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. In this and other posts I describe a distillery we visited. If you’re not familiar with rhum agricole production, it’s highly suggested you start with this overview.
At Guadeloupe’s Damoiseau distillery, the last minutes of a cane stalk’s life are spent on a giant red escalator, lifting it thirty feet into the air before plunging the cane downward into a chute to meet the business end of a whirling shredder. All day during the cane harvest season, massive trucks trundle up to the base of the escalator to deposit ton after ton of freshly cut cane segments. This pipeline of just-cut cane turned into rhum in less than two days is the hallmark of the French-style of production, giving rhum agricole its distinctive flavor.
In my previous stories on Rhum Clément, Rhum J.M, and the Martinique AOC, I’ve outlined the very precise regulations that Martinique producers must follow to legally label their rhums with the Martinique Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (aka, the AOC). While Martinique and Guadeloupe are both overseas regions of France with roughly equivalent populations–and about the same number of distilleries–only Martinique producers can use the AOC designation. Without the strict confines of the AOC, Guadeloupe rhum producers aren’t asked to color within Martinique’s lines – making the island’s rhum production a bit more “wild west” compared to its island sibling to the south.
Of the nine distilleries of Guadeloupe (including the island of Marie Galante), Damoiseau is by far the largest, distilling around 55 percent of Guadeloupe’s overall rhum production. The distillery and the surrounding cane fields were purchased in 1942 by Roger Damoiseau, who streamlined and focused the existing nineteenth century distillery operations to concentrate on making rhum.
Today, Roger’s grandson Hervé runs the show, overseeing rhum production and the distillery’s expansion to keep up with increased demand. While Damoiseau obviously sells its products within Guadeloupe, it also ships a substantial amount to the French mainland.
In 2013, Damoiseau spirits became available in the United States, imported and marketed by Spiribam alongside the Rhum Clément and Rhum J.M brands. The exact relationship between the three brands is confusing, and it’s tempting to think they all have the same owner. Not true!
Here’s the simplified version of the relationship, as told to me by Benjamin Jones, North American director for Spiribam: Clément and J.M are owned by Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH), while Damoiseau is not. However, GBH and Damoiseau are partners in a mainland France enterprise known as Spiridom, which per Wikipedia is “… a common marketing structure for their products…” Thus, Spiribam, Clément, and J.M are all ultimately owned by GBH. Additionally, Spiribam acts as the importer and marketer for Damoiseau in the U.S.
Damoiseau’s core range includes unaged 80 and 110 proof rhums along with VSOP and XO expressions. In addition, they’ve released a small number of very limited special release editions, including Millésime (vintages) from 1980, 1989, 1991, and 1995. And while you’re on Guadeloupe you can buy unaged Damoiseau in “bagricole” form, a 4.5 liter box of rhum, a Caribbean cousin to boxed wine.
Walking from the visitor’s center to the distillery, it’s soon clear that Damoiseau’s ethos is to rarely discard its past. Nearly everywhere are rusted gears, retired cane crushing rollers, and other distillery equipment, along with old signs and marketing paraphernalia. Think I’m exaggerating? There’s a full-sized “cane train” locomotive in a parking lot, still brandishing its Damoiseau logo. The tracks are nowhere to be found, however.
As we approach the end of the distillery building, we come across a meter-wide grooved roller, completely covered in rust, resting on a stand. Large chunks of the roller’s ridges are jagged and missing large pieces, the victim of what can only be years of wear and tear. One might think that scrapping the roller and buying a new one is the prudent course, but instead a worker sits beside the roller with a welding torch and metal rods, painstakingly repairing each ridge.
Viewed from the hill above, it’s easy to visualize Damoiseau’s distillery building as a rhum pipeline – cane arrives on one end, rhum exits on the other. At one end of the long, open-sided building, just-cut cane arrives on trucks and trailers, entering the big red escalator for its ride to the top of the shredder chute. A series of grooved mill rollers wring out all the available juice from the cane, leaving wet bagasse as a byproduct. All told, the distillery processes around 30,000 tons of sugarcane per year. (Fun fact: As a whole, Guadeloupe processes around 650,000 tons per year.)
The cane juice, diluted with water added during the crushing process, next enters one of fourteen metal vats. The distillers add Damoiseau’s particular yeast strain and leave the vats to ferment for around 36 hours, around 50 percent longer than what we witnessed at Clément and J.M. The longer fermentation time leads to higher ester levels, and by the time fermentation has completed, Damoiseau’s cane “wine” is typically around six percent ABV.
Until very recently, Damoiseau’s distillation equipment featured two huge column stills, one with seventeen plates and the other with twenty-four. The rhum that comes off these stills is around 85 percent ABV, ten percent higher than would be allowed on Martinique for the AOC designation. The higher proof is just one example where Guadeloupe distilleries take their own path, separate from the Martinique AOC.
While Damoiseau is obviously famous for its agricole-style rhum from fresh-crushed cane juice, several sources indicate that in the off-season, Damoiseau continues to distill with a molasses-based mash. This makes economic sense–distillery equipment is expensive, and only using it for the three months of cane harvest season leaves potential profit on the table. It’s likely that this molasses-based distillate isn’t sold under the Damoiseau brand and may be sold as neutral cane spirit.
With these stills, the estimated output of the distillery is approximately 8 million liters of rhum per year. However, during our visit, a giant orange crane was parked next to the two columns, assisting in putting a third column into place, further boosting the capacity. While great for the distillery, the installation work prevented us from seeing some areas of the distillery, including our usual up-close-and-personal communing with the stills.
After distillation and resting, the unaged blanc rhum goes to the bottling line, which Damoiseau houses on site in a separate building. The equipment is fairly modern and computerized, and after watching it for a while, we’re greeted by Hervé himself. Soon, we’ll be enjoying cocktails and lunch at his house a few hundred yards away. But for now, we have more of the distillery to see! In a dimly lit corner of the building, a lone employee sits at a machine, filling plastic bags with unaged rhum and inserting the filled bags into the cardboard box. Hardly glamourous work, but people need their bagricole!
Rhum intended for aging makes a several-year detour before hitting the bottling line. With Hervé leading the way, we enter the aging warehouse, which is chock full of ex-bourbon barrels in racks, like a Kentucky rickhouse, as well as huge oak vats holding around 20,000 liters each. If you look closely at the ex-bourbon barrels, you’ll see familiar names like Buffalo Trace stenciled on the side. We Americans sure have a way of popping up all over the globe! The aging warehouse is incredibly hot and we’re all sweating mercilessly, so we don’t dwell there longer than necessary.
Our final stop before heading to Hervé’s beautiful home overlooking the estate is a large stone windmill that’s in remarkably good shape, only missing the vanes. Inside, a shaft runs from the top of the windmill down to a set of vertical wooden rollers, connected by gears. In the distant past, when the wind blew, the shaft turned the rollers while slave workers fed cane stalks to crush them and extract the juice — a much cruder method than the multistep process used today. As a gruesome side note, our guide told us that workers would sometimes get their arms caught up in the rollers, so a nearby worker was always ready with a sword to lop off the trapped worker’s arm. A very sobering reminder of rhum’s human cost.
Before departing the distillery, we all made a pilgrimage to the very well stocked gift shop. Damoiseau’s mainstream products are all available at insanely low prices, along with a good selection of local foods and crafts. What we were after, however, were the limited edition vintage rhums. For me, with limited suitcase space by this point, it was a hard choice between the Millésime 1989 and Millésime 1995. Ultimately, I picked the 1995, a blend of cane juice and molasses rhums, aged for fifteen years and bottled at an eye-watering 66.9 percent ABV. No rhum review here, but suffice it to say, it’s a powerhouse!
Coming just two days after visiting Rhum J.M in Martinique, it was very enlightening to see how different Damoiseau is. While both make agricole rhum, they exist on opposite ends of the agricole-style production spectrum. While J.M is very modern, upscale and artisanal, Damoiseau is unapologetically a rhum factory – it’s easy to imagine that it doesn’t look much different than it did seventy years ago. If you’re any sort of agricole enthusiast and find yourself on Guadeloupe, it’s well worth checking it out to see rhum production on a very large scale.