unfortunate. In the case of ‘sugar cane honey,’ not only is one set of traditional terms flushed, another word, ‘honey,’ begins to be robbed of clear meaning. I think that (in English, at least) the word ‘honey’ should be reserved for nectar that has been stored by bees.
--------------------Any mixologist caught up in the current rum fad (as I am) should obtain and taste both light molasses and blackstrap molasses. Cutting up animals in culinary school wasn’t always fun. But, intimacy with animal structures made us better cooks than if a large industrial meat packer had brought us attractive, pre-packaged cuts and put on a flashy presentation using clever catchwords. Likewise, as mixologists, we should not be swept along by marketing and terminology. We should have a deeper understanding of what things are – and perhaps even of their history.