Inside Havana Club’s Inner Sanctum: Ronera San José

In May 2017, I traveled to Cuba to immerse myself in the topic of Cuban rum as a guest of Havana Club. My two prior articles (Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet and The Many Lives of Havana Club) cover the broad strokes of Cuban rum and Havana Club’s history. Here, we’ll go inside a Cuban distillery and focus on the technical side of Cuban rum production.

We’ve been riding in the tourist coach for thirty minutes. Just outside of Havana, the highway scenery turns to lush, green farmland. Exiting the freeway I instinctively check my pocket for the umpteenth time – yes, my passport’s still there. The Havana Club handlers have repeatedly drilled us on this tenet in the preceding days: No passport, no admittance to the distillery. As an American–one of only two in our group of fifty–I’ve been forewarned that I might face an additional challenge. Extra paperwork and approval is required for Americans. I’d sent in my forms weeks ago, but who knows if the appropriate Cuban bureaucrat agreed to approve it?

Continue reading “Inside Havana Club’s Inner Sanctum: Ronera San José”

Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet

There’s a hint of mythology regarding Cuban rum – a certain cachet, a promise of elegance. Much as the mere mention of “Japanese whisky” gets the single-malt fanatic’s heart racing, the Cuban rums of yore hold a special meaning for rum connoisseurs. It hearkens us back to U.S. Prohibition, when thirsty Americans took a quick hop to Cuba to legally enjoy Cuban rums in the now classic drinks invented on the island: The Daiquiri. The Mojito. The El Presidente. In the fifty-plus years since America’s embargo on Cuban product began, its rum has become highly valued contraband, covertly acquired and doled out on the sly by generations of American imbibers.

Despite being cut off from the American market and its estimated forty percent of the world’s rum consumption, Havana Club and other Cuban rums are still the third most consumed Caribbean rum worldwide. They trail only Bacardi and Captain Morgan, if you can believe that. Bacardi was born in Cuba and the company still touts its Cuban roots and production processes first used in Cuba. Consider just Bacardi and Havana Club alone, it’s clear that Cuban “style” rum is far and away the most prevalent type of rum consumed today.

Continue reading “Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet”

Agricole Without the AOC – Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau

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.

Continue reading “Agricole Without the AOC – Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau”

Extreme Terroir at Martinique’s Rhum J.M

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.

It’s a warm, sunny morning on the northern slopes of Martinique’s Mount Pelée. In the distance, over a field of vividly green sugar cane stalks, lies the island of Dominica, floating in the calm, azure ocean. In the opposite direction, Pelée’s peak mingles with the clouds. By all accounts it would seem like a supremely calm, meditative moment. Except that I’m in the cab of an industrial combine, mowing down rows of sugar cane at a frightening pace. This is the first stop of our visit to Rhum J.M, and we’re experiencing exactly why J.M makes such a big deal about their unique terroir.

Rhum J.M, Martinique
Rhum J.M, Martinique

Continue reading “Extreme Terroir at Martinique’s Rhum J.M”

Agricole Immersion at Rhum Clemént and Distillerie du Simon

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.

For all the pastoral imagery put forth by rum makers–cane stalks softly swaying in the warm Caribbean breezes and stately oak barrels cradling their precious contents–modern rum production is messy, loud, and quite frankly, violent. Giant mechanical combines mow through fields of ten-foot-high cane stalks, sucking them in whole and spitting out a stream of foot long chunks, leaving the ground behind stubby and nearly bare. But the cane harvest is just a warmup for the main event.

Continue reading “Agricole Immersion at Rhum Clemént and Distillerie du Simon”

The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC

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.

Continue reading “The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC”