In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. As a prelude to my individual distillery write-ups, this post introduces the key concepts of French agricole rhum. I’ll build from these topics in the individual distillery articles.
Within the rum world, once you move past Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan, the brands drawing most of the attention hail from the former colonies of England and Spain – think Havana Club, Mount Gay, Appleton, El Dorado, or Brugal. Somewhere in the distance behind them (with regard to general awareness) are the offerings from the French outposts in the Caribbean. The cane spirits of the French West Indies struggle to crack the consciousness of the casual rum consumer, who’d be hard pressed to name a single brand from Martinique or Guadeloupe. And that’s unfortunate, as the French islands in the Caribbean offer some of the most flavorful and authentic close-to-the-soil distilled spirits available anywhere.
My point is driven home quite forcefully inside an obscenely hot, noisy distillery building on the side of a volcano at the northern tip of Martinique. Fifteen meters above, a flatbed trailer tilts its load, spilling a flood of foot-long cane stalks into the jaws of a menacing shredder, chewing away just below my feet. An hour earlier I was plunging through a sugar cane field at the wheel of a giant harvesting combine, mowing down ten-foot high stalks of cane. A tractor-pulled trailer shadows a few feet behind, collecting the cut stalks shooting from the back of the combine. When the trailer is full (and it fills quickly), it motors off to the distillery a few kilometers away, depositing the just-cut cane into the aforementioned shredders.
Shortly after the machinery finishes shredding and crushing the cane fibers multiple times, the resulting juice is approved by laboratory analysis and finds its way into one of several bubbling fermentation vats. It will reside there for about a day before being piped into a giant column still to become rhum. It’s primal, grassy, vegetal funk instantly recognizable to rhum aficionados.
The whole process is very different than what occurs at a distillery like Hampden Estate in Jamaica, where raw molasses may sit in tanks for months, and fermentation might last up to a month. French rhum production is très rapide–very fast, fresh, and immediate.
The French designate their rhum made from fresh cane juice as agricole (“agricultural”) to differentiate it from molasses-based industriel rhum, with all its associated negative connotations. Alternatively, you may see molasses-based rhum referred to as traditionnel, implying a bit less distaste for the process. Incidentally, the “h” in rhum holds no special implications about the style of cane spirit. It’s simply the French spelling, in the same way that the Spanish call cane distillate ron.
A living cane stalk in a rolling green field becomes fresh, agricole rhum in less than 48 hours on average. Let the cut cane sit around for any longer than it needs to and the resulting rhum takes on unpleasing flavors. For this reason, the distilleries coordinate closely with local cane farmers to highly schedule cutting, avoiding large surpluses arriving at the distillery or deficits in production time. And when all the cane’s been harvested, which typically takes less than three months in the spring, the distilleries are effectively done for the year, as cane takes a year to grow to maturity. Most distilleries don’t bring in cane syrup or molasses to keep the distillery operating through summer, fall, and winter.
In my travels through other rum producing islands, I’ve witnessed cane fields here and there–some quite large, yet it was noteworthy when travelling past a cane field. The rise of massive sugar production in countries like Brazil, India, and China have relentlessly driven down the price of sugar in the world market. Onetime sugar heavyweights like Jamaica and Barbados struggle to compete, and producers there regularly lose money or barely break even, so they grow less and less sugar. Less local sugar growing means less molasses to be had–so little, In fact, that major rum producers in these islands can’t get enough locally made product and must import it.
In contrast, as I travelled though Martinique and Guadeloupe, every square meter of arable land was chock full of cane stalks, banana trees, or some other harvestable plant. The French rhum producers simply won’t allow (or in the case of Martinique, aren’t allowed) to use sugar from any place other than their island. Rhum is naturally quite popular there as well as on the French mainland, so the distilleries have a voracious need for local sugar cane. The price of white table sugar on the global market is irrelevant here: Sugar isn’t the goal. What’s needed is fresh-squeezed cane juice from a farm just down the road.
How Did French Style Rhum Come to Pass?
At one point in the Caribbean’s distant past, rum was made in an essentially similar way across all the islands, regardless of their European heritage. Cane was cut, crushed, and boiled to extract the valuable sugar, leaving behind molasses as a byproduct. As a secondary economic activity, sugar estates fermented the molasses and ran it through pot stills to create rum. However, two significant events–one political, the other natural–altered the French island’s approach to rum making.
In the early 1800s, England and France were at war, and shipping blockades made it challenging to get sugar from the French Caribbean territories back to the motherland. In response, Napoleon strongly promoted a focus on European-grown sugar beets to fulfill the country’s sugar needs. These efforts were successful enough that by the 1870s, the need for sugar from the Caribbean territories had diminished drastically. Plantations closed at a rapid clip, workers went unemployed, and the local economies crashed. With little need for refined sugar, the remaining plantations simply stopped bothering to undergo the laborious process of separating sugar from molasses. It’s far less effort to simply ferment raw cane juice directly, and the yields are higher, as there’s more fermentable sugar in raw cane juice than in molasses.
By this point in history’s stream, the column still had been invented and widely adopted. Specialized versions of column stills optimized for extracting alcohol from the very plentiful beet sugar made their way to the French islands. Further adoption of these stills to favor rhum flavor over maximum alcohol extraction lead to what’s now known as the Creole column still, a hallmark of French rhum production. I will get to the details of this type of still in a bit.
The second major event driving the French islands toward today’s agricole style was the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée, which killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed the important port city of Saint-Pierre. As Martin Cate posits in his Smuggler’s Cove book, many of the larger distilleries near the volcano were molasses-based, and following their destruction, smaller and more rural cane juice–based distilleries filled the gap.
The First World War severely diminished France’s ability to create home-grown spirits, so the French islands jumped into the breach, vastly increasing their spirit exports to Europe and further solidifying the canonical flavor profile of rhums from the French islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Marie Galante.
Expecting a similar jump in exports during World War II, the French islands ramped up production, only to encounter new blockades. Left with plenty of rum that couldn’t be easily exported, the distilleries wisely began storing the rum in casks, effectively creating the first large-scale stores of aged French rhum. Thus, the premiumization of agricole style rhum began in earnest. The venerated Rhum Clément 1952, still available today if you have around $1000 itching to be spent, is perhaps the best known example from that era. I’ll talk more about aged agricole in subsequent distillery write-ups.
Despite the rise of agricole-style rum in the French West Indies from around 1880 onward, it wasn’t until the 1960s that molasses-based rum production on Martinique diminished rapidly. Today, just one molasses-based distillery on Martinique remains – Le Galion S.A.E.M., which is both a sugar refinery and distillery. In an interesting twist, they make a rhum known as Grand Arome that’s highly funky and has a production process similar to what’s used in Jamaica to create super–high ester rum. Grand Arome rhum is a particularly special ingredient in Denizen’s Merchant Reserve rum, designed to replicate the rum flavors in an early Mai Tai iteration.
Introducing the Martinique AOC
While there’s a well understood flavor profile to French rhums, the result of fresh cane juice and creole column distillation, the rhum from one island in particular demands even more scrutiny. These rhums, from Martinique, are protected and regulated by an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, more conveniently known as an AOC.
The French are extremely rigorous about regulations protecting their national treasures like wine, spirits, and cheese. There are dozens of AOCs for French products, including Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, Champagne, Roquefort cheese, and many others. Among them is a particular AOC for rhums made on the island of Martinique.
In other parts of the world, the equivalent of an AOC designation is the geographical indicator, or GI. In the world of American-made spirits, regulations about what can be labeled “bourbon” are the best known example of an AOC or GI equivalent. The purpose of these designations isn’t to make life difficult for producers. Rather, it’s to protect those producers from outside interlopers making an inferior product and passing it off as something that cannot compare to the original. Would you feel duped by a Canadian-made rum labeled as Jamaican rum? Or Brazilian-made “bourbon”? The AOC and GIs are the government-enforced regulations that prevent such travesties from hitting the store shelves and the wallets of unsuspecting consumers.
While Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Marie Galante all make French-style agricole rhums, only rhum from Martinique can use the Martinique AOC, assuming the spirit meets all the conditions therein. This doesn’t mean that a producer can’t make a rhum nearly identical to a Martinique AOC-labeled rhum; it just can’t use the Martinique AOC designation. In practice, rhums from Guadeloupe and Marie Galante don’t deviate terribly from the Martinique AOC, but a few do: Guadeloupe’s Damoiseau distillery distills to 85 percent ABV, ten percent higher than the maximum 75 percent ABV allowed by the Martinique AOC.
Being a product of France, the Martinique AOC is naturally written in French. Thus, non-English speaking rhum enthusiasts like myself hear bits and pieces of it from our French-speaking friends and believe we have a general understanding of what’s allowed and non-allowed. Nonetheless, I would occasionally stumble across yet another esoteric part of the AOC (allowed irrigation dates, anyone?) and felt like I was missing something. Searching via Google finds lots of AOC summaries, but I wanted to read the entire AOC regulations myself.
Eventually I found a PDF of the Martinique AOC, ratified in 1996. Unfortunately, Google Translate doesn’t magically translate image-based PDFs, so I put my techie roots to work, and after many laborious hours, I had a full English-language translation of the AOC. A subsequent post will provide the full translated document, but for now, here’s a section-by-section recap of the critical elements of the AOC.
The Cocktail Wonk Abbreviated Martinique AOC
Here’s my take on summarizing a translation of all the relevant parts of each section from the Martinique AOC. Any errors are of course, mine.
Article 1: Definition
In order to be called Rhum Agricole, it must meet the conditions below.
Article 2: Geographical Area
The production area must be within the 23 areas designated on Martinique:
Borough of Fort-de-France: The communes of Carbet, Fort-de-France, Lamentin, Saint-Joseph, Saint-Pierre;
Arrondissement of La Trinité: The communes of Basse-Pointe, Gros-Morne, Lorrain, Macouba, Marigot, Robert, Sainte-Marie, La Trinité;
Arrondissement du Marin: The communes of the Diamant, Ducos, François, Marin, Rivière-Pilote, Rivière-Salée, Saint-Esprit, Sainte-Luce, Trois-Ilets and Vauclin.
Article 3: Area of Cane Cultivation
The cane must be harvested in a designated production area, specified by the regulations above.
Article 4: Raw material (cane)
There is a list of allowed cane varietals that can be used. This list is approved by a national committee.
Harvesting must be between January 1st and the 31st of August.
Irrigation is limited to the four months following the cutting or planting of the cane.
Spreading substances on cane fields to promote growth is prohibited.
The average yield of a parcel may not exceed 120 metric tons per hectare.
Article 5: Raw material (juice)
Only fresh juice from good quality cane can be used.
The minimum brix (sugar level) is 14, and minimum pH is 4.7.
These minimum values can be adjusted by a committee based on weather data, as needed.
The methods of measuring brix and pH of the juice of each batch of cane are approved by the national committee of wines and eaux-de-vie.
The use of cane syrup or molasses is prohibited.
Article 6: Process for extracting cane juice
The processes allowed for extracting cane juice are approved by a committee.
Extraction must be by cold, mechanical pressure.
The working width of the grinding “roller” mills must be less than 1.25 meters.
All the extraction must be done at room temperature using only water, or remaining juices from a prior crushing.
The suspended matter must be removed from the juice by sieving or other mechanical means.
Hot liming (heating and treating to aid extraction) is prohibited.
Article 7: Fermentation
Fermentation must be discontinuous, in an open tank no greater than 500 hectoliters. (50,000 liters, or 13,200 gallons.)
The yeast must be of the genus Saccharomyces.
Addition of the yeast must be by:
- Mother Tank
- Leftover yeast at the base of a prior batch
- Centrifuged yeasts
Fermentation cannot exceed 72 hours, and the temperature cannot exceed 38.5 C. (But see note below.)
Article 8: Distillation columns
Distillation must be in columns.
Heating is steam-injection to the column.
The column width must be between 0.7 and 2 meters.
Rectification: This part of the still must have between 5 to 9 copper trays. (Note: These are above the wash injection point.)
Stripping: This part of the still must have at least 15 stainless steel or copper trays. (Note: These are below the wash injection point.)
Reflux must be carried out by one or more copper-based wine heaters or condensers.
Rectification (a second distillation) is prohibited.
Article 9: Separation of production
If a distillery makes both AOC and non-AOC products, the operations must be carried out to guarantee absolute separation of the products, so that non-AOC compliant rhum is not mixed with AOC rhum.
Article 10: Gross product
Rhum entering the spirits receiver must be between 65 percent and 75 percent ABV, measured at a temperature of 20 Celsius.
Volatile elements other than methyl and ethyl alcohol must exceed 225 g/hectoliter. (See note at end.)
Each distillery must have its production analyzed by a certified laboratory at least once per week.
Article 11: Finished product
For Blanc rhum: No coloring can be added, and it must rested for at least three months after distillation. If rested in oak, the resting cannot exceed three months.
If the rhum is aged in an oak wood container – See articles 12 and 13. (See note below.)
Blanc rhum with an AOC designation can’t be subsequently wood aged.
The minimum strength for an AOC rhum is 40 percent ABV.
Article 12: Rhum élevé sous bois definition
Aging must occur in the designated production areas in oak containers.
A government inspector certifies the aging.
The minimum age is twelve uninterrupted months.
No lab or organoleptic analysis can be carried out until at least the eleventh month.
Volatile elements other than methyl and ethyl alcohol must exceed 250 g/hectoliter after twelve months. (See note below.)
Article 13: Rhum vieux definition
Must be aged in the designated production area, the same as Article 12, above.
A minimum of three uninterrupted years, in oak containers of less than 650 liters (172 U.S. gallons).
Volatile elements other than methyl and ethyl alcohol must exceed 325 g/hectoliter after twelve months. (See note below.)
Article 14: Product declaration
Rhums labeled with the AOC designation cannot be sold without a certificate of approval.
However, there is an exemption for transferring new rhum from a distillery to a separate aging facility.
Article 15: Labeling requirements
Rhums sold with the AOC designation must say Appellation d’origine controlee very clearly.
The term Agricole rhum should be used when referring to the rhum and must appear alongside Martinique.
The words blanc or vieux must also appear clearly near the AOC designation.
Article 16: Misrepresentation
Implying that a rhum is entitled to an AOC designation when it’s not is fraud and subject to persecution.
In a drink composed of AOC rhum and non-AOC rhum, the resulting mixture loses the AOC designation.
Article 17: Transitional measures
Startup provisions for immediately after the 1996 AOC approval. Producers had four months to apply for certification. Existing aged stocks could be lab tested and certified.
Article 18: Enforcement
Various government officials are responsible for enforcing these regulations.
Additional notes — Not part of the specification.
Volatile components: These are the flavor components of the rhum. The 225 grams/hectoliters guarantees a fairly healthy amount of agricole character, as opposed to say, a vodka. Note that the volatile numbers cited in the AOC are a very different measurement than the “ester counts” touted by Jamaican producers, which only measure one particular volatile component. (Ethyl acetate, for you wonks.)
Amendments: After the 1996 AOC approval, a few changes to the AOC were made. I cannot find an official source for these documents. However, the key changes include:
Fermentation times: Extended up to 120 hours, up from 72 in the original. This enables even more flavorful esters and their precursors to build up.
New age designations:
- Vieux – More than three years.
- Très Vieux, Réserve Spéciale, Cuvée Spéciale, VSOP – More than four years.
- Extra Vieux, Grande Réserve, Hors d’Age, XO – More than six years.
Overview of French Distilleries and Brands
Like the rest of the Caribbean, history has not been kind to the hundreds of distilleries that once populated the French West Indies hundreds of years ago. The majority closed or were consolidated into fewer, larger distilleries. Today, there are seven operating historical distilleries on Martinique, six on Guadeloupe, and three on Marie Galante.
It’s important to note that in some cases, a brand’s distillate is made at a different distillery. For example, Trois Rivières is distilled at La Manuy. Rhum Clément is distilled at Simon, but aging occurs at the Clément facility.
What follows are my summarized notes of what I believe are the active distilleries and their associated brands. The information on the internet is remarkably incomplete, inconsistent, or out-of-date. Some of the small distilleries don’t even appear to have web sites. If you find any errors or have documentable additions (with a link), do let me know!
There are a few sites that attempt to round up information across different distilleries, including:
And of course, the venerable Ministry of Rum, chock full of information, but possibly in need of a refresh:
Brands: Rhum Clément, Habitation Saint-Etienne (HSE)
Notes: Dates to the mid-1800s. Approximate capacity: 3 million liters per year. Since 1989, Clément rhums have been made at the Simon distillery. The original Clément stills were moved to Simon in 1989. The J. Bally stills were also moved here in 1989, but Bally seems to now distilled at St. James. After Habitation Saint-Etienne closed in 1989, the stills were moved here in 1994.
Distillery: St. James
Brand: Rhum St. James, J. Bally
Notes: Dates to 1765. May be the largest agricole rhum producer on Martinique. Belongs to La Martiniquaise, one of the world’s ten largest spirit companies. Previously owned by Rémy Cointreau.
Notes: Dates to 1845. Purchased by GBH (who also owns Rhum Clément) in 2002. Substantially upgraded and renovated. New column still added in 2016.
Distillery: La Mauny
Brands: La Mauny, Trois Rivières, Duquesne
Notes: Dates to 1749. In 2004, the stills from the Trois Rivières and Duquesne distilleries were moved to the La Mauny distillery. Those brands are each crafted on their original stills..
Note: Dates to 1931. One of the smaller distilleries. Family owned. Uses a long fermentation for more flavor.
Distillery: La Favorite
Brands: La Favorite
Notes: Dates to 1842.
Brands: Depaz, J. Bally
Notes: Dates to 1917. Distillery rebuilt after the Mount Pelée explosion in 1902. Now owned by La Martiniquaise. There are conflicting reports as to whether J. Bally is distilled at Depaz or St. James.
Notes: Dates to 1779. Or 1928. Now owned by La Martiniquaise. May only be an aging/and or bottling facility now. This source claims Dillon rhum is distilled at Depaz.
Notes: Acquired by the Damoiseau family in 1942. The largest distillery on Guadeloupe, producing over 50 percent of the island’s rhum. Produces molasses-based bulk rum when sugar is not in season.
Distillery: Espérance /Mon Repos
Brands: Longueteau. Karukera
Notes: Dates to 1895.
Notes: Dates to 1887.
Distillery: Domaine Séverin
Brands: Domaine de Séverin
Notes: Dates to 1928.
Notes: Dates to 1930.
Notes: Dates to 1916.
Brands: Domaine de Bellevue
Notes: 1.2 million liters rhum per year.
Brands: Pére Labat
Notes: Dates to 1860. 400,000 liters of rhum per year.
Notes: Dates to the end of the 18th century.
To keep this cheat sheet from growing any larger, I’ve deliberately left out the country of Haiti, which makes high quality agricole-style rhum but is an independent country and no longer part of France. As well, I’ve ignored the Réunion Island region of France, which also makes delicious agricole rhums.
While the Martinique AOC has a formal definition and should always be used correctly, the terms “agricole” and “agricole-style” have no official definition, which in turn causes inconsistent usage. Here’s my take: If you talk to rum experts and say “agricole rhum,” they’ll usually assume you’re referring to a cane juice-based rum from the French West Indies or another French territory like Reunion Island. It may not be Martinique AOC rhum, but it still has a well-understood production method and flavor profile.
Lately however, various producers–many with no French connection whatsoever–have started calling their products agricole because they’re made from sugar, sugarcane syrup, or evaporated cane juice rather than molasses. These rums frequently have little or no flavor similarity to French agricole rhum. The simple absence of molasses does not an agricole make! Josh Miller at Inu A Kena brilliantly skewers the faux-agricole producers in the article When is an Agricole Not an Agricole?
One particularly fun aspect of rhum on these islands results from their French pragmatism. Rhum is part of everyday life and unaged rum is remarkably cheap, so selling it in 700 ml glass bottles just doesn’t make sense when buying liters at a time. Thus, many of the major players sell their inexpensive rhums in two- or three-liter boxed mylar balloons, similar to boxed wine. Naturally, these bags of agricole have been dubbed “bagricole” and are particularly popular with the bartender crowd for reasons you can easily imagine.
Stay tuned for future posts, including the full translated Martinique AOC regulations, and inside Habitation Clément, Rhum JM, the Simon distillery, and Damoiseau.