Finding a Goodspeed in Martinique

Rhum Agricole – (French) cane juice rum; a style of rum originally distilled in the French West Indies from freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice rather than molasses.

Like many of our stories, this one begins with a definition.  A couple of weeks ago, TGHG beverage director Ryan Goodspeed was invited by Rhum Clément to visit the island of Martinique and experience its history of rhum agricole distillation.  Most rum in the global marketplace is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar refining.  When France began to make sugar from sugar beets, sugar prices plunged heavily throwing its factories into financial crisis.  The French West Indies found that fresh cane juice was available for fermenting and distilling into rum.  One island in particular proved an excellent candidate.

Martinique is slightly more than six times the size of Washington, D.C. with trade winds blowing from the northeast through its palm tree-lined coastal scenery and beaches, and the mountainous forested north with hundreds of acres of cultivable land today bearing bananas, breadfruit and a lucrative perennial sweet grass called sugarcane. This is in large part thanks to rich volcanic soil from Mount Pelée, currently dormant after an eruption in May of 1908 that killed almost 30,000 of the then capital Saint-Pierre’s inhabitants.

It was against the backdrop of Paraiso on Biscayne Bay last week, with videos streaming tableside, that Ryan set his scene of rhum paradise for Michael, Eric, and I.  One of seven distilleries currently active on island (down from some 75 in the early 1900s,) JM Rhum’s Macouba facility is a sight to behold.  A vast, open air warehouse of bubbling fermentation vats, the air rich with cane in all forms of breakdown before passing through tiered column stills. Nearby, the banana processing line is cranking out boxes of cane’s rotator crop for shipment back to France, a political arrangement that seems to hang in a curious balance of mother country goodwill and penance to its sovereign.  Now another definition.

“Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” – (French) protected designation of origin or AOC.

Cane juice rhums from Martinique are labeled “AOC Rhum Agricole Martinique” because French and European law allows a designation for those produced on the island of Martinique that meet certain local standards. This designation is local peculiar to Martinique, and does not define the category of cane juice rum or rhum agricole.  In Martinique, AOC labeled cane juice rums are usually distilled to 70% alcohol (140 proof in the U.S.) and then watered down to 40–55% (80–110 proof) when bottled. It may be aged as little as a few months (3 months at least for AOC rhum agricole) or for a few years. After three years of aging in oak barrels, it may be called “rhum vieux,” or “old rhum”.  This direct link from farm to final product is particularly special, setting the stage for the AOC designation and making for an acute expression of terroir in the bottle.  All of Clement’s distilleries crush fresh cane on the same day it is harvested from the fields.

We enjoyed Ryan’s haul in the form of the island’s favorite drink.  ‘Ti (MarTInique) Punch is a simple one made from three ingredients: rhum agricole, lime and cane syrup – usually found in countless flavors for the choosing, and swizzled with the handy bartool of that name, a stir stick fitted with a quarter sized disc at one end.  Ryan had a muddler and Sugar-in-the-Raw, but I’d be lying if I said his version on-the-fly was anything but damn tasty, especially with plenty of what we also discovered was its typical complement nearby, great French rosé.  Bottles of the stuff abound, a good bottle of Bandol going for about 8 euro in retail on-island.

Tonight Ryan puts a new cocktail on the menu at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink Miami featuring Clément Canne Bleue, its single varietal white rhum agricole crafted from blue sugarcane.  Served in a coupe with a slice of lime, the Blue Cane Daiquiri immaculately expresses this spirit’s terroir, with only lime and sugar to assist as in the classic Ti Punch. Clément Canne Bleue rests for just over six months in a stainless steel vat and is slowly reduced over time with distilled volcanic spring water yielding bright aromas and flavors of fresh meringue, powdered sugar, cucumber and cane stalk, a supple, fruity-yet-dry medium-full body and a long, tingling pepper, sweet cream, talc, and wet stone accented finish. A good speed indeed.

Observe the rhum agricole-making process in this thorough step-by-step overview by The Rum Collective documented at the second Clément-owned and operated distillery Ryan visited, Rhumerie Du Simon.  It is here on the island’s central east coast, its premium product is produced and then transferred for aging in the historic Habitacion Clément.  Click the images above for captions, and for our intrepid beverage director’s full trip, which he did a fantastic job at documenting, visit our Flickr album.

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