A quixotic quest to Martinique for the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée spirit made from freshly pressed sugarcane wine written and produced by WYATT PEABODY / photographs by PEDEN+MUNK
One minute you are casually drinking rum with a few friends at a bar in L.A.—next thing you know, you’re frantically seeking passage to an insanely difficult-to-get-to island in the French West Indies. What happened? You tasted appellation-grade rhum agricole—the purest expression of rum on earth. (And you have to really want to get to Martinique if you live in the U.S. From L.A., the journey requires multiple connections.)
Before you know it, you are driving serpentine two-lane highways, twisting through the serene, verdant countryside flanked by banana plantations, roadside stands and cane—lots of sugarcane—the defining element of Martinique in pursuit of rhum agricole. This is not a quixotic quest for strange and different for its own sake, rather the search for a taste that transcends the marketing ploys of big multinational brands: It is a search for the good stuff.
The island, some 430 square miles, is located in the Lesser Antilles, between Dominica and St. Lucia. France first claimed Martinique in 1635; today it is an overseas department of the republic, part of the European Union. The currency is the euro, and its official language is French, although Créole Martiniquais can be heard throughout the island. Its inhabitants—a mixture of African and European descendants from the colonial-era sugar trade, along with Amerindian, East Indian, Lebanese and Chinese—are French citizens. The standard of living is among the highest in the Caribbean, and so is the cost of doing business.
Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum produced today is rhum industriel, made from molasses—a tradition that goes back to the 17th century, when entrepreneurs sought to put the waste product of sugar manufacturing to good use.
The other 1 percent is rhum agricole, and the majority of that is from Martinique. (Versions of rhum agricole are also made in the Caribbean on Guadeloupe, St. Barths, Marie-Galante and Haiti; on the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mauritius; and in Brazil, which is known for the spirit cachaça.)
An AOC—Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or “controlled designation of origin”—is the certified geographic designation and regulation given by the French government for that nation’s cheeses, wines, spirits and other agricultural products. The island of Martinique is home to the only AOC outside the mother country, and it is the sole unique appellation for rum in the entire world. In other words, the rhums of Martinique are protected and strictly regulated by the same body that governs the production of Champagne, Bordeaux and, most relevantly, Cognac (well, Armagnac, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
The AOC rhums of Martinique are made strictly from 12 varieties of fresh-pressed sugarcane juice from four regions, and according to law, fermentation must begin within 24 hours of harvest. The unique microclimates, soils, sun exposures, altitudes and weather patterns—from the tropical rainforest at the northern tip of the island at Macouba, where Rhum J.M. is located, to the drier, sunnier west coast, near Saint-Pierre, where you find Neisson—result in one of the most terroir-driven distillates on earth. (Yes, terroir, a term generally associated more with wine geeks.)
Rhum agricole is made from vin de canne, or sugarcane wine—an approach credited to Homère Clément, a late-19th-century native of Martinique, who received a scholarship from the French government to attend the University of Paris. In 1878, Clément returned to Martinique with a passion for Grand Cru wines and Armagnac. To this day, the rhum is distilled in a Créole single-column copper still, modeled on the classic Armagnac still.
In 1887, Clément bought Domaine de l’Acajou, a 300-acre sugarcane plantation outside of Le François, which he converted into a rhum distillery. While it is not known exactly who first distilled fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, Clément, along with St. James and Depaz, began to revolutionize the industry.
The rhum producers of Martinique have endured volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes, economic crises, corporate takeovers, consolidation and, more recently, antitrust regulations. The once illustrious capital, Saint-Pierre, referred to as the Paris of the Caribbean, was swept into the sea when Mount Pelée erupted in 1902, wiping out about a sixth of the island’s population.
“Rhum agricole is the only thing we have to fight against the rest of the world,” says Benjamin Mélin-Jones, with an expressionless face and a thousand-yard stare. For this dedicated man, building a spirits category is a matter of honor. Mélin-Jones is a fourth-generation descendant of Homère Clément. He represents rhums Clément and J.M., two of the island’s most renowned, yet very different, brands.
Fortunately for Mélin-Jones, he’s not alone. He and Edward Hamilton both stormed the U.S. market with their respective import companies in 2005. Hamilton—the other six-foot-six white guy hell-bent on saving rhum agricole and Martinique—represents Neisson and La Favorite, the last two remaining family-owned brands. A former rumrunner, Hamilton is clearly misplaced in this century.
What Mélin-Jones and Hamilton share is a passion for the preservation of Martinique’s rhum agricole. In 1880, the island was home to 500 registered distillers. Today only seven distilleries and one enduring sugar factory remain. (Sugar for daily use is imported from France.) It is indeed a Caribbean paradise, with pristine white-sand beaches and crystalline water, but it is not laid-back about rhum. The spirit is pure, and precision, rigidity and single-mindedness go into its making.
There’s much talk of fair trade these days, but it is something only a handful of spirits brands can claim. Martinique’s designation as an overseas department of France makes it an expensive place in which to do business and impacts its ability to compete in the world market. Basically, rhum agricole is its only shot. Fortunately, U.S. cocktail geeks are hooked, and agricole is featured on drink menus in the hottest places from coast to coast. The white (unaged) rhums are among the most versatile, distinctive spirits available—if you’re making daiquiris without rhum agricole, you’re missing out. And the rhum vieux, or “aged rum,” which comes in a dizzying array of expressions, shows beautifully among the greatest Cognac, Armagnac and whiskeys.
So, in a category with centuries-old history, why are we waking up to this now? The most obvious reason is in the discovery of its flavor. With rhum agricole, the impact of the ground where the sugarcane is grown, the variety used—even wild yeasts in the air and on the cane—and the distillers’ touch all show through. It tastes fresher because it is. Hand-harvested cane is immediately pressed for its juice, which is then set to ferment (within the hour, for those single-domaine producers who have the luxury).
And then there’s the human element. Consumers are yearning for products that impact them emotionally, symbolically and spiritually, while still fulfilling a utilitarian need. Rhum agricole tells a story, one that hasn’t been heard by enough people. It is the antithesis of big-box, mass-produced rum, and its fans feel that buying rhum agricole supports people—cane cutters, distillers, workers—not factories.
“When you have your own cane, you harvest when it’s ready, but when you’re dependent upon farmers, they sell when they need money,” explains Hamilton. Producers like Neisson and Rhum J.M. are among the few single-domaine producers who use only sugarcane harvested manually from their own fields. This allows them to care for their crops, harvest at the perfect time, crush immediately and begin fermentation. You can taste that purity in the products.
While many devotees prefer to drink agricole straight—in all its ethereal, earthy, funky glory—the most common mode of consumption in Martinique is Ti’ Punch. This might be the perfect cocktail—rhum agricole, cane syrup (or sugar) and a lime wedge—and, by comparison, makes most daiquiris and caipirinhas you’ve had taste flat. A great Martinique tradition is chacun prépare sa propre mort, or “each prepares his own death,” in which the host presents the ingredients and guests prepare them to their liking.
Sample some of the cocktails at right. But once you start out on our rhum trail, we guarantee you’ll want to try older bottlings, only available in Martinique. Next thing you know, you’ll find yourself on a plane.
Want to try the agricole? Martinique may be hard to get to, but these SoCal spots—and their go-to cocktails made from the rhums we’ve noted in parentheses—are not. À votre santé!
A-FRAME, King Antilles (Clément Rhum Vieux), aframela.com
BAR CENTRO, the Bazaar at SLS Beverly Hills, Martinique Daiquiri (Rhum J.M. Blanc 100), thebazaar.com
BLACK MARKET, Grassroots (Clément Première Canne), blackmarketliquorbar.com
HARVARD & STONE, Jet Blue (Neisson Blanc), harvardandstone.com
LA DESCARGA, Tropical Holiday, (La Favorite), ladescargala.com
MÉLISSE, Ti' Punch (Rhum J.M. Blanc), melisse.com
POUR VOUS, Vadouvan Lassi (Clément Première Canne), pourvousla.com;
PROVIDENCE, Oberon's Folly (Rhum J.M. Blanc), providencela.com
RIVERA, Barrel Strawberry (Rhum Neisson Élevé Sous Bois), riverarestaurant.com
SUNNY SPOT, Créole Old-Fashioned (Rhum Neisson Élevé Sous Bois), sunnyspotvenice.com
TASTING KITCHEN, the Real McCoy (Rhum Neisson Blanc), thetastingkitchen.com
Muriel Wiltord, Christel Coita: Martinique Promotion Bureau/CMT USA; Nazaire Canatous: Rhum J.M.; Francis Hayot: Habitation Bellevue; Emmannuel Becheau, Robert Peronet, Sarah Ortole: Rhum Clément; Charles Larcher: Rhum Clément, Rhum J.M., Martinique; Yves Hayot: Distillerie du Simon; Claudine Neisson-Vernant, president of Martinique AOC; Grégory Vernant: Distillerie Neisson; Jules-Michel Fayad: La Martiniquaise Group, Rhum Saint James; Olivier Duchamp de Chastaigne: Habitation Pécoul; Anthony Torkington: Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa, capest.com; Frédéric Massoubre: Hôtel M'Gallery Bakoua, +596 596660202; Jean-Christophe Yoyo: Hôtel Plein Soleil, hotelpleinsoleil.fr; Wilhelm and Eva Kleinholtz: La Maison de l'îlet Oscar; Marie-Annick Paulin-Priam, guide/interpreter; Mamadou, boat captain/guide; Marie-Joseph Peloponese, (fast) driver: Le François.