The French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe is home to over a dozen islands, including the butterfly-shaped (if you’re lucky enough to get an aerial view) islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre. Basse-Terre, the western wing of the two core islands, accounts for more than half of Guadeloupe's land mass and boasts soaring peaks, an active volcano and rich tropical vegetation and forest. It is separated from its 'twin island' by only a narrow channel called the Salée River. Unlike its neighbour, Grande Terre is mostly a flat limestone-based island, boasting stretches of white sandy beaches and an incredible number of sugar plantations. Much like its sister island, Martinique, Guadeloupe is renowned for producing honest-to-goodness rums celebrated for their authentic character.
Before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1493, the indigenous “Caraibes” had named their land Karukera meaning “the island of beautiful waters”. The chain of islands, which also includes Marie-Galante, has a long history at the centre of sugar cane production. Sugar cane plantations cover most of the island of Grande-Terre, and the island was once almost 100% dedicated to its cultivation. Today, Guadeloupe is home to eight rum distilleries, albeit once boasting more than seventy (referenced from Single Cask Rum). The most recent distillery loss was Domaine de Séverin in the commune of Sainte-Rose which was dismantled in 2019. Although the number of distilleries has radically declined over time, and consequently the amount of rum produced, Guadeloupe is still well recognised for its rum.
Rum is primarily produced from freshly squeezed sugar cane on the islands (rhum agricole). These rums are as rich in terroir as they come (terroir being the concept that a particular place or region's climate, soils and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine – or indeed, spirit – produced there).
Love them or loathe them, your first sip of an agricole rhum is sure to be memorable. These rhums are full of as much individuality as integrity with a spiritual grit linked to the island's deep Creole culture. Waves of bright grass, vegetal notes, tropical fruits and sugar cane, it’s impossible to ignore the presence and impact of the island’s agriculture input here. There are difficulties in transporting freshly cut sugar cane, and because of this, agricole expressions from Guadeloupe and Martinique have a strong sense of locality and identity.
Traditional rums (produced from molasses) are also produced in the islands, namely in Marie-Galante, but also Damoiseau distillery in Grande-Terre. Damoiseau is the largest distillery on the island and produces both traditional rum and rhum agricole.
Due to their close proximity, shared status as French Overseas Territories and similar agricole production styles, Martinique and Guadeloupe have been engaged in an affair of honour in the rum world for many years, competing for recognition as the best agricole producers. Despite the evident similarities, Guadeloupe has been somewhat left in the shadows of Martinique and the island’s AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, system (a status the island achieved in 1996). This designation is unique to Martinique, requiring sugar cane cultivators and rum producers to observe and respect strict regulations on the 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!
Although not operating under an AOC, producers in Guadeloupe do work to the guidelines of an IGP system, a subject of great interest to connoisseurs. Guadeloupe obtained this protected geographical indication in 2015. Guadeloupe’s GI has many similarities to Martinique’s AOC, however, demands less scrutiny therefore allowing more freedom for producers in production choices. Some key differences include that producers in Guadeloupe are allowed to use molasses (unless labelled as an agricole rhum), can distil in a variety of still types in comparison to Martinique’s strict Creole column still regulation and are not restricted during fermentation on matters such as duration and final wash ABV (A full version of Guadeloupe's GI translated to English by Benoit Bail can be found on at CocktailWonk.com).
Although Guadeloupe has struggled to establish themselves on the world platform against Martinique, they are resolute in their commitment to produce rhums of distinct quality. The result is rhum that is a strong expression of its island locale and of the savoire-faire of the master distillers, blenders and characters behind them.
Below is a run-down of the three rum-producing islands, and the distilleries you can find on each.
In Basse-Terre Island you will find:
Bologne distillery – The oldest distillery in Guadeloupe, the rum is distilled on two copper column stills between the months of November and August, and is unique in that it is distilled only to around 55-60% ABV, allowing more of the natural cane flavour to be present in the spirit. Their white rum is the predominant ingredient across the island in Ti'Punch, the local aperitif. The distillery began laying down casks to produce aged rum for the first time in 2008.
Esperance distillery - The Esperance distillery was built by Louis-Philippe Henry Longueteau in Capesterre Belle Eau Township. Esperance became known as the single farm distillery in Guadeloupe producing both the Longueteau and Karukera brands.
Carrere distillery - More commonly referred to as Montebello after its flagship rum brand, the Carrere distillery is located in Petit Bourg. Carrere operates a two-column copper still, and its spirit runs at around 85% ABV, unusually high for the production of agricole in the region.
Reimonenq distillery - The Reimonenq distillery is located in Sainte-Rose and was established in 1916 by brothers, Joseph and Fernand. Often referred to as the Musee Du Rhum due to the on-site museum, opened in 1989 and dedicated to the history of sugar and rum production. The modern distillery, built in 1969 operates a stainless steel column still with a thermal heat exchanger, and produces the traditional agricole style rum of Guadeloupe using sugarcane juice produced from an electric mill, unlike the steam-powered machinery more commonly used elsewhere in the region.
In Grande-Terre Island you will find:
Damoiseau distillery - Originally known as the Bellevue au Moule distillery, Damoiseau is located in the Bellevue estate in Grande-Terre, and was established in the 19th century by the Rimbaud family of Martinique. It was bought by Roger Damoiseau in 1942, who converted it into a rum agricole distillery, which is today run by his grandson, Herve. Damoiseau is one of the largest Guadeloupe distilleries, accounting for close to half of its overall production.
In Marie-Galante Island you will find:
Bellevue distillery - Not to be confused with the Damoiseau distillery in the Bellevue estate of Grande-Terre, the Bellevue distillery is located at the heart of the largest sugarcane plantation on Marie Galante. It was established in 1821 and today produces white and aged rhum agricole on its continuous column still.
Bielle distillery - Bielle was founded at the end of the 19th century and today is run by Dominique Thiery who has built a reputation for Bielle as the island's top producer. Bielle produces around 320,000 litres of agricole rum on its column still every year. It also houses a bespoke Muller pot still, designed by Italian grappa maker Vittorio Capovilla for his Rhum collaboration with Luca Gargano of Velier.
Poission distillery - Also known as the Père Labat distillery, it's origins trace back to 1863 when Catherine Poisson decided to open a sugar factory on the estate which she had purchased a few years prior. The profitability of sugar dwindled towards the end of the century though, and the estate was sold to Edoard Rameaux who built the Poisson distillery. Distilling was originally on a Barbados pot still, however, this was replaced in 1955 by Creole column still which is still in operation. Rameaux named his rum after Jean-Baptiste Labat, a 17th century French clergyman known as Pere Labat, well-remembered on Guadeloupe for introducing pioneering methods in sugar production.