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.
Our long morning drive from the south of Martinique to the northernmost region took us past many varied landscapes, most of them relentlessly green. Nearing our first stop of the day, we’re surrounded by a seemingly endless carpet of cane fields, bisected by narrow access roads and the occasional small cluster of buildings.
Spilling out of our bus, our group is met by Francis Hayot, J.M’s estate manager and director of agriculture. If you read my prior post on Rhum Clément, you may remember Bernard and Yves Hayot; Francis is also part of this prolific clan. His engaging personality, trim physique, and assuredness with a machete makes it clear that he’s a hands-on, in-the-fields manager rather than a desk dweller. In short order we’re standing in a newly cut field, covered in what looks like hay. He kneels down and pulls aside a bit of the ground covering to expose a few nubs barely protruding from the ground. Earlier that morning they were ten-foot stalks of cane.
In the distance hulks a bright green harvester, looking straight out of a Transformers comic. Huge metal “screws” ten feet long, jut out from the front like fangs, angling down to the ground. Extending out over them, a circular saw blade lops off the leafy top of the cane before metal jaws under cab devour stalks whole and then spit them out as 30 cm pieces through a chute in the back. Once engaged and mowing through a row of cane stalks, the harvester is terrifyingly loud and incredibly efficient at cutting the cane close to the ground for maximum yield. Francis tells us that these machines are very similar to the combines used in Europe for harvesting grain.
The Rhum J.M distillery uses red, blue, and yellow cane varietals for its rhum. The field we’re standing in is blue cane, or in French, canne bleu. (If you’ve ever wondered where Rhum Clément’s Canne Bleu gets its name from, here’s your answer.) This particular area of Martinique is particularly bountiful for cane growth – yields are much higher here than in the south. And there’s no need for irrigation, with its plentiful natural rainfall. The fields owned by J.M yield about 80 to 100 tons of cane per hectare.
The land around us sloping downward towards the ocean is mostly flat, making the cane readily harvestable by machinery. The team working here can cut 200 tons of cane per day on average. More rugged landscapes are harvested by hand, the same way it’s been done for centuries. A single person cuts around two tons per day. It’s grueling work, as we experienced firsthand when each of us took a turn with a machete. Francis tells us that manual cutting on Martinique is primarily performed by immigrant laborers from nearby Dominica and St. Lucia who travel here for the cane cutting season.
Once a cane stalk is harvested, it takes year for the nub left behind to grow all the way back. After six years (on average), the cane plant has extracted so many nutrients from the soil that subsequent regrowth is less productive. Thus, the planters turn to crop rotation, which on Martinique is a well-practiced art. The six-year-old cane nubs are plowed under and replaced by banana trees, which produce high quality local bananas and recharge the soil with nutrients beneficial to cane growth. All told, it’s a twelve year cycle – six years of cane harvesting, six years of banana harvesting– and so on.
Regardless of how it’s harvested, what’s vital is that the cane is crushed at the distillery as soon as possible. Left for too long, it starts to decompose, creating “off” flavors in the resulting rhum. On that note, let’s tag along with the just-cut cane as it arrives at the Rhum J.M. Distillery!
Rhum JM Distillery
Viewed from above, Martinique’s northern tip resembles a pie cut into many jagged slices. Within the slices are a patchwork of bright green sugar cane or banana fields. Lush, forested valleys separate them, formed by streams flowing from Mount Pelée down to the sea. A few minutes’ drive from the cane field, our bus rounds a corner and comes to a halt, overlooking one such valley. Below, the Rhum J.M. distillery, all its buildings and roofs a barn-red hue, sprawls out between the trees. It’s a breathtaking sight — a rhum distillery in the middle of Jurassic Park! Even from a distance, it’s clear that the distillery is very modern, clean and efficient. However, the site was among the earliest sugar plantations on the island.
J.M’s modern day operations are the combination of two adjoining estates and distilleries. In 1845, Jean-Marie Martin purchased the Fonds Préville estate, built a distillery, and soon was shipping rum, the barrel head labeled with his initials: J.M. On the other side of a very small river was the Bellevue estate and distillery, owned by the Crassous de Medeuil family. In the 1914, they purchased Fonds Préville from the Martin family and consolidated distillation at the Fonds Préville distillery. If you’re wondering about the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, both distilleries were unharmed as the explosive force was directed to the west, away from their locations.
Today’s J.M brand started to take shape around 1980 with the construction of the first aging facility, and shortly thereafter the iconic Rhum J.M label made its appearance. The first sales of aged Rhum J.M were in 1994. In 2002, Groupe Bernard Hayot (GBH) purchased Rhum J.M, their second rhum distillery on Martinique. Previously in 1986, GBH had purchased Rhum Clément and devoted substantial resources to upgrading its operations. They followed a substantially similar course with J.M, investing huge amounts of money to upgrade the both the production facilities and visitor experience over the next decade.
J.M’s visitor’s center is very tourist friendly. A lot of effort has gone into telling the J.M history in an engaging manner. For example, entering the visitor’s center, a steady stream of water emerges from a spigot on the wall and runs through a trough in the floor. It is water from J.M’s source on the slopes of the volcano, fed to the distillery via aqueduct. Cups are provided for you to sample the exact same water used in cane crushing, fermentation, and final proofing. It’s a novel way to cool off after our very short stints as cane harvesters, and just one more example of terroir that makes up Rhum J.M.
On the slope of the mountain, the facility is arranged to let gravity do much of the work, both with cane and water flows. Cane tractors arriving from the fields drive to the highest point to dump their load of foot-long cane pieces into a terrifying, whirling multi-armed shredder. From our vantage point on a steel grate walkway, we see cane pieces failing from above and the crushing mills below our feet. Any tourist, not just our special group, is free to walk along the elevated pathway through the distillery. If this were in the U.S., you’d have signed waivers, been issued a hard hat and safety glasses, and still kept fifty feet away. Here on Martinique, they’re more trusting that you won’t do stupid things near heavy equipment.
Each ton of cane arriving at the distillery becomes 1,000 liters of sugar cane “wine” in the fermentation vats mere steps from the crushing line. The fermentation at J.M runs around 24 hours, and J.M holds ten vats, ranging from 23,000 liters to 30,000 liters. Walking past each vat, some are being filled, some bubble away with great intensity, and some are at just a mild simmer, indicating they’re nearly ready to be distilled.
J.M has two column stills in operation. Both are situated in a tower-like enclosure rising above the distillery. (My first thought when seeing the structure was its resemblance to a Kentucky bourbon country stillhouse.) The larger of the two stills, modeled after an Armagnac column with all copper plates, arrived in 2015 and cost approximately €3 million. The still boosted the distillery’s output to approximately 1.5 million liters per year. While this sounds like a lot, it’s only about one-third of the production at the larger Simon distillery where Rhum Clément, J.M’s corporate sibling, is made. For every 1,000 liters of sugar cane wine that enters these stills, 76 liters of 72 percent ABV rhum emerges.
Adjoining the stills is a small office crammed with laboratory equipment. It’s here that arriving sugar cane is tested and the final distillate checked to ensure it meets AOC regulations. Emerging from the laboratory as we arrive is Nazaire Canatous, J.M’s master distiller, who learned his trade from his father and has worked at the distillery for forty years. He jokes easily with his old friend Ben and answers all our questions about J.M’s distillation process. Like every J.M employee, Nazaire wears a bright red shirt with the Rhum J.M logo embroidered on it. It’s abundantly clear by this point that Rhum J.M’s official brand color is red.
As a special favor to me, Ben and I ascend the stairway adjoining the column stills, stopping at each level to let me snap photos. If you’ve never climbed a full-size column still, it’s a humbling experience as you realize, step by step, how large they are, how much heat they throw off, and how treacherous the stairs are. Upon reaching the top, a commanding view of the distillery in all directions awaits. I can’t stress it enough – J.M is the most picturesque, postcard-perfect large scale distillery I’ve ever been to. (Sorry, Willett., though Mrs. Wonk still loves you best.)
After distillation, J.M’s rhum rests in steel tanks for six months, double the time required by the Martinique AOC. Using water from the Mount Pelée water source, the rhum is slowly diluted down to barrel-entry proof. Some goes into barrels at 63 percent ABV and some at 65 percent ABV. While J.M buys its barrels (as you might expect), it maintains a small cooperage where barrels can be repaired and recharred.
All new-make J.M distillate intended for long aging (i.e., more than three years) first spends a year in new American oak barrels, which provide telltale vanilla spice flavors. Afterward, the rhum transfers to ex-bourbon barrels for the remainder of its aging period. The only long-aged rhums not finished entirely in American oak are the special limited-edition cognac, armagnac, and calvados cask finished rhums. These special casks are, of course, French oak. In the tropical Martinique environment, the humidity is so high that the rhum’s ABV decreases over time in the barrel, typically around 2 percent ABV per year.
Capping off our incredible experience at the J.M distillery, Ben and our group lunched and spent the afternoon at Habitation Bellevue, the house where the estate’s owners lived. As our bus ascended the short drive to the habitation, Ben grabbed the P.A. mic and blared the Jurassic Park theme music, entirely appropriate to our lush, tropical surroundings.
Stepping off the bus at the habitation grounds, everyone gasped at the sight before us. The estate resides atop a hill with breathtaking views (I can’t overstate this) over banana tree fields gently sloping to the ocean in the distance. In the middle sits a bright red, two-story plantation house, surrounded on all sides by an expansive, perfectly manicured lawn. Everything was idyllic and turned up to eleven.
Awaiting our arrival was Francis, whom we met in our earlier cane field visit. Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the panoramic views and adjourned to the patio where a fantastic bar of Rhum J.M-focused cocktail mixers was set out. Francis demonstrated how to make an authentic Ti punch – his swizzing is much more vigorous than you might imagine!
Just a bit tipsy from the bounty of rhum, we enjoyed an absolutely perfect lunch on the patio, marveling at the great views of the Caribbean Sea. While some cooled off in the estate’s swimming pool, Ben and I took a spin through the banana fields, just yards away. Espresso sweetened with Rhum J.M. Shrubb was a popular post-lunch libation. Before we left, Francis plucked coconuts from a nearby tree, deftly cutting them open with his machete for us to enjoy the sweet water within. With the sun setting, we were sad to say our goodbyes to Francis and Habitation Bellevue. But more rhum awaited us on the island of Guadeloupe. Stay tune for the tale of our visit to Rhum Damoiseau!