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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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