For over two hundred years Medford, Massachusetts distilled molasses into rum. For decades several distilleries operated near the Mystic River. The rum was put into casks there and sent around the world on sailing ships, and gaining a reputation as a rum of distinction in a time when there were a lot of bad spirits in the world. Over time the other distilleries closed until there was only one. Medford rum was made for three generations by Daniel Lawrence & Sons, and when the sons decided in 1905 to stop making rum Medford Rum abruptly stopped distilling.
There was an evil side to rum, and certainly Medford Rum. It was the third leg of the slave trade, where slaves from Africa were brought to the Caribbean in exchange for sugar cane and its byproduct molasses, which was used to distill rum. The rum was shipped around the world and became currency to fuel the slave trade. That association with the slave trade is the tragic side to what is otherwise a classic American success story.
Daniel Lawrence & Sons announced that they were going to stop making Medford Rum in 1905, and basically just stopped making it. This is akin to Mount Gay Rum announcing to the world that they were done distilling rum, and what was on the shelves was all that would ever be available. Sailors around the world would be breaking down the doors at the liquor stores to horde as many bottles as they could. Mount Gay caused enough of a stir just getting rid of the jug handle bottles. The uproar if they dropped Eclipse would be epic. I’m sure it was for Medford Rum too. The name Medford Rum was sold off to another distillery in Boston, which makes rum with the name but not the recipe. So we’ll never really know what real Medford Rum was like.
While the slave trade thankfully ended, the trade of molasses for the production of alcohol in many forms continued. In 1919 a tank containing 2 1/2 million gallons of molasses at the United States Industrial Alcohol Company burst and sent an 8 foot wave of molasses through the streets of the North End in Boston and killing 21 people. What a way to go.
There are a few reminders to Medford’s past as a major distiller of rum. The Post Office has a mural on the wall that depicts Medford’s role in history, with slave carrying sugar cane in the middle panel. Some people have chosen to be offended by that now and have demanded its removal. I don’t view it as glorifying slavery, but acknowledging Medford’s place in the history of the slave trade. But in this hyper-sensitive climate perhaps that’s too much for people. As despicable as slavery was, Medford’s history of producing rum gainfully employed generations of people, just as the shipbuilding and brick making industries in Medford did. Slavery, the treatment of the Native American population and other evils of the time should never be forgotten, but neither should the generations of industrious Americans who built things that reached across the world.
Medford Rum for rum lovers has a mystical lore to it, fitting since it was distilled along the banks of the Mystic River. While the name lives on through GrandTen Distillery, I view this as a nod to the past and not a continuation of the recipe the way that Mount Gay is. I know that somewhere out there there’s an aging bottle of Medford Rum from the turn of the last century just waiting for someone to uncork it. That elusive bottle will cause quite a bidding war. I’m not in a position to re-morgage my house for the winning bid, but I’ll keep an eye out for it just the same. One of my time machine carry-ons would surely be a cask of Medford Rum.