Looking Back on Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Archival image of the 1919 Boston molasses flood
It may sound like fodder for satire, but Boston's Molasses Massacre of 1919 was serious business — the flood of molasses moving at 35 mph killed 21 people and injured even more. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Reports say it sounded like a gunshot, or a car crash. A loud crack followed by an immense groaning, and then – and then whatever 2.3 million gallons of molasses bursting from a leaky storage tank sounds like.

On January 15, 1919, a structural flaw in a tower built for storing molasses, combined with un-seasonally warm temperatures, caused a wall in a six-story storage tank to burst, sending a 25 foot wave of goo through Boston’s North End neighborhood, and unleashing a 35 mph flood through the streets.

It sounds silly, a farce or satire put together to comment on the ills of colonialism (molasses, after all, was imported from the Caribbean), or a historical insight into what global warming may mean for us down the road, but it happened, and it was devastating: On the day of flood, the New York Times reported that “probably a dozen persons were killed and fifty injured by the explosion.” The final death toll came to 21 and 150 were reported injured. The flood took down a portion of the elevated train tracks that formerly ran down Commercial Street near Boston Harbor and left two city blocks submerged, drowning people in its wake.

Legend has it that on a hot summer day in the North End you can still smell the sweet, cloying scent of molasses seeping up through the asphalt.

It was, as the Boston Daily Globe reported the next day, “a scene of ruin and desolation.” It was also, however, inspiration for two contemporary cocktails: the modern classic, the 1919, and the less widely known but devastatingly delicious Boston Molassacre. But wait – what in the world were over two million gallons of molasses doing in the middle of Boston?

A newspaper headline about the Boston Molasses Massacre Photo: Boston Public Library/Flickr

The storage tank that burst that January day in 1919 belonged to Purity Distilling Company, one of Boston’s many rum distilleries. Puritanism and Prohibition are likely to spring to mind when you think “New England” and “booze,” but rum should really come to mind first. By the mid-17th century, Massachusetts had over 60 distilleries and rum, distilled from molasses imported from Great Britain, was the region’s spirit of choice.

When the British Parliament began taxing molasses, well before the Sugar Act and the legendary Tea Act that spurred the Revolutionary War, they also tamped down alcohol production, seeking to limit the economic independence the colonies had found in distilling their own alcohol.

Instead of throwing barrels of molasses into Boston Harbor, colonials looked south and began smuggling Caribbean molasses into the states. They may have come from Puritan stock but early New Englanders liked their drink and they weren’t going to give it up.

That is, until the Prohibitionists won out in Congress.

Prohibition put a stop to the stateside production of alcoholic beverages in 1920, but according to the September 15, 1917 Cambridge Tribune, Purity Distilling had switched from distilling rum and spirits to producing ethanol to be used for “mechanical purposes a few years ago,” meaning even as the U.S. was placing new restrictions on distilling and imbibing there was still plenty of molasses coming to Boston from the Caribbean — it just wasn’t being used as quickly.

Halted rum production, poor construction, a mild New England winter; whatever the reason for the burst tower, that much viscous liquid that close to city life was bound to be a disaster — and it was.

But it’s also been added to the annals of contemporary cocktail history.

In 2008 when Ben Sandrof, currently MS Walker’s Craft Spirit Portfolio Manager, was behind the bar at Drink, the signature concoction was the Fort Point Cocktail, a combination of rye, Punt e Mes and Benedictine. Sandrof, playing with split-base recipes, switched up the cocktail’s proportions, added rum, and voila — a new classic was born.

“It reminded me of smelling and drinking molasses,” Sandrof says of thinking what to name the drink. “I did a little research and found about this molasses flood that, at the time, people seemed to have forgotten about, and I thought wow, that’s it.”

The 1919, composed of 1 ounce Punt e Mes, 3/4 ounce Old Monk Rum, 3/4 ounce rye, 1/2 ounce Benedictine and a dash of mole bitters, has made its way onto cocktail menus throughout Boston and into books compiling new classics.

The Great Molasses Flood was the namesake inspiration for another rum-based cocktail, the Boston Molassacre, a blended rum flip by Kit Paschal, co-owner of Roustabout in Portland, Maine, during his time behind the bar at Boston’s Eastern Standard.

“I had two regulars who loved to get adventurous and wanted to pair cocktails with dinner or dessert,” Paschal says. “And that’s what we got. A flip was always a go to dessert beverage, and the molasses element in rum was perfect.”

The Boston Molassacre combines 1 ounce Smith & Cross, ½ ounce Zacapa 23, ½ ounce black strap rum, ½ ounce orgeat, a barspoon of allspice dram and one whole egg.

Paschal says naming the drink was a collaborative effort but that everyone agreed a rum flip cried for homage to the 1919 disaster in the North End.

Whether or not you can actually still smell the molasses that spilled almost 100 years ago, January 15th is a day to commemorate the fallen. Just be sure there’s rum involved when you raise a glass.

The 1919

  • 1 oz. Punt e Mes
  • 3/4 oz. Old Monk Rum
  • 3/4 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1/2 oz. Benedictine
  • Dash of mole bitters

Stir with ice and strain into glass.

The Boston Molassacre

  • 1 oz. Smith & Cross
  • 1/2 oz. Zacapa 23
  • 1/2 oz. blackstrap rum
  • 1/2 oz. orgeat
  • 1 barspoon allspice dram
  • 1 whole egg

Dry-shake, then shake with ice. Strain into glass.

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