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.
Our ringleader and guide for today’s visit to Martinique’s Simon distillery is Ben Jones, North American Regional Director at Spiribam. The company owns the Rhum Clément and Rhum J.M brands, two of the best known Martinique AOC rhums. Located on the island’s southeast coast, the Simon distillery creates the raw rhum agricole for both the Rhum Clément and Habitation St. Étienne (HSE) lineups. It’s not at all uncommon for rhum distilleries to make distillate that end up in multiple brands; the economic perils of rhum production and massive consolidation of spirit producers (both in Martinique and worldwide) have driven numbers from hundreds of distilleries in the 19th century down to just seven operating on Martinique today.
Back to the cane. Quite literally fresh from the field, trailer-loads of cane segments are deposited in giant mounds in front of the distillery buildings. Front loaders push hundreds of pounds at a time into a pipeline of destruction. In the first stage, a rotating wheel studded with metal arms breaks the stalks into splinters. Next, an escalator-like contraption with knives pulls the splintered fragments past hot water sprayers. And finally, the now-pulp passes through a pair of sharply grooved rollers, the peaks and valleys tightly interleaved to squeeze out as much juice as possible. Put aside any notions you have of cane stalks fed by hand through a roller – when fresh cane juice is critical and you make millions of liters of rhum annually, keeping the grass-to-glass pipeline moving means tons of heavy equipment like that found at Simon.
Ben grabs a pitchfork and thrusts it into a stream of what looks like very coarse wet sawdust passing by us on a conveyer belt and holds out a sample for us to experience. It’s bagasse – what remains after the cane has been crushed, sprayed, and re-crushed multiple times to extract all the available sugar. After drying in the hot Caribbean sun in huge mounds next to the distillery building, bagasse powers the furnaces that make the steam used in four massive columns stills, constantly turning cane-juice wine into funky rhum agricole. Literally every part of the cane plant is used here–it’s hard to get any more eco-friendly than that!
Founded in the mid-1800s, the Simon distillery has been operated in recent years by Yves Hayot, a long-time resident of Martinique and one of the most influential players in the island’s agricultural community. In addition to sugar and rhum, Yves also oversees banana farming, not surprising since the two crops are frequently in a symbiotic rotation. Yves, who passed away recently (March 2017) at age 90, was also the owner of HSE, so its production at the Simon distillery is no great mystery. However, why Clément’s rhums are made here at Simon while its own nearby distillery sits silent is an interesting story we’ll return to a bit later.
Leaving the cane crushing menagerie, we ascend a set of stairs to a platform where we peer into giant vats filled with fermenting cane juice. Simon’s vats are in the 20,000 to 30,000 liter range, and there are 28 vats in total, including four “mother” vats acting as fermentation starters for the others. After fermenting 24 to 27 hours, the 5 percent ABV cane wine enters into one of four several stories tall column stills just a few meters away, and emerges as new-make rhum agricole.
Simon’s current set of column stills aren’t original to the distillery. Much like Guyana’s Demerara Distillers Limited, which acquired its stills from defunct distilleries, Simon has had stills from other, now defunct distilleries such as Habitation St. Étienne, J. Bally, and Clément at various times. At the moment, all four stills are from the Clément distillery. Some have a mixture of steel and copper plates, others have all copper plates. A still with all copper plates is optimal for rhum flavor, but copper is quite expensive. As Ben tells me the next day at the J.M distillery, it’s quite easy to drop several million dollars on an AOC-certified, all-copper column still.
Between the bubbling fermentation vats and the roaring column stills sit two glass tubes on a pedestal, resembling oversized Coleman camping lanterns. Inside, a stream of perfectly clear liquid gushes from the top of an internal tube. The fluid is raw distillate that’s just come from a nearby still. Ben grabs a few snifters, twists a valve to fill them, and passes them around. While bottled unaged agricole seems pretty hardcore at 100 to 110 proof range, we’ve got 140 proof agricole in our glass. It’s potent and a bit overwhelming in our nostrils, but as professional drinkers, we power through the burn and revel in the grassy funk. It couldn’t be any fresher – less than 48 hours ago the liquid in our glass was stalks of cane in a field, and it’s still warm from the still. Life is good!
Also on the raised platform is the distillery’s laboratory, which performs myriad vital tasks. For example, as each trailer load of cane arrives, about a wheelbarrow’s worth is pulled out, pressed, and the juice tested to measure its pH level and sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the more the farmers are paid– AOC regulations require a minimum brix level. Another AOC requirement is that the fresh agricole must have at least 225 grams per hectoliter of volatile elements, excluding ethanol and methanol. With an array of scientific equipment including a gas chromatograph at its disposal, the laboratory closely monitors all stages of the rhum production process.
Exiting the main distillery building, we pass the furnaces and two large, square metal doors. In the center of the doors is a faint reddish hue. I’m not sure at first, but the intense heat emanating from them makes it clear that they’re glowing from the heat. I mentally give thanks that I’m not the person who has to keep them running in the exceedingly hot, humid Martinique weather.
A few hours later, after a hearty lunch at Habitation Clément, the manor house overlooking the estate, Ben stands at the front door and pulls out his cell phone. He locates a photo and holds it in the open doorway for us to see. The photo, taken about thirty years ago, shows a young Ben Jones standing in the very room before us. You see, Ben (full name: Benjamin Mélin-Jones) isn’t just a regional director at Clément’s parent company, Spiribam. He’s also a fourth generation descendent of Homère Clément, who purchased the 43 hectares of Domaine de L’Acajou in 1887 to create the Clément estate. How Ben came to represent four historic rhum brands is anything but the typical story of each generation passing along the reins to their children. Hang tight as I spin through the story of two families over 130 years in just a few paragraphs.
Homère Clément was born on Martinique, educated as doctor in Paris, and returned to Martinique around 1887, at the height of the island’s sugar crisis. As explained in more detail here, the need for refined sugar from the island had dropped precipitously, and farmers were stuck with cane crops they couldn’t sell. Despite no particular credentials in the distillation business, Homère became an early advocate for creating rhum from fresh cane juice rather than molasses, utilizing the small, existing distillery on the estate. You can date the birth of rhum agricole to this difficult time in the island’s history.
In 1891, he married Marie Mélin, the great aunt of Ben Jones. Over time, Homère’s stature on the island grew, and he became mayor of his town. As one of the island’s sole surviving leaders after the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, he became Martinique’s representative in the French national assembly. In 1917, a larger distillery, which you can still see today, was built on the estate. Naturally, Homère’s descendants took over after this death and kept the business going for many decades. Let’s pause now in 1987, in the midst of more recent financial turmoil: The Clément legacy is under siege and in the sights of Remy Cointreau, who aspires to a hostile takeover of the Clément enterprise.
Faced with losing their family legacy, the Clément family turned to a “white knight,” an extremely wealthy friend with deep Martinique roots, Bernard Hayot. If the surname rings a bell, it’s because Bernard is the younger brother of Yves Hayot, of the Simon distillery. Bernard made a sizable fortune assembling a conglomerate of companies across many industries, including automobiles and food processing. Known today as Groupe Bernard Hayot (aka “GBH”), the company owns companies like Carrefour, a major French supermarket chain, as well as the Rhum Clément and Rhum J.M brands.
Bernard Hayot is extremely proud of his Martinique roots and in preserving the island’s legacy. As such, he turned much of Clément estate grounds into a historic site with spectacular gardens, rhum aging warehouses, and a wealth of modern art, both large and small scale. Today, the estate is among the most visited locations on the island. When we arrived, there were countless schoolchildren wandering the grounds on a field trip. And lest you think this is some small-scale operation with a few picnic tables, the estate was the location of a 1991 summit meeting between François Mitterrand and George H.W. Bush.
With so many people visiting the estate, rhum production–and its requisite stream of cane trucks and cane crushing–is essentially impractical. However, the nearby Simon distillery was a fine place to move the rhum production, especially since Bernard’s brother Yves was running the show there. In 1989, the Clément crown jewels, the Creole column stills, were moved to Simon, where they make rhum today. Now, aging your rhum is a much more tourist-amenable activity, and today five aging warehouses reside on the estate. The average tourist is able to observe the barrels aging at a safe distance through open doors.
Ben Jones Returns to the Fold
Now let’s turn our attention to Ben and how he became a major force in today’s rhum agricole world. If you pick up a bottle of rhum agricole in the U.S. today, odds are it’s here because of one of two people, and Ben is one of them. (The other is the Ministry of Rum’s Ed Hamilton, a great story for another time.) While young Ben and his mother visited the estate a few times while it was still owned by his mother’s family in the 1980s, Bernard purchased it around the time Ben was eight. Thus, Ben’s eventual rise in the agricole world was far from predestined.
A product of a Maine upbringing and a prestigious, New England private college education where he played sports, the tall, dashing, and athletic Ben seemed destined for a career on Wall Street. However, the events of September 11th shifted those plans, and Ben’s interest turned toward the beverage industry. Starting at Portland’s Allagash, he performed nearly every job there at one time or another, learning the business inside and out, all while tending bar on the side. He then migrated into the world of wine, building up a local importer’s business.
The Clément brand had been in the U.S. off and on since the 1950s. By 2004, it hadn’t been imported for a while, and GBH decided it was time to reenter the U.S. market. When it was last imported, Marcel-Andre Clément, Homère’s youngest grandson had handled the U.S. market, but he was looking to retire. Keeping things in the family seemed prudent, and soon, young Ben found himself in charge of Rhum Clément USA, tasked with rebuilding the brand’s presence in the U.S. Starting with a photocopied sheet of contacts from Marcel, Ben hit the bricks and early on met (the now legendary) bartender Dale DeGroff, who was overjoyed that Clément was coming back to the states, and helped Ben expand his connections.
Around the time Ben was re-launching Clément, its parent company, GBH, was renovating and upgrading the Rhum J.M distillery, which it had purchased in in 2002. By 2008 the distillery’s rhum was ready to unveil stateside, so Ben took on the J.M brand as well, despite still being a mostly one-man operation.
In 2013, a partnership between GBH and the owners of Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau brought that brand under Ben’s domain in North America, then called the House of Agricole. While GBH doesn’t own Damoiseau, Ben’s company acts as the importer and promoter of the brand in the United States. If that weren’t enough to keep Ben and his small crew busy, in 2016 GBH purchased St. Lucia distillers. This brought a fourth r(h)um brand under Ben’s U.S. control, now called Spiribam. To briefly recap: Rhum Clément USA, House of Agricole, and Spiribam are all incarnations of Ben’s North American import operations since 2004.
Part of Ben’s efforts to promote his brands and agricole in general is bringing groups of bartenders and industry professionals to Martinique and Guadeloupe during the cane harvest. They see firsthand exactly why rhum agricole is so special. One of these expeditions is how I found myself tagging along with a (substantially younger) group of bartenders, bouncing among the distilleries in the spring of 2017. Consider these posts my class project.
Around the Clément Estate
Arriving at the Clément estate, the gleaming, metal-sided modern building looming over the tour busses in the parking lets you know you’re not at an operational distillery.
Arriving at the estate, the beautiful grounds create a sense of calm. Exotic trees sway alongside paths leading around a small lake and outdoor art. Ben and the facility’s tourism director lead us through, stopping at each sculptural piece and explaining its significance. All around us are very unusual plants, many of which I’d never seen anything like before, like these amazing silver palm trees:
In time, we come to an aging barn where Simon distillery–produced rum slumbers for many years. Tourists can peer through an open door at the barrels, but with Ben as our guide, we march right in and find a table set up for us with exceptional rhums for us to sample. Soon, we’re joined by Gaelle Hardy, Clément’s director of quality control, and cellar master Robert Peronet, who are here to give a very detail-oriented tasting.
It’s stifling hot as we stand among thousands of barrels, each stenciled on their ends with Homère’s visage. As we taste through the special rhums set out for us, we learn that Clément has approximately 12,000 barrels aging over five warehouses on site. All Clément rhum starts out in new American oak barrels before moving to ex-bourbon barrels. Some of the rhum eventually makes its way into virgin French-oak casks of around 220 liters.
As I sweat profusely in the heat, it’s easy to believe that the angel’s share here is around eight percent a year. However, it’s minimized by keeping the barrels full, topped up with rum from other casks of the same vintage. While the rum comes off Simon’s still at around 70 percent ABV, it’s diluted down to 64 percent prior to casking. Over each subsequent year in a cask, its ABV drops another two percent. A little math tells you it’s hard to age much longer than twelve years before the ABV drops below 40 percent, the lowest allowed for Martinique AOC.
A bit tipsy after all the tasting we’ve just experienced, we wander through more of the estate grounds along the way to the Habitation itself – the manor house whose image adorns Rhum Clément’s labels. I’d always pictured it being a bit larger, and standing all alone near a sugar cane field. In reality, it’s at the high point of a small hill, loosely surrounded by trees and overlooking a small cane field in one direction and the (now defunct) distillery in the other. A lovely Ti Punch bar awaits our arrival, and in short order, we’re enjoying a spectacularly delicious lunch using the good china. So fancy, we are!
Coming full circle through the main part of the estate, a short post-lunch walk down the hill brings us to the art gallery. Bernard Hayot is a huge patron of the arts, and the newly built, multi-level gallery is chock full of modern pieces, including several on loan from prestigious Parisian museums. An interesting architectural detail of the entryway is the wall covered in a stylized, repeating block pattern. Ben has to point out to me that the blocks create the letters “HC” (Homère Clément’s initials). (Mrs. Wonk thanks Ben for stepping in and doing her job of pointing things out while she wasn’t able to attend this trip.)
Nearby is a small museum displaying distillery artifacts, including a small original Creole column still, barrel-end stencils, and an enormous oak aging vat, cut away to expose its insides. The real treat, however, is a small room with wire storage cages holding hundreds of vintage Rhum Clément bottles in neat rows, still full and labeled with dates like 1950, 1952, 1966 (Hey, that’s my year!) and 1970. Oh, to wrangle one of those bottles free from its cage!
As it so happens, no such extreme effort is required. Adjoining the museum is the Clément rhum shop, where you’ll find a very extensive set of the company’s rhums. One shelf holds just a few bottles, each in a stately box. For the small price of €1,250, you can own a bottle of 1952 vintage Clément rhum. Not within your budget? The 1970 is only €565, and the 1976 is practically being given away at only €220. It’s a good thing there was only one suitcase.
One might think that after a full day at the Simon distillery and a VIP visit to the Clément estate, everyone in our group would be ready for a long nap. That wasn’t to be though, as the rhum-hounds in our group (raises hand) desperately wanted to visit a large rhum shop to pick up more goodies to carry home. It’s not entirely a coincidence that we stop at an insanely enormous Carrefour store near Fort de France. Think high-class Walmart with French panache. Normally, mega-markets aren’t known for their rhum agricole selections, but here on Martinique? C’est magnifique!
Well-stocked with bagricole from the day’s adventures, we enjoy a relaxing dip in the ocean at our hotel’s beach. Desperately tired but ecstatic from the day’s adventures, I finally catch some shut-eye. We’ll be up early for the next day’s rhum adventure: Rhum J.M, perhaps the most beautiful distillery you’ll ever see. Stay tuned!