Martinique, a French island in the Lesser Antilles whose rugged landscape harbors brilliant botanical gardens and whose coast is dotted with long, lovely beaches, offers plenty of the celebrated attractions of tropical islands, but two of its treasures are unique, and extremely important indeed–its very special rum and its renowned and raucous Carnaval.
The primary resource of the Ile aux Fleurs is sugarcane, the raw material used to make the rum that’s been enjoyed for centuries far beyond the Caribbean islands. Over the years its production methods have improved to such an extent that in 1996, rhum agricole was granted France’s coveted AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) designation-just as for fine wine, the AOC guarantees that rhum agricole will have all the characteristics associated with its particular terroir.
Rhum agricole is not to be confused with industrial rum, also called traditional rum. The industrial product is made from molasses, the residue of sugarcane left after the production of sugar. To be called rhum agricole, the liquor must be of irreproachable quality. The constraints are many, from cane-growing methods to distillation and ageing techniques, and while each brand has its own secret recipes and its own die-hard devotees, that is largely a matter of individual taste-today all Martinique’s rhums agricoles are excellent.
Washed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Caribbean Sea on the west, Martinique is a jagged, mountainous island. A tropical rainforest climbs the slopes of a dormant volcano in the north, and the central plain gives way to hills and valleys before sloping gently toward the coast in the south. Roads are well maintained, but they’re often winding and narrow-it takes time to get from one point to another, especially since the beauty of the scenery and the constant temptation to stop for a swim, a drink or a plate of accras (savory fish fritters) add time to any trip-time that, blame it on the tropical douceur, is measured differently here.
Many distilleries are open to the public, and visiting them, whether in production season or not, is a good excuse for wandering between the mangroves and the mountains and not spending every day at the beach. Certain brands are no longer produced at their original sites because economic conditions have forced companies to group together to survive. But to preserve each brand’s distinctive flavor, the distillation columns that, along with the provenance of the sugarcane itself, play such an important part in the finished product, are always carefully dismantled and reconstructed at the new site.
Work usually begins in March and lasts about four months. The cane is harvested either by hand or by machine. Some planters prefer to burn the fields just before cutting to get rid of the ever-present snakes and to remove the leaves from the cane. Then, cut into segments, the cane is broken up into smaller pieces before being crushed in cylindrical mills in which flows a small amount of water to facilitate the extraction of the juice, called the vesou.
The dry material that remains after the crushing operation, in the form of very fine shavings, is called la bagasse; it’s used as fuel for the boiler that produces the steam that powers all the distillery’s machinery. The vesou, after being filtered, is transferred to a fermentation vat where yeasts are added in order to transform the sugar into alcohol. This sugarcane wine is then distilled in the column; it will end up with a 70 percent alcohol content.
The rum is kept in a stainless steel vat for a minimum of three months, during which time it is stirred regularly to rid it of acrid volatile components. Before bottling, spring water or distilled water is added to reduce its alcohol content to the desired level. The result is rhum agricole blanc, most of which is consumed locally. This white rum is the main ingredient of the island’s famous Ti punch, made with a zest of lime and a few drops of sugar syrup. It’s a drink enjoyed at any time of day, and an important part of the local art de vivre.
But the trend these days is increasingly toward aged rum. Aging allows more complex flavors to develop, and aged rum is a worthy competitor to other fine spirits. In order to use the designation rhum vieux, the liquor must spend a minimum of three years in oak casks. Aged between four and six years, it is called hors d’âge; after more than six years it can be called VSOP; older than that it becomes XO. Sometimes there’s also a vintage year.
Traditionally, the oak casks used in the aging process previously contained bourbon; when they are new they come from mainland France. The bourbon barrels, with their charred interiors, darken the rum and impart tannins and complex flavors to the liquor. Blending is an essential step that gives the rum a distinctive and consistent taste. Each cellar master has his secrets so that, while the flavor of Martinique rhum agricole is unique, it nevertheless differs from one distillery to another, depending on where the sugarcane was grown, which distillation column was used, its aging, and who the cellar master who did the blending was. The unique character of rhum vieux is all the more important since most of these aged rums are not used in cocktails or punch but are drunk as digestifs.
For white rums, the dominant flavors are floral and fruity, with citrus and pineapple predominating; white rums retain the aroma of sugarcane and occasionally that of cut grass and fennel. Aged rums tend more toward the roasted aromas: coffee, cocoa and tobacco; also spices, especially cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves; preserves and dried fruits and, depending on the aging, vanilla and wood aromas.
Four distilleries not to be missed:
Visit this establishment to admire the last distillation column made entirely of copper, the pride and joy of this family-run company. This is also the last distillery where you can bring back the empty bottles, whose unique shape earned them the nickname Zépol Karé. Neisson makes a benchmark white rum. Habitation Thieubert, le Coin de Carbet, 05.96.78.03.95
Above Saint-Pierre, the site overlooks the Caribbean Sea and the view alone is worth the trip. Visits are well organized and the company is famous for the warmth of its welcome. Plantation de la Montagne Pelée, Saint-Pierre, 05.96.78.13.14.
Far to the north, the smallest distillery produces some of Martinique’s best rums, a third of which are aged. Aging lasts a minimum of ten years and is done in casks. Every year the casks are emptied, the rum blended in stainless steel vats then returned to the barrels, so it can be bottled straight from the barrel. Habitation Bellevue, Macouba, 05.96.78.58.38.
Clément no longer distills in its original site, although the rum is barrel-aged in its storehouse. But the historic Domaine de l’Acajou is now a small museum devoted to the history of rum and the evolution of distillation methods. The charming maison de maître has been preserved, along with its furnishings, and the company’s foundation organizes exhibits of contemporary Caribbean artists. Domaine de l’Acajou, Quartier Frégate Le François, 05.96.54.62.07.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of France Today.