It’s a muggy, fog-flecked morning, and the rainforest smells like rum. The air smells of bananas, too—not surprising, given the hundreds of acres of fruit farms we’ve driven past on the winding mountain road to Macouba from Saint-Pierre. As I look downhill from the roadside pullout, the thick gnarl of vegetation below is a dark, feral green, peppered with the punctuation of red-and-white ashanti-blood blossoms and golden trumpet. Curling up from the clearing below are traces of a festive funk, a sweet and vegetal whiff of fresh sugarcane and old rum—the former from the cane being crushed by the truckload in the Rhum JM distillery in the clearing; the latter emanating from the barrel-filled warehouses beyond the trees. Into the distillery go mounds of freshly cut cane stalks and out comes a fragrant, earthy, alluring spirit distinctive to Martinique.
Rum’s origins can be traced to the Caribbean, the archipelago curving from Cuba to Trinidad. Historically home to colonial rivalries and sprawling sugar plantations, the Caribbean islands each developed its own approach to making rum—but as those with a passion for this most diverse of spirits are increasingly discovering, perhaps no other island’s rum is so different from the others, and so engagingly evocative of its home island, as the rum that comes from Martinique. “If you look at the islands, which were isolated from each other, you’re going to have regional differences in the styles of rum—in the way they make it, and in their personal tastes,” says Ed Hamilton, publisher of the Ministry of Rum website and an evangelist for (and importer of) Martinique rum.
Hamilton notes that not only does Martinique rum taste different, but it’s distinctive enough to have the precise peculiarities of its production defined by law—a relatively novel concept for the freewheeling category of rum. “Martinique is the only geographic area in the rum industry that has its own AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] marque; that’s a big deal,” he says.
The neighboring French islands of Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante make near-identical styles of rum, but thus far, only Martinique has earned the AOC marque from the French government. (Haiti, once a French colony, produces a rum with some similarities.) This designation is rooted in the notion of terroir and denotes that a particular food or drink—such as the rich blue cheese from Roquefort or the sparkling wine from Champagne—is a regional specialty notable enough to merit its own identity.
The basis of Martinique rum’s character comes from the spirit’s inception. Almost all of the world’s rum is produced by fermenting and distilling molasses, a byproduct of the sugar industry; in Martinique and its neighboring French islands, the rum originates as the juice from fresh-cut sugarcane, taken directly from field to distillery to prevent spoilage. This direct link between land and bottle is evoked in this style of spirit’s name: rhum agricole, or agricultural rum, as distinguished from the more common rhum industriel. This use of a fresh, fragrant base material and a rigorously defined set of guidelines regarding its production and aging mean the rum readily expresses its distinctive character: young rhums are bold and grassy where molasses rums may be soft and sweet, and aged rhums have a crisp, earthy complexity more akin to whiskeys and brandies than to the vanilla-tinged richness of traditional rums.
The peppery vegetal fragrance of rum blends with the fresh-grass smell of the sugarcane as I look down at the Rhum JM distillery, situated on the northern tip of Martinique, where the sugarcane, banana farms and breadfruit trees flourish from the chocolate-dark volcanic soil at the foot of Mount Pelée. Long familiar to the French for its expressive character, rhum agricole is now catching the attention of American drinkers—and on this particular morning, it’s certainly caught mine.
A 436-square-mile expanse of land in the Lesser Antilles, Martinique was home to native Arawaks and Caribs when Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1502. In 1635, the island was claimed by the French; except for brief periods before and during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was occupied by the British, the island has remained in French hands ever since, and today Martinique is a departement of France. Though it’s geographically closer to Panama than to Paris, Martinique is fully a part of the French nation: its Euro-based economy is relatively robust compared to many of its Caribbean neighbors; it has a well-maintained public infrastructure of roads and utilities; and it has a distinctive culinary identity that seamlessly meshes the island’s French and Caribbean sides, with restaurants such as Le Petibonum serving French-Creole dishes like sautéed conch and a curry-like colombo made with banana-fed pork to tent-shaded diners on Carbet Beach, prepared by chef Guy Ferdinand, cross-culturally clad in a formal black chef’s coat and cutoff shorts.
As with many of its Caribbean neighbors, Martinique’s history is tied to the influence of sugarcane; the valuable crop was first planted here around 1640. Sugar plantations soon covered much of Martinique, from the misty, mountainous forests around Mount Pelée in the north to the drier, flatter regions in the island’s south. Planters (among them the family of Joséphine de Beauharnais, a Martinican who became the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and, in 1804, the Empress of France) and merchants grew powerful from sugar’s sweet largesse; but its cultivation also had an aspect of intense ugliness, in the form of the institution of slavery that forced thousands to labor in the cane fields before it was finally abolished in 1848.
Cane’s power plummeted in the mid-19th century, and with it went Martinique’s fortunes. Seeking ways to make a profit from the island’s most prominent crop, distillers began the large-scale production of rum directly from sugarcane, removing the sugar factory (the source of molasses) from the standard equation. By the early 1900s, the island’s distilleries were booming, and the capital city of Saint-Pierre was once again rich and cultured, the so-called “Paris of the Caribbean” with an 800-seat theater that hosted visiting performers from Europe. But on May 8, 1902, Saint-Pierre was almost totally destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée, a blast that killed all but a few of the city’s 30,000 inhabitants.
Today, the volcano’s verdant summit rises above Saint-Pierre—after the eruption, the capital was moved south to Fort de France—and is shrouded in clouds for much of the year. The charred stone-and-cement foundations of the theater and the jail remain as reminders of the mountain’s power, and the city is now quiet and subdued, its streets bordered with bougainvillea and its once-promising future as ruthlessly broken as the bronze bell in the city’s volcano museum, squashed almost flat by the blast’s intense heat.
But while Saint-Pierre’s fortunes shifted, rhum agricole has held on, though the number of operating distilleries has shrunk dramatically, from around 75 in 1935 to seven today. Above the waterfront city, as the hills gradually rise to Mount Pelée, a grand sugarcane plantation manor, built in 1922 to replace the original structure destroyed by the volcano, is home to the Depaz distillery. In the estate’s grassy gardens, beneath the breadfruit and mango trees and with goats and cattle grazing near the fields of sword-leafed sugarcane, I get a glimpse of Martinique’s history and future, all rolled into one. “In Egypt, you visit pyramids; in Thailand, the temples,” says Lauren Brival, a Saint-Pierre guide who’s escorted me to the Depaz estate. “In Martinique, you visit the rum distilleries.”
With its sweeping hillside views down to the sea, Depaz may be a more scenic distillery than some; and while production and aging techniques may differ somewhat among the various Martinique distilleries, Depaz provides a good idea of the basics of rhum agricole production.
Owing to the tropical heat and humidity, much of the distillery is open at the sides, and on this late-spring day during sugarcane harvest, the place is humming. Fresh-cut sugarcane begins to ferment almost immediately; to control the process and capture the cane’s peak flavor, producers truck the cane directly from field to distillery. There, in a steam-powered, Steampunk-worthy process driven by flywheels, pistons and other Victorian-looking contraptions, the cane is chopped and repeatedly crushed. This extracts the murky vésou, or slightly fermented fresh juice, and leaves wispy strands of spent bagasse behind (this steam-driven machine is largely a closed-loop system; the dry, fibrous bagasse from one shipment of cane is used to fire the boilers to crush the next). The juice, smelling brightly of fresh-cut grass and tropical fruit, is then placed into a stainless-steel fermentation tank with yeast and allowed to ferment for anywhere between 24 and 72 hours (depending on the distillery and the style of rum), creating a lightly alcoholic grappe, or sugarcane wine. The wine is then distilled on “Creole-style” continuous column stills fitted with copper condensers, producing a potent white spirit of between 70 and 75 percent alcohol—much lower than traditional molasses-based rums. With less alcohol in the distillate, this means a greater portion of the fresh rum is composed of the various compounds that translate into flavor.
And somewhat surprisingly for such a fresh spirit, the flavor of the young rum is quite engaging—vigorously grassy and bright, with hints of sunshine and open fields. This bright flavor is most evident in rhum blanc, the young rum that’s rested in stainless-steel tanks for a few months before being diluted and bottled. Aged rhum agricole is matured in oak barrels—used bourbon barrels, French oak barrels or massive tuns, or some combination of these—and each distillery ages and blends rums to create particular expressions, ranging from the straw-hued rhum ambre and elevé sous bois, which spend a year or two in wood, to deeper, more delicate rhum vieux, which is at least three years old. Distilleries also make older XO and special-reserve selections, such as the vintage cuveés from Rhum JM, ranging up to La Favorite Cuveé Spéciale de la Flibuste, with rum aged more than 30 years.
Even with the tightly defined set of rules governing its production, this kind of flexibility in producing the finished rum provides room for creativity among Martinique distillers. For example, at the La Favorite distillery, which dates to 1842, distillers ferment some batches of rum for 48 hours, and other batches for 72; the shorter fermentation results in a rum that’s sweeter and fruitier, and is mostly sold to the local market, whereas the longer fermentation results in Coeur de Canne, a drier, bolder rum that’s largely exported.
There’s also some flexibility with raw materials; the rules governing production of Martinique rhum agricole stipulate that 12 varieties of sugarcane may be used. At the brightly pastel-colored Neisson distillery—the smallest on the island, and along with La Favorite, one of the only remaining family-owned distilleries in Martinique—between 9 and 11 varieties are typically used, and each variety interacts differently with the yeast during fermentation. Neisson keeps the fresh rum from each type of cane separate during a six-month rest in stainless-steel tanks following distillation; the rum is then blended like Champagne to create the desired characteristics.
A Taste for Rhum
In the cool of the morning at a beachfront market in Saint-Pierre, a fisherman deftly fillets a small shark with a long knife, and women stack cloth-covered tables with piles of papaya, bundles of canella, and bottles holding slender vanilla pods, segments of ginger or chunks of pineapple soaking in rum.
These small-batch infusions are about as ambitious as mixology gets in Martinique, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The island’s signature cocktail, the Ti’ Punch, is a simple preparation of sugarcane syrup and rhum agricole with a small squeeze of fresh lime. While the pink, guava-enhanced punch planter and other fruity drinks are found in hotel bars, and some restaurants and bars make noble efforts at bespoke cocktails, the Ti’ Punch is the overwhelming favorite on the island, for good reason: whether prepared with the heat and spark of a bright rhum blanc, the mellowed spice of elevé sous bois or, decadently, with an older, more contemplative expression of rhum agricole, the Ti’ Punch is unfailingly delightful, and the cocktail seeker is seldom left wanting.
Martinique may have once had exponentially more distilleries than are operating today, but the names that remain are increasingly familiar outside the island. Venerable brands such as Rhum Clément and Saint James can be found in American and European cocktail bars, and Neisson, La Favorite and Rhum JM are also finding ardent fans among rum-curious bartenders and drinkers. Rhum agricole is a favorite in classic tiki drinks, such as the Three Dots and a Dash and the Mai Tai, and today bartenders ranging from Rumba in Seattle to Hogo in Washington, D.C., are utilizing the spirit’s distinctive grassiness in a range of creative cocktails.
Enjoyed closer to its home, the ethereal flavor of aged rhum agricole benefits from a light touch. On a hotel deck overlooking the Caribbean, with the evening sun skewing tangerine as it meets the horizon, we toast the day with glasses of rhum vieux lightly softened with splashes of fresh coconut juice, purchased from a roadside vendor. The drink is fragrant and elemental, smelling and tasting of sun-soaked days in the tropics. It’s not complicated, but it is perfect—which is exactly what a day and a drink in the Caribbean should be.