"All roads lead to… rum," could be the motto of Martinique. Wherever you decide to drop your anchor, you aren't far from a rum distillery ! Rarely is an environment in such harmony with a product : landscapes, people, culture and traditions - everything in Martinique invites you to immerse yourself in the history and culture of rum.
A bit of history
Rum became woven into the fabric of 17th century Caribbean life after Western Europeans began craving sweet confections made from the juice of the sugar cane plant.Within fifty years, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English planters in the New World had transformed the landscape to meet the booming European demand for sugar. Once crystalline sugar was extracted from the boiled sugar cane juice, it was discovered that the skimmings and molasses, left in the sugar pots, could be fermented and then distilled in simple pot stills. This strong alcoholic beverage became much sought after in the islands.
It was in 1694 that Jean-Baptiste Labat, a dominican priest and legendary character in Martinique, landed on the island. At the same time, sugar cane liquor replaced beer and wine on the ships that sailed the islands to protect the planters and carry the precious cargo back to Europe.Well preserved over long periods, it was used as a drink for crews as it was healthier and… far more pleasant than the fresh water carried on board !
But it was the rum drinking pirates and corsairs that elevated the Caribbean spirit to it's place in history.
Over the next two centuries the rum industry grew with the burgeoning demand for sugar and Saint-Pierre became the centre of the rum trade. Then on May 8th, 1902, Mount Pelée erupted and the town was completely destroyed while countless ships, unable to clear the anchorage, caught fire and sank in the harbor. The 16 rum distilleries in Saint-Pierre were ruined. Despite the tragedy, today the sugar cane fields on Mount Pelée are some of the most productive in all the islands.
Finding your bearings
There are two kinds of rum : Rhum agricole
, also called rhum de vesou
, is distilled only from fermented sugar cane juice and is a specialty of the French Antilles, particularly Martinique. Rhum agricole
is bottled as three very different spirits : white rum
, or grappe blanche
- used in the traditional drink of the Antilles, the ti'punch ; rhum paille - rum that's lightly coloured by aging up to 2 years in oak vats ; and lastly rhum vieux - rum that has been aged for at least 3 years in smaller oak barrels. Rhum de mélasse
, also called rhum industriel
- is distilled from fermented molasses and accounts for more than 90% of the world's rum production. In Martinique, Le Galion produces this type of rum.
The route to rum
Today there are ten active distilleries on Martinique. The rum-making season is January to June, when you'll be able to see the distilleries operating.
• Around Le Marin
La Mauny Distillery - Rivière Pilote - Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 5:30 pm and Saturday 9 am to 1 pm.
Established in 1749, in the very heart of a green valley and surrounded by its fields of sugar cane, La Mauny distillery will showcase the various stages in the distillation of this high quality, favourite rum of Martinique. From the arrival of the wagons of sugar cane to the distillation, the whole process will unfold before you.At the end of your visit, you can make your way to the "Cabane à Rhum" a small Creole house build in wood, where you can sample a range of La Mauny products and take away a number of recipes for making your own cocktails once you are back home.
Trois-Rivières Estate - Sainte-Luce - Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 5:30 pm and Saturday 9 am to 1 pm.
About eight kilometers west of Sainte-Luce, the Trois Rivières estate was originally part of a 5,000-hectare land grant to Nicholas Fouquet during the reign of Louis XIV in 1661. While amassing great wealth, Fouquet attracted the jealousy of the king and after having his assets confiscated he died in prison at the age of sixty-five in 1680. Today, the property is the site of a distillery museum complete with a restored windmill and gives the visitor the opportunity to appreciate the rum making process in natural surrounding overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
• Around Fort-de-France
Dillon Distillery - 9, route de Chateauboeuf - Fort-de-France - Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 4 pm.
After having viewed a slide show in the distillery museum, you will discover by yourself the different stages in the fabrication of Dillon rum. The visit will end at Club Dillon where you can sample some rum in the intimate setting of this great wine cellar.
Distillerie La Favorite - 5,5 km Route de Lamentin, Quartier Gondeau - Le Lamentin - Open Monday through Friday from 9 am to noon and 1 to 3 pm.
Built in 1842, La Favorite is one of the oldest distilleries operating in Martinique. From the second floor balcony overlooking the distillery works you can see the entire process.
• On the Atlantic coast
Clément Estate - Domaine de l'Acajou - Le François - Open every day 9am to 5:30pm, free English audio-guide available.
Take a relaxing walk around the beautiful property of Clément, visit a perfectly restored family mansion, discover an old rum factory including the aging barrels. Or, stroll through the botanic garden and enjoy the palm grove and the island's unique tropical vegetation. Contemporary art exhibitions complete the attractions.
- Le Gros Morne - Open Monday through Friday from 9am to 12:30pm and 1pm to 4pm.
Built on the La Maugée property, an important 19th century sugar refinery, the St.Etienne estate is made up of the slave-master's house which towered over the distillery and the old huts of the workers. The distillery ceased to function in 1988 and since the mid-nineties St.Etienne rum has been produced at Simon's distillery in Le François district and then transported to the St.Etienne estate where it is aged in oak barrels. During your visit you will see the bottling process and the storage houses where the rum is aged, punctuated by samples of HSE rum proudly presented in it's new labelled bottle. The site is registered in the supplementary inventory of national heritage places since 2007.
Saint-James Distillery - Le Bourg - Sainte-Marie - Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
The Saint-James Rum Museum is set in a splendid colonial house and recounts the sugar cane history of the island. Two traditional events are organized by the museum : the harvest festival in June and the rum festival in December. Don't miss these popular events. While sampling Saint James, take note of the trademark square bottle of this historic distillery.
• Around Saint-Pierre
Depaz Distillery - Plantation de la Montagne Pelée - Open Monday to Friday 10 am to 5 pm (4 pm on Saturday).
Set at the foot of Mount Pelée and facing the Caribbean Sea, the historic Depaz plantation is the only working sugar cane plantation and distillery where visitors can experience island life of bygone years.The plantation features the oldest steam-powered engine on the island, a paddle wheel, steam museum, gift shop as well as the Depaz House, a wonderfully restored mansion where the visitor will discover the life of the Depaz family by viewing the exhibition of family records and articles of yesteryear. You can also enjoy a horse drawn carriage ride that takes you from the distillery to the Depaz House through the most fertile sugar cane fields in the Caribbean.
Distillery Neisson - Domaine Thieubert - Le Carbet - Open Monday through Friday from 7am to 3 pm, Saturday 8 am to noon.
A passion for tradition and history characterizes this small distillery where the rum is considered by connoisseurs to be in a class of its own.
Ti'Punch the tradition of Martinique
Mix in a short glass : a measure of sugar cane syrup, or a little raw sugar, a small piece of lime, and three, or four, measures of white rhum agricole. Enjoy a ti'punchwith or without ice cubes, but please, enjoy in moderation.