One of the hallmarks of the modern Tiki revival is the obsessive attention paid to recreating the classic recipes of Donn Beach and Trader Vic using the most authentic ingredients one can lay their hands on.
But what if I told you that one of those ingredients —Martinique rum— is not at all the same today as when Donn Beach created the Donga Punch circa 1937?
This isn’t the first time that tiki’s deep thinkers have brought this question up. Martin Cate gets full credit for noting that Trader Vic rum lists of the era strongly suggest that the “Martinique rum” Trader Vic referenced in his recipes was likely not rhum agricole. And it was Cate who suggested to Denizen Rum use a bit of Martinique molasses rum in its Merchant’s Reserve blend. (Merchant’s Reserve raison d’etre is to replicate the flavors of the rums Vic used in his Mai Tai after his bars exhausted all the available supplies of Wray & Nephew 17- and 15-year they used previously.)
I agree with Cate’s seminal assessment regarding “Martinique rum” in the Mai Tai. But I’ve always felt there was more to the story than just the Mai Tai and what Vic had available to him.
I’ve recently spent a considerable amount of time trawling through the French rum writings of the 19th and early 20th century, leading to some loosely connected thoughts to gel. Our strong association of Martinique with rhum agricole only came about in very recent decades. Before that, “Martinique rum” was a very different beast.
While this observation is relevant to Vic’s 1950s-era Mai Tai, it goes much deeper than that. What about those golden-era recipes that only use Martinique rum, like the Donga Punch, Martinique Swizzle, or Last Rites? [i]
Have we been making our Donga…. Wronga? And if so, what rum(s) should we be using?
To answer this properly, we’ll need to go back in time.
(Editorial note: In what follows, some of the quoted words are English-language translations of the original French text.)
Winding the Clock Back
In decades past, what a rum-making island exported was often different than what they drank locally. Such was the case on Martinique (and Guadeloupe) for many years.
You may have read that some Martinique estates started making cane juice rum (rhum agricole) as early as the 1880s, which is true. But the overwhelming majority of rum exported from Martinique remained molasses-based for nearly a century after that. In fact, before the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee, Martinique was the largest rum exporter in the world, and it was molasses rum they were exporting.
The rhum agricole made on Martinique remained on the island, consumed by locals, and known as inhabitant rum. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Martinique’s rhum agricole production overtook molasses-based production. Fun fact: Even today, Guadeloupe makes roughly the same amount of cane juice and molasses rum.
The rum of the agricultural distillery is for the most part intended for local consumption and consumed either as grappe blanch (unaged) or aged (rhum vieux).
This rum is little appreciated for export because of its cane juice taste, and also by the habit that we have taken in the metropolis to consume and call rum a more full-bodied product.
In short, the folks in mainland France (the “metropole”) didn’t like the flavor of cane juice rum.
In those days, most bottled and branded rum came from mainland France blenders who sourced their rum from the French Caribbean islands. If very little rhum agricole even made it to France, what are the odds that Don and Vic had easy access to rhum agricole thousands of miles away in California? Not very high.
Naturally, this leads us to ask: what did the Martinique rums that Donn and Vic had access to taste like?
An early glimpse of Martinique rums of that era and available in the US comes courtesy of a Schenley Import Company catalog in 1939: [iv]
RHUM NEGRITA (Les Fils de P. Bardinet, shipper)
Martinique in the West Indies, and the Reunion Islands off the coast of Africa, both have volcanic soil rich with lava ash on which is produced sugar cane famous for the distilling of rum.
These two rums, after voyaging over 10,000 nautical miles to Bordeaux, France, are there blended to produce the rich, soft, smooth rum known throughout the world as Rhum Negrita.
Rhum Negrita, dark and pungent, has a flavor unlike that of any other rum. Rum devotees take it straight, to enjoy the rare flavor. A dash of Rhum Negrita adds delicious, sophisticated flavor to desserts, meats, fruit compotes and sauces.
Rhum Negrita makes a delicious Old Fashioned cocktail, an excellent Collins and highball. In such drinks as Planter’s Punch and Tom and Jerry the flavor of Rhum Negrita is unsurpassed.
“Dark and pungent” doesn’t sound like rhum agricole. The fact that it’s “unsurpassed” in a Planter’s Punch, which is typically a Jamaican rum forte, is worth noting. Also, take note that Negrita was already a blend of Reunion and Martinique rum. It wasn’t just Martinique-made rum.
Another early glimpse came from New York’s The Wine and Food Society, Inc., which hosted a “Holiday Tasting of Rums” in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria ballroom (swanky, no?) on December 3rd, 1940. Besides a Negrita description cribbed from the Schenley catalog, it also describes another Martinique rum: [v]
Bellows and Co., Inc: MARTINIQUE: This Rum acquires in part its particular flavor through storage in used molasses casks, and is reminiscent of Jamaica Rums but with a less pronounced flavor.
The storage in molasses casks is intriguing. Possibly the guide confused molasses or caramel? It’s not so farfetched. While the Negrita and Bellows and Co. tasting notes aren’t conclusive, neither seems to describe aged rhum agricole.
Trader Vic Weighs In
As luck would have it, Trader Vic himself weighed in a few years later in his book, Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink (1946). In the recipe for the Dr. Funk cocktail, Vic writes:
2 ½ ounces dark Jamaica or Martinique rum (Red Heart or Myers’s, or Rum Negrita)
There you have it – Rum Negrita, the most famous French rum for many years, was roughly equivalent to Red Heart or Myers Jamaican rum. At least in Vic’s opinion. Nobody would say either Red Heart or Myers’s of that era (or today) brings to mind an aged agricole rhum.
Elsewhere in the same book, Vic provides a reasonably good overview of Martinique rum, including tasting notes: [vi]
Martinique Rums: Commonly known as French rums, they are usually heavy in body, coffee-colored, very similar to Jamaica rums, but in many cases have the dry burned flavor of the Demerara. This flavor, however, is very faint. The rum produced in Martinique is, in many cases, shipped to France, where it is aged and reshipped as French rum. One of the finest rums is Rhum St. James, made on the plantations of St. James. Outstanding Brands:
- Bellows Martinique
- Black Head
- Rhum St. James
- Casa Grazia
- Goslings Martinique
- Rhum Charleston
- Rhum Chauvet
- Rhum Risetta
- Rhum Negrita
Martin Cate has previously made note that the “coffee-colored” description caught his eye.[vii] What jumps out at me from this passage is “the dry burned flavor of the Demerara” portion: This sounds like a noticeable caramel flavor, which the Demerara distilleries were also known for. Caramel could explain the coffee color.
From Vic’s list of rums, only two would seem to exist in modern times: Negrita and St. James. Were they rhum agricole in the pre-WW II era? Let’s see what the history books tell us.
In the aforementioned Le Rhum Sa Fabrication Sa Chimie, Guillaume notes two St-James distilleries on Martinique; one at St-Pierre, the other at Lamentin. He also notes:
Saint-James whose factories in the Colony work only cooked cane juice. It is these rums that are closest to battery syrup rums.
A few paragraphs later, Guillaume describes the process St-James uses:
This juice thus clarified, is filtered, then concentrated at 35° Baume; it is then a clear and fragrant syrup, carrying in it all the aromas of the cane that will be found in the final product.
35° Baume is equivalent to 65 Brix, approximately the same as “rich” (2:1) simple syrup we use in cocktails. Although there may be more to the story than Guillaume’s book provides, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that the St. James rum of that era wasn’t an agricole rum as we know it today.
In 2002, historian Hélène Mbolidi-Baron wrote about the Martinique rum market of the 1970s: [viii]
Conditioned by decades of dominance of amber molasses rum, especially Negrita, the French are little aware of the types of rums. Until the seventies (and even until now, for many of them), the difference between agricultural and industrial rums or between white rums and old is inaccessible to them.
I have many more accounts of French rum-making in my collection of writings. None suggest that Martinique rhum agricole was what Donn and Vic had available in Tiki’s golden era.
Previously I mentioned that the Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve rum contains some Martinique molasses rum in its blend. More specifically, it’s a style of rum known as grand arôme, made at Martinique’s Le Galion distillery.
That begs the question: Were the Martinique rums available to tiki’s forefathers a grand arôme style rum? Much as I enjoy the Merchant’s Reserve blend, the historical evidence strongly suggests Donn and Vic weren’t mixing with grand arôme rum.
Many who’ve tried grand arôme rum acknowledge its similarity to Jamaica’s “continental” rums, i.e., those with ester levels of 700 gr/hlAA or above. Jamaica’s continental rums were (and still are) essentially rum flavor concentrate. They were made exclusively for export to Europe (Germany, mainly) for blending with neutral alcohol to make knock-off “Jamaican rum,” labeled as rum verschnitt. These days, Amsterdam’s E&A Scheer imports grand arôme rum.
Historical records and modern experts indicate that imbibers of that era weren’t drinking continental-style Jamaican rum all by itself; one couldn’t just buy a bottle in a shop. (While some rum geeks today are making Mai Tais with DOK and TECC Jamaican rums, it certainly wasn’t what Donn, Vic, or anybody else was doing back in the day.)
Now, consider our knowledge of continental rum with this passage from E.A. Pairault’s seminal 1903 Le Rhum et sa Fabrication:[ix]
The vinasse that the distillers of the West Indies call “draining” and the English “dunder” is the residue of the distillation of fermented musts
Vinasse must be considered as a raw material, because in the conditions where we operate in the French West Indies, it is necessary to obtain these rums with a full-bodied but not very suave aroma, which are sought after by French importers, only because, thanks to this aroma, they can by addition of industrial alcohol and water make 3 to 4 barrels of rum with only one.
What Pairault describes is the French equivalent of Jamaica’s continental rum, including the use of dunder. These French rums were aromatic beasts intended for blending rather than everyday drinking.
A few decades later, the noted agricultural writer Désiré Kervegant addressed the same topic: [x]
Rums grand arôme (“big aroma”) constitute a special category of spirits of cane mix, characterized by an accentuated bouquet due to the presence of a high proportion of impurities (higher alcohols, acids, ethers). Their production appears to be limited to Jamaica and Martinique, the latter being the only source currently known on the metropolitan market.
Likely to retain their specific flavor, after blending with relatively high amounts of neutral alcohol, they were considered to encourage fraud.
The “fraud” in this case being the French equivalent of rum verschnitt, i.e., neutral spirits flavored with a bit of highly aromatic rum.
There’s scant evidence I’ve seen that the grand arôme rums of the era were used for anything other than blending. If someone has a 1940’s era bottled grand arôme rum, it would certainly catch my interest.
Today, Martinique grand arôme rum is made by only one distillery – Le Galion. The distillery does not make rhum agricole, and what it makes is mainly sold as bulk rum. However, it’s well worth noting there is a geographical indication, Rhum Baie du Galion, covering the rum made at Le Galion. Among the GI’s notable aspects are the requirements to be labeled grand arôme, which includes a minimum level of esters and volatile substances:
Grand arôme rum must have volatile substances (other than ethyl and methyl alcohols) of at least 800 gr/hlAA, and an ester content of at least 500 gr/hlAA.
A Jamaican rum with similar esters and volatile substance levels would be considered quite funky. Rum Fire comes to mind. However, those 500/800 levels are just minimums, and even funkier grand arôme is possible. The grand arôme that Le Galion sells are in small bottles, and oriented towards the baking/flavoring sector, rather than drinking. (For more information about Le Galion and its grand arôme rum. check out Lance’s and Nico’s writings.)
Now, here’s an interesting twist: elsewhere in Le Galion’s GI are separate definitions for “white rum” and “brown rum.” Their minimum required volatile compounds are 225 gr/hlAA. That level makes for a bold and noticeable rum, but certainly not grand arôme.
Furthermore, 225 gr/hlAA is the minimum for any French rum to use the rhum traditionnel designation, regardless of whether it originated from cane juice, syrup, or molasses. (Aged rum has a higher limit.) Le Galion’s “white” and “brown” rums certainly sound more accessible to the average drinker.
Dig deep enough on Le Galion’s site, and you’ll find that both white and brown rum are Le Galion products. Yes, there really is molasses-based Martinique rum made today that isn’t rum agricole and is likely much closer to consumer rum. (I brought back a bottle from Martinique). Here, we have a Martinique rum that’s not made from sugarcane juice and maybe a bit closer to what was available to consumers in tiki’s golden era.
Unfortunately, Le Galion’s rum doesn’t seem to be readily available outside of France. Are we at a dead end?
In the French regulations, two broad categories of rum are defined, Traditionnel agricole and Traditionnel de sucrerie. The agricole describes cane juice rum, as you’d expect. As for Sucrerie rums, they are made from molasses or syrups and must meet the 225 gr/hlAA requirements mentioned earlier.
While Martinique’s sucrerie rum only comes from Le Galion and isn’t readily available, what about Guadeloupe? It turns out that Guadeloupe makes a lot more molasses-based rum than Martinique, but it mostly flies under the radar, in part because much of it is sold as bulk rum. Currently Guadeloupe has two distilleries in the department making sucrerie rhum: Sucrerie Rhumerie de Marie-Galante and S.I.S. Bonne Mère. Unfortunately, I’ve found it challenging to track down bottled versions of those rums.
But wait, there’s more!
Many of us non-French rum geeks forget about Réunion Island, a very long-haul flight (or two) for most of us. It turns out that this French island in the Indian Ocean makes a prodigious amount of rum. Yet the overwhelming majority of Réunion’s rum isn’t rhum agricole, so it also lies under the radar of most enthusiasts. Much of Réunion’s rum winds up in blends, like Negrita, but not all.
There are three distilleries on Réunion Island: Isautier, Savanna, and Rivière du Mât. Of the three, Rivière du Mât appears to be the largest, and by a substantial margin. Luckily, all three distilleries have eponymously named rum brands, meaning they’re reasonably available, at least in Europe.
The question is: How close are they to the Negrita, Bellows, and St. James of yore? That’s a challenging question to answer. If one could locate a “dark” version of these rums, i.e., heavily influenced by caramel coloring, it might be close. I’d love to hear what others with more experience with these rums think.
So, What Should I Use in My Donga Punch?
Having gone a bit farther afield than you might have expected, let’s return to the original question: When a classic Tiki recipe specifies “Martinique rhum,” what should I use?
There may not be a particularly satisfying answer.
If you desire to use authentic Martinique-made rum, your options are limited. Le Galion’s white and brown rums aren’t readily available, and grand arôme doesn’t seem like a close fit, flavor-wise, for an old-style Martinique rum.
If you expand your criteria to other French rum-making islands, the options widen considerably. However, are these rums “coffee-colored” and “pungent” as Vic described them? I’d certainly need more hands-on experience to form an opinion.
The other approach is the “tastes like” option. Some tasting notes from the 1940s describe Martinique rum as “similar” to Jamaican rum. Others note its deep color, suggesting substantial caramel coloring to make a “dark” rum.
Consider “dark” Jamaican rums with noticeable caramel notes without being over-the-top funky if you go this route. Options that come to mind are Coruba, Blackwell, and Jamaican-made Captain Morgan. Slightly more upscale is Worthy Park 109, although its alcoholic strength exceeds the others.
What I’ve outlined above doesn’t undeniably answer the original question. However, it has laid out quite a bit of information to help us considering possible answers. I hope that somebody with a collection of Martinique rum from the first half of the 20th century will let a group of experts taste them alongside today’s rums. It’s even possible that there’s not quite like them made today.
As a final note, none of this is to say that aged rhum agricole doesn’t have a place in tiki. It has its own wonderful flavors that work well in many drinks, including a Mai Tai. The beauty of tiki is that it continues to evolve and incorporate new flavors that weren’t available when the Beachcomber and Trader created their legacies.
A special shout-out to Brian Maxwell of Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor, who took the beautiful picture of a Donga Punch as made today.
[i] Beachbum Berry’s books and Total Tiki app have these recipes.
[ii] Guillaume. Le Rhum Sa Fabrication Sa Chimie, 1939.
[iii] Aka “Ti punch”
[iv] “Wine without frills: everyday enjoyment of imported wines and spirits.” Schenley Import Company. New York: Schenley Import Corp., 1939
[v] “The Wine & Food Society, Inc. PRESENTS A Holiday Tasting of Rums,” December 3, 1940, 16.
[vi] “Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drinks” 1946.
[vii] Cate, Martin & Rebecca, “Smuggler’s Cove. exotic cocktails, rum, and the cult of tiki”, Berkeley : Ten Speed Press,2016
[viii] Mbolidi-Baron, Hélène. “Les Conditions De Durabilite De La Production De La Canne A Sucre A La Martinique : Volume 2,” 2002.
[ix] Pairault, E A. “Le rhum et sa fabrication. Avec une préface de A. Calmette.,” 1903
[x] Désiré Kervegant, “Le Rhum Grand Arôme”, Bulletin de l’Association des chimistes : organe de l’Association des chimistes de sucrerie, de distillerie et des industries agricoles de France etc., 1936