The History of the Sugar Cube

White sugar cubesThe American Sugar Refinery rises 12 stories above marshy plains along the Mississippi River in Arabi, Louisiana, just a few miles downriver from New Orleans. It was the largest sugar processing plant in the Western hemisphere when it opened, and it remains so today. (It’s one of three American plants owned by Domino Sugar.) For years I’d admired the building that rises like a boxy apparition above the swampy haze, in large part because I knew it to be the place where sugar cubes were made.

One day a couple of years ago I wrangled an invitation to visit. My first discovery was that not all 12 floors were devoted to the making of sugar cubes, which was disappointing since the building itself looks like a box of cubes. It turns out the plant processes about 7.3 million pounds of sugar a day, which is packaged in everything from restaurant sugar packets to one-ton industrial bags.

I asked the plant manager showing me around how exactly sugar cubes are made. He looked at me as if his curse was to spend his life with people of limited intellect. “Well, take an ice cube tray,” he said, slowly. “Add a certain amount of moisture, then pack it down, really, really tight. Then take it out and put it in your oven. Leave it there at maybe 122 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. You got sugar cubes.”

He led me upstairs to a large and loud room to show me the cube maker. It was impressive: essentially an 80-foot-long stainless steel tunnel; at the front end was something called a “former” that pressed damp sugar from a hopper into perfect if squishy cubes. These then marched off on a conveyor into the heat tunnel. Watching the cubes setting off in lockstep, I was reminded of the Witch’s Guard marching into Oz, and I started quietly chanting “Oh-ee-Oh.” My guide suggested we move on.

The sugar cube celebrates its 175th birthday this month. The first patent was granted on January 23, 1843, to Jakub Kryštof Rad, the manager of a sugar factory in what today is the Czech Republic. At the time, sugar was sold by loaf or lump, which were dense brown blocks of sweetness that required tools to pry out usable pieces. One day Rad’s wife cut her finger while disaggregating a loaf, so her husband devised a solution. (The fact that the Rads had 16 children suggests frequent trips to the loaf, possibly incentivizing Rad’s inventiveness.)

Rad came up with a method of pulverizing sugar and then re-forming it into teaspoon-sized cubes. It was a great solution for hot drinks, like coffee and tea. It was less than ideal for chilled drinks, which resisted quick dissolving.

This notwithstanding, the cube was to begin a long association with cocktails. Among them were the Absinthe Drip, for which the sugar cube got its own accessory—a flat, perforated spoon, which was often branded with a company name. A sugar cube was placed on the spoon, which was set across the mouth of a glass, and water dripped upon it, slowly. The cube first disfigured then dissolved, as the drink beneath it morphed from transparent into a magical opalescence. If there’s a ritual that better summarizes the drinking experience, I don’t know of it.

In the 1990s, some bars started igniting an absinthe-soaked cube before dousing it with the drip. This was showy but about as historically accurate as Lauren Bacall taking a long drag from a vape pen. Don’t do this.

The sugar cube has also enjoyed some walk-on roles in the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned, for which recipes at times called for a sugar cube to be doused with bitters before muddling with spirits. This made for a nice ritual but often left a saccharine sludge at the bottom of the glass. Some will defend this as the dessert rewarding those who finish their drink, but those people are probably flawed in other ways as well.

The cocktail in which the sugar cube has its grandest role is arguably the Champagne Cocktail. Recipes typically call for a sugar cube to be placed at the bottom of a flute or coupe, irrigated with a few dashes of bitters and then inundated with Champagne. With bubbles streaming upward from both the cube and the wine, the drink creates a hypnotic effect that can convince you that all is right with the world, despite evidence to the contrary, even before your first sip.

Simple syrup, it turns out, makes for more efficient mixing, and over time the sugar cube was ushered offstage. Yet, the past decade has proven that anything industrialized can be artisanized. And so here we are, with rough Demerara sugar cubes now doled out by tongs from bowls at better bars and available online. I recently saw cubes “made from first-press cane syrup” touted as “a fantastic substitute for run-of-the-mill refined sugars.” A box of 20 cubes costs $12.

Happy birthday, sugar cube.


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