When first charted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the paradisal island of Martinique was inhabited by indigenous Caribs who named the island Madinina meaning ‘the island of flowers’ – a seemingly befitting name for an island with over 3,000 flower varieties. By 1635 the first wave of French colonists arrived to settle on the island and sugarcane was soon introduced as a widely harvested resource to be shipped to Europe.
SUGAR CANE: FROM MARTINIQUE TO THE WORLD
During the eighteenth century, sugar was booming and it soon became one of the world’s most lucrative and traded commodities – the equivalent in that of petroleum or even data today.
Cultivation in Martinique soon focused primarily on sugarcane production with vast areas of land cleared to encourage more crops and the production of cotton, tobacco and coffee brought to a near-instantaneous halt. Sugar reigned supreme and by the late eighteenth century, the heyday of sugar period, there were approximately 450 sugar factories in Martinique. Rewind all these years ago and the wealth of an island in the Caribbean was solely measured on their volume of sugar and rum export. The manufacturing process of industrial rum in Martinique began around the same time as sugar production utilising the by-products of this process, and this small island flourished in these exports.
Most rums in the Caribbean are produced using fermented molasses – a thick, sticky black treacle which is leftover from the sugar refining process – however, in Martinique this is mostly not the case.
As sugar became readily available in Europe in the late 1800s, Martinique's exports plummeted. Martinicans had to find a way to make other products from sugarcane, a necessity to survive, and they began making rum directly from the sugarcane juice.
The style of rum produced on the island is called Rhum Agricole and is produced from fermenting fresh pressed sugarcane juice – no syrups or molasses in sight! The result? A rum as rich in terroir as some of the finest Burgundian wines. These are rums which truly evoke a sense of region and place - many agree that this is what makes the rums of Martinique so special. Depending on the location and the soil in which the sugarcane has bloomed, the finished product can vary dramatically across the island, showcasing even the regional affect of rhum production within the island itself. In comparison to rums produced with molasses, Rhum Agricole leans to a more vegetal style with grassier herbal notes (you can literally still taste the sugarcane!) and a fruitier profile.
As the sugar exports dwindled and more sugar plantations and distilleries disappeared from the island, those remaining focused on high-value, high-quality rhums unique in character to Martinique. The first attempt to get Rhum Agricole from Martinique certified by an AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, was made in 1975 and it took over twenty years to achieve the AOC recognition in 1996. This designation is unique to Martinique, requiring sugar cane cultivators and rum producers to observe and respect strict regulations on type, location and intensity of cane farming as well as fermentation and distillation processes. Rhum production in Martinique is as stringently monitored as Champagne production in France!
ICONIC RHUM DISTILLERIES IN MARTINIQUE
Today the remaining rhum distilleries on the island focus on producing high quality rhums of character. Some of the primary distlleries of Martinique include:
Habitation Clément - Since 1887, the prestigious Rhum Clément has been crafted and estate bottled at Habitation Clément in Le Francois, Martinique.
Distillerie Saint-James - Founded in Saint-Pierre in 1765, the Saint James distillery offers the the largest range of agricole rums produced from any distillery. Their quality of liquid has become world-renown and their square bottle, iconic.
Rhum Neisson - Neisson is a small, family owned distillery in Le Carbet owned by Claudine Neisson and now managed by her son Gregory who is also master distiller.
Rhum J.M - The J.M Crassous de Medeuil distillery is the oldest still in operation in Martinique. The “Rhum J.M” brand first appeared in the 1980s, and the first sales of its aged rum were in 1994.
La Favorite Distillerie - La Favorite is a small family-run distillery, the last in the Port-de-France area. Very much a boutique operation, its equipment is steam-powered, and the bottles are all labelled and wax sealed by hand.