Rhum with a View

Amid the lush green mountains, clear blue waters, and pastel-colored colonial architecture, there’s another reason to visit the French West Indian island of Martinique: rhum agricole, the funkier, earthier sibling of ordinary rum

Jody Horton

A bird's-eye view of the Rhum J.M property.

“When you smell rhum, swirl it around. Swirl it again and again and again. And again. When you put the air inside, it come back with other flavor. Do not put your nose in the glass.”

These instructions, voiced with French Creole panache, are not to be taken lightly. They come from one Guy (pronounced ghee) Ferdinand, a well-regarded chef on the French West Indian island of Martinique, a green volcanic landmass where talented cooks are as common as hummingbirds, which is saying something. At his open-air beachfront restaurant, Le Petibonum, my wife and I have just shared a ravishing late lunch of plump local crayfish and scallops in a sinfully tasty vanilla sauce; a condemned man would do well to request it for his last meal. The food, however, was mere prelude to the real reason we had sought out Ferdinand, navigating the serpentine highway of Martinique’s western shore to the magnetically decrepit seaside village of Le Carbet. Paul Gauguin spent several mostly euphoric months painting here in 1887, four years before he voyaged to Tahiti to seek beauty and decadence elsewhere in the tropics. “With only a little money,” he wrote to his wife back in Europe, imagining a future on this island, “we would have all we needed to be happy…and eat like gluttons.” This remains a valid governing principle for a visit to Martinique.

But back to the rhum—that’s rhum with an h, as in rhum agricole, the alluring and increasingly popular variety of the spirit that’s distilled from the freshly pressed juice of sugarcane, rather than from molasses, as some 97 percent of rums are. Martinique is ground zero for the world’s finest rhum agricole—what Kentucky is to bourbon—and Chef Guy has earned a reputation as a sort of semimythical rhum guru, a rhum professor. He has offered to tutor us on the finer points of some of the island’s choicest vintages, starting with a couple of snifters of 2003 Habitation Saint-Etienne Grand Millésime single-cask, aged for twelve years in French-oak barrels: rarefied stuff. I keep making the mistake of bringing my nose too close to the rim of the glass, which allows alcohol vapors to overpower the elixir’s more subtle and rapturous aromas. It’s a blunder on par with grinding the gears on a Ferrari.

“Smell,” Ferdinand repeats. “Don’t put your nose inside. Take it easy. What you I continue to swirl, unintentionally tilting the glass slightly toward the sea, about fifteen feet away. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the chef shouts approvingly. “Put the wind in it!” He steps away from our table for a while to let us ponder samples from two additional select bottles—a 2003 Rhum J.M and another HSE, aged for eight years and finished in a sherry barrel. After minutes of aerobic swirling, I venture a sip of the first HSE, concentrating to single out within the sensory layers some of rhum agricole’s classic components: Vanilla. Tobacco. Pineapple. A hint of orange. Plenty of caramel. A whiff of smoke, and peat moss—the Scottish moors are making a cameo. There’s a lot going on in that glass.

That complexity—the rhum’s fresh and herbal and grassy, intense and earthy and funky symphony of scent and flavor—may account for the recent surge in interest, insidery hipness even, swirling around a spirit that isn’t really new at all. First produced nearly 150 years ago, rhum agricole is about as novel to most Martinicans as cold draft beer is to the bleachers at a Packers game. In a shop at the island’s airport, rare bottles of vintage rhum with yellowed labels from the 1930s and earlier—some of them priced upwards of 2,500 euros (about 2,800 dollars)—perch on open shelves near the souvenir key chains and shot glasses. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote that back in the 1920s, he ordered a glass of Saint James at a Paris café, “feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.” But lately, perhaps because of its artisanal cachet and exotic pedigree, rhum agricole has been steadily gaining steam as an “it” beverage, a comeback darling of sippers and mixologists. Small-batch releases of it have sprung up from South Carolina to Oahu. “Rhum bars” have opened in Asheville and Seattle and London. This fall, Paul Yellin, a Barbados-born chef and cookbook author, announced plans to open one in Charleston.

But there’s nothing quite like tasting rhum agricole in its ancestral home in the French Antilles—sometimes a mere stone’s throw from the soil that nurtured the sugarcane that then transformed into something astonishing—a place where that generations-old blend of art and science continues to flower.

A creole street-food feast with sugarcane juice and lime.

Jody Horton

A creole street-food feast with sugarcane juice and lime.

Two days before our pilgrimage to Le Carbet, we stop in for our first rum distillery tour and tasting at Trois Rivières, a visitor-friendly spread marked by a trademark windmill near the island’s southern shore. A narrow catwalk out back affords us a close-up of imposing old steam-powered cane-juicing equipment—a Rube Goldberg sequence of fearsome corkscrew-looking blades, conveyor belts, valves, pulleys, and huge cast-iron gears. The presses look like they could squeeze nectar out of a Buick.

When we enter the gleaming tasting room, I mumble something in fractured Tonto French—Martinique remains an overseas département of France, and islanders speak French and Creole far more than English. Our host, a lively thirty-six-year-old named Jean-Marie Agathine, responds enthusiastically. As he pours rhum samples into tiny plastic cups, we improvise our own Frenglish patois, complete with present-tense verbs, fish-this-big hand gestures, and blank golden-retriever head tilts. Like most familiar liquors, rhum agricole nowadays comes in countless varieties, and Agathine narrates us through white rhum (suitable for cocktails), strong three-year-old rhum vieux, VSOP, a smoky Hors d’Age blend of three vintages, a 2006 Cask Strength, and—“special for you”—a velvety 2001 Single Cask, one of only 270 bottled, redolent of vanilla, nutmeg, and pears. Martinique’s tasting rooms aren’t shy about busting out the good stuff.

Agathine finishes by demonstrating the recipe for the island’s signature ti’ punch: a few drops of juice from a lime, a dash of sugarcane syrup, and a generous slug of rhum vieux.

“No ice?” I ask.

“No ice,” he replies. He shakes his head sternly, then, with fingers spread across his temples and a slightly deranged look, pantomimes his head exploding. No ice.

Who invented rum, and where, no one can say for certain. Scholars alternately credit Portuguese colonists in Brazil, or Spanish settlers on Cuba or Hispaniola, or British emigrants in Barbados. Whatever its genesis, around the mid-1600s documents began to mention colonial still houses, along with a potent concoction known early on as “kill-devil.” From there the spirit, derived from molasses, a by-product of sugar processing, became interwoven with the settlement of the Caribbean and North American colonies, with all its swagger and bloodshed and glory and shame. Rum became the go-to drink of mariners and pirates and founding fathers, distilled from cane harvested by enslaved Africans, and helped make island plantation owners unfathomably wealthy. Quite a star turn for what Wayne Curtis, in his wildly entertaining book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, describes as “the distilled essence of fermented industrial waste”: the molasses that, before rum caught on, got fed to pigs or to slaves, or got dumped into the sea.

The French on Martinique long made their rum from fermented molasses, too (the formula they now call rhum industriel, or rhum traditionnel). But beginning around the 1870s, several quirks of history—the rise of beet sugar in Europe, undercutting demand for cane sugar, and the threat of an alcohol shortage in France caused by World War I, among others—prompted them to tailor their methods to fresh juice instead.

Despite the more sordid parts of its colonial history, Martinique today is a landscape of staggering, almost overwhelming, beauty. Around nearly every curve of the road awaits a riot of tropical blossoms—hibiscus, bougainvillea, heliconia, ginger—or a crescent of heartbreaking sand, or a picket of rounded green peaks, or all of that at once. Cottages and villas routinely feature just the right combination of pastel stucco, mossy fish-scale roof tiles, and artfully weathered shutters, as if the place were colonized by an army of designers. Picture New Orleans’ French Quarter, transplanted and propagated across more than four hundred square miles. It’s very much a first-world island, with fleets of Peugeots and Citroëns zipping along immaculately paved highways, through countless efficient roundabouts that will make you forever question America’s addiction to traffic lights. Culinarily speaking, it’s an enchanted realm where gas stations sell tins of pâté and bottles of Bordeaux, hotels serve charcuterie and heavenly croissants for breakfast, and roadside vendors pour fresh cane juice and tend smoking half-barrel grills laden with spicy, cane-perfumed poulet boucané. We couldn’t find a bad meal.

We didn’t find a disappointing rhum distillery either. Though most of the dozen or so follow a similar template—reverently displayed machinery, sparkling tasting-room boutiques, boatloads of Creole charm—each one we visited had its own flavor, as did most of the rhums themselves. Habitation Clément, on the outskirts of Le François on the Atlantic side, combines manicured palm gardens with fragrant barrel rooms and a lovely, palatial hilltop cottage; it’s the Colonial Williamsburg of rhum. Rhum J.M, at the island’s northern tip, offers press-and-sniff kiosks highlighting the drink’s quintessential aromas. On the Caribbean western side, Rhum Neisson, one of the last family-owned labels, grows its own cane, and its rhums rank among the finest on earth. Just up the road, Depaz sprawls out on the foothill slopes of Mont Pelée, the brooding emerald volcano that erupted tragically in 1902, incinerating the nearly thirty thousand residents of the town of Saint-Pierre within a few minutes.

A bottle of single-cask from Habitation Clément.

Jody Horton

Yo Ho Ho

A bottle of single-cask from Habitation Clément.

One evening, we enjoyed a second advanced tasting seminar, this time with Christophe Lupon, a handsome and jovial Martinican who owns Le Kano, a casually glamorous café and bar a few steps from the water in Trois-Îlets, a lively tourist district in the south. Le Kano boasts probably the island’s most impressive selection of rhums. Age, Lupon tells us over glasses of exquisite Neisson 21 and La Favorite Privilège, has a magical effect on rhum that no one can

A bright welcome to Rhum J.M distillery.

Jody Horton

A bright welcome to Rhum J.M distillery.

entirely explain. “There is a really big difference between a six-years-old and a ten-years-old,” he says. “That four years makes it exceptional.” So far, he says, distillers can’t pinpoint precisely when a vintage makes the leap from good to extraordinary—is it in the seventh year? The ninth? The tenth?

“The Saint James quinze ans,” Lupon continues, “the fifteen-years-old. There is the fruit of banana in that rhum. It’s like, okay, why? In the six or eight, you don’t have it. Why? They have a twelve-years-old: no banana. Fifteen years? Banana.”

“A miracle,” I muse.

He laughs heartily. “The Saint James: You will have to try this before you leave.”

And so it is ordained. The next night, our last in Martinique, we return to Le Kano, lured back by fresh bowls of poisson à la tahitienne, cubes of raw tuna cured in coconut milk and lime juice. We dine on white plastic lounge chairs four feet from the lapping wavelets. The restaurant’s speakers pour out jazzed-up extended-mix versions of the Jackson 5, Ray Charles, Madonna, Sade—like this place, at once familiar and exotic. The music lingers like incense.

At Christophe’s recommendation, I order an after-dinner snifter of Saint James 15. I swirl the glass emphatically. I put the wind in it. I pass the pale amber liquid under my nostrils: Lots of vanilla. Some oak. Notes of caramel and pipe tobacco and, sure enough, the promised banana. I raise the glass to my lips.