December 23, 2006

French Rum: Try Rhum agricole from Martinique


Stéphane, Funny that you asked about French rum (spelled rhum in French) after what happened to me a couple of weeks ago: Around 5:00 PM I was waiting for my bus 151 in front of my office building and it was deadly windy and cold, around 15 F, in Chicago. Standing next to me was a poor fellow who works in my building and he was sneezing and coughing, obviously hit by the early symptoms of a cold. He turned to me and said something to that matter and that he was going home and take two aspirins. I said:” better drink a grog, it’s the best natural preventive remedy I know against the early stage of a cold”. He looked at me, puzzled, and asked: “what’s that?” So I told him the recipe: ”In a coffee mug pour 1,5 oz of good quality rum, amber or gold, add 1,5 Tb of lemon juice, 1Tb of honey, a slice of lemon, and pour hot water almost up to the rim. Stir the drink and sip it while it’s warm.” He said: Sounds good. I will try it but I never had rum in my life, what should I buy? ”And my answer was:” if you want to buy a bottle just to make a few “grogs” any decent industrial rum, preferably “amber”, “gold” or “aged”, from a commercial brand from the Caribbean Islands will do: Barbancourt from Haiti, Mount Gay from Barbados, Myer’s from Jamaica, Cruzan from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Bambu from Antigua, or less preferably Bacardi from Porto Rico. But, if you don’t mind paying a little more money, and might want to enjoy that rum in other more relaxed and festive occasions than to take care of a cold, get yourself a bottle of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique, preferably “ambré”, or even better “ vieux” (old) from famous distillers like CLEMENT, BALLY, ST. JAMES, NEISSON, or LA FAVORITE. You will not regret it and I am ready to bet that after trying one of them, you will go back for more and will enjoy drinking them neat, as you would for an old bourbon, or a brandy”. I did not see this guy again since, and I do not know if he followed my advice. In France, in street cafés and bars, they use an inexpensive plain dark or golden “industrial” rum to prepare grogs. Americans until recently, have preferred light, especially white, or golden rums that they can mix in cocktails, like daiquiris, planter’s punch, Pina Coladas, Cuba libre, or Bacardis. They also enjoy drinking spiced or flavored rums. Captain Morgan is one of the biggest commercial success in that category.

But over the last 3 years, sophisticated and expensive rums have become trendy, especially in fancy bars and dance clubs. And a new class of rum drinkers has emerged: They prefer drinking “neat”, as after-dinner drinks, dark without the addition of caramel, usually “pot distilled” and aged in oak casks, age-dated rums coming from the best distilleries from producing areas such as Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. For these connoisseurs aged dark rums are as enjoyable as good cognacs and armagnacs An amusing detail: Even though in France, in cafés and “bars-tabac” (see one of my earlier postings on the subject of French cafés and bars-tabac) many patrons used to drink grogs at the “comptoir” during harsh winter days when it was very cold and humid outside, this drink is not a French invention but an English one. The Royal Navy used to provide its sailors daily rations of brandy while at sea on long voyages. The purpose was not only to boost their morale but also to give a more acceptable flavor and cover the bad smell and taste of the “fresh water” on board that, after several days of navigation, used to get spoiled in its wooden tanks. In the 17Th century the Navy replaced the brandy with rum. But the negative impact of that strong liquor on the performance, discipline, and health of the sailors gave the idea to the famous Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog”, to mix water with the rum. Then the Royal Navy added lemon or lime juice to the daily rations since this combination not only delayed the spoilage of the water but also, the vitamin C contained in the lemon helped to protect the men from diseases like scurvy.  

 A few historical facts about rum

Rum started to be consumed in England in the middle of the 17th century. Most probably it was coming from the English-speaking Caribbean island of BARBADOS, perhaps the first place on earth where rum was distilled. Good rum is a product coming from the distillation of fermented juice or syrup coming from the sugar contained in the fibrous stalks of sugar cane, a perennial tall grass that some experts think was first growing in New Guinea (Papua) or Indonesia. The Latin name for sugarcane is Saccharum. Therefore it is often thought that the three last letters of that Latin word are at the origin of the name of the spirit . But in England they think that the word rum derives from Rumbullion, a word from the 17h century meaning “ great tumult” . This word, as well as the expression ‘’kill-devil’’, was used in the British Caribbean Islands to define rum that had the bad reputation to give nasty headaches and excite the bad behavior of its consumers. Nowadays many people agree that the growing of sugar cane was extended in several Asian regions by the Chinese and introduced to the Middle-East (and North Africa) by Arabs. That is where the French catholic crusaders found it and they brought it back with them to Europe. The Spanish, who call rum ‘ron’’, planted sugarcane in the Canary Islands, as early as the 12th or 13th century, and Christopher Columbus brought some cane from the Canaries to Hispaniola, an island shared nowadays by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in 1493. In turn, the Portuguese conquistadors and colonizers brought sugar cane to Brazil. When the ever growing demand for sugar boomed in the 17th century, all the Caribbean islands, as well as countries of Central and South America, benefiting from the same ideal climatic conditions for this kind of cultivation, that had been colonized by the Dutch, the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, expanded their plantations of sugar cane and subsequently of sugar mills. In the mid 1600’s , they started to ferment and distill the residual byproducts of crushed sugar cane (after extraction of the sugar juice) , and it produced a heavy gooey syrup called “molasses”. It is at that time that rum was born. As a matter of fact the majority of industrial and even some good quality rums produced in the Caribbean, Central and South America, are based on the distillation from molasses. Only in the French Antilles, and more particularly in the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Marie Galante, is very high quality rum produced exclusively from the pure fresh juice from the cane. This rum is called RHUM AGRICOLE. Its production is very strictly controlled and these rums benefit, like some French cheeses, from an AOC (Apellation d’Origine Controlée) label. (see later in this article) Even though rum is produced in countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, Taiwan, the Philippines, Newfoundland, or Hawaii, the largest concentration of rum distillers is nevertheless located in 17 islands of the Caribbean Basin. The largest producers being Barbados, Puerto Rico, Antigua, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, La Martinique, La Guadeloupe, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British). Some noteworthy producers are also found all over Central America, and in a lesser way in some South American countries, the best rums coming from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Guyana and Venezuela. Brazil produces a lot of light cheap rum (Cachaca) Some European countries like France, the U.K, Germany and Austria import rums from the Caribbean and age, blend, and bottle them. But they are most of the time 2nd quality industrial rum.

Two additional historical notes: 1. From 1750 to the American Revolution, they were about 40 distilleries in New England making rum from molasses shipped from Caribbean sugar plantations. Then the British started to tax heavily the import of nay molasses not produced in a British islands or territories. The French did not like the loss of this lucrative markets and, as you know, enthusiastically assisted the New England revolutionaries in their fight against the Brits. 2. Rum was unfortunately used as a tool of the slave trade since the rum made in New England and the Caribbean was used as a payment of West African slaves, who were then sent to the plantations of The Caribbean, and South America to work in sugar cane fields and sugar mills. When, some years ago, your mother and I visited St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands there were many historical sites, including a museum and some old sugar mills, reminding us that this island was a major clearing and exchange center for both the rum and slave trade between West Africa, North America and Europe, particularly Denmark that for many years was ruling St. Croix.  

What are the major types of rums produced in Martinique ? La Martinique is an island located in the ‘lesser Antilles” in the Caribbean Sea, half-way between Puerto Rico and the Venezuelan coast. It has the administrative statute of a full-fledge French “departement”. The first French settlers came to Martinique in 1635. They started to export sugar around 1650. But it is the invention in 1694 by a Dominican Priest, Father Labat, of a still that will allow local sugar plants to distill the molasses. In 1767 there were 450 sugar mills in Martinique. But after 1870, the prices of sugar collapsed. And later on, in the middle of the 20th century, when a large part of the cane sugar consumed by the French was progressively replaced by sugar coming from beets, most of the sugar plantations and mills in Martinique went bankrupt. Their owners then in order to survive, got the idea to distill the fresh fermented juice extracted directly from the cane. The RHUM AGRICOLE was born and a real rum industry replaced the purely sugar-producing one. The appellation DOC for Rhum agricole was obtained in 1996. In the fifties there were around 100 distilleries left in Martinique. In 2006, only 9 of them are still active.

They produce 2 kinds of rhums:

·Rhum industriel (sometimes called rhum léger), that is produced mainly from the distillation of molasses coming from sugar mill. Only less than 25% of rhums from the Martinique are rhums industriels. ·
Rhum Agricole, that is produced either from “gros sirop” (a natural dripped “brut” sugar), or from a “sirop de batterie”, which is high concentration cane juice The cane harvest takes place in the first months of the year when the tropical weather is dry at a time when the canes are reaching their ultimate level of maturity. The harvest used to be done by hand, but now is most of the time mechanized. The stalks of cane are pressed in horizontal mills to expel the juice. The fibrous residues, called “bagasse”, are dried and burned to provide heat for the stills. The first juice called VESOU, is fermented in large vats to become sort of a wine. Then when the fermentation is complete, the Vesou is distilled in single-column copper stills made by the same French coppersmiths that build stills for Cognac producers. The resulting RHUM has an alcoholic rating of around 70%. Often it is mixed with water to reduce its alcoholic content to 50 or 60% (100 to 120 proof). It is a very transparent spirit that will stay in large vats for 2 to 6 months, to let all its natural aromas develop. At that time a part of this batch will be bottled and is sold as “rhum blanc” (white rhum). It is used mainly straight as a before dinner ‘’apéritif’’ and in cocktails and punches, etc. Some rhums blancs are also aged. But when they start to get a darker hue, they are treated to become transparent again.
The best rhums blancs come from a stage of distillation called ‘’coeur de chauffe’’. They are consumed in their youth when their velvety fresh aromas are still potent. The second part of the batch is put in oak barrels to age. All kind of different barrels, new and used, made of different kind of woods, generating various levels of tannins, vanillin, smoke flavors, are used to produce specific bouquets and distinctive aromas. If it is aged for more than 3 years, this kind of rhum can be labeled RHUM VIEUX (Old Rhum). Its beautiful different shades of colors also come from the type of wood used in the barrel. Some rhums vieux are 30 or even 50 years old. But they must be aged at least 4 years to be called VSOP and 6 years minimum for an XO ( Hors d’âge) appellation . · If this RHUM AGRICOLE is made exclusively from distilled freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, it can earn the label of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique (or de la Guadeloupe), Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. So be suspicious of labels saying imported from France. Over the last few years, a slightly caramelized white rum, called ‘’ambré’’ or ‘’rhum paille’(if it is not caramelized), aged for around 18 months, including a few in oak vats, is getting more and more popular.  

Some reliable brands of Rhum Agricole de la Martinique that you can find in Chicago

At Sam,s La Favorite , Rhum agricole blanc, 100 proof One liter: around 29 dollars La Favorite, Rhum agricole ambré, 100 proof One liter: around 34 dollars L a Favorite, Rhum agricole Vieux, 80 proof One liter: around 48 dollars Neisson, Rhum agricole élevé sous bois (sort of ambré) 100 proof around 66.00 dollars St. James XO Rhum agricole around 24 dollars at Binny,s Rhum Clément VSOP: around 35.00 dollars Rhum agricole blanc Clément: around 30.00 dollars Rhum St. James Hors d’âge: around 30 dollars Neisson Rhum agricole Réserve Spéciale: around 65 dollars. Personally, I would go with the Neisson Réserve Spéciale and the La Favorite vieux. If you want a white for punchs or mixed drinks buy the Clément A ta santé....

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