20 Jun Each Prepares for Their Own Death: A Visit to Martinique
Join us on Sunday, June 29 for a guided tasting of rhum agricole from the International Rum Council’s Nicholas Feris. This is a free event, but seating is limited; please RSVP.
Last month, I was honored to be among a small group of bartenders from around the country (and one beach bum) invited to experience the French island of Martinique and learn about the production of their most prized export: Rhum agricole. Rhum agricole must be produced from cane grown in a specific area and is protected by an AOC, which eliminates any unfair and inferior competition from being called rhum agricole. It’s made from fresh pressed cane, not molasses, which separates it from most rums in the world. Martinique is located among the lesser Antilles, a string of islands in the eastern Caribbean, and is also known for growing bananas. Tons of them!
SAILING AND SIPPING TI PUNCH
We started our first day touring the island on a catamaran. First things first, we were served a delightful Ti Punch, which means “small” punch. It’s the traditional island cocktail and is served EVERYWHERE! (Check out the recipe at the end of this entry.)
Sailing is a major sport in Martinique, with many big international races taking place throughout the year, so this was a fitting introduction. The wind was blowing hard that day and the swells were upwards of 8-10 feet. It was a blast! The water was a crystal-clear sapphire blue and the island itself stood out like a deep hued emerald – lush with foliage and freckled with brightly painted buildings.
TOURING THE CANE FIELDS OF RHUM J.M.
Our second day was spent making our way to Rhum J.M where we toured their cane fields (they grow bananas too) and got a first-hand look at their entire estate and Rhum Agricole production process. After the cane fields, we followed the path of the sugar cane trail to the distillery. J.M. Sits at the highest elevation of any distillery on the island and only grows three varietals of cane: red, yellow, and green.
The distillery itself is situated within a dense rainforest valley amidst tropical flowering trees, massive bunches of bamboo towering above, and more frog songs and bird calls than I’ve ever heard outside of a PBS nature series. Because of the elevation, the humidity was less intense and a cooler breeze blew, bringing with it the scent of the ocean, and seemingly, carrying the light off the water. There is no doubt about it, the place is true paradise!
The equipment used to press the juice from the cane is nearly 100 years old. Walking on the catwalk overhead felt a lot like a time warp. Huge steam engines, cranks, pulleys, chains and shredders are powered by the spent and dried sugar cane wine after distillation, which is burned in a furnace. Production was shut down that day due to a pump malfunction, so we had to wait for the Clement distillery visit before we could see it all in action.
We received a guided tasting from their master distiller, Benjamin. He explained that it wasn’t just the location of the distillery and the varietals of cane they grow, but also the volcanic spring that they have diverted from high in the mountains that contribute to the unique terroir of their rhum. The water is used in the distillation and cuts down the proof before bottling. It possesses a mineral quality unlike any other Agricole I’ve tasted – very floral and citrusy! To my surprise, the three-year expression turned out to be my favorite. Alas it’s not available in the states, yet. I usually tend towards the older ones, but this had the perfect balance of fresh pressed cane flavors and aromas along with just enough wood to round it out and make it more complex.
After that we enjoyed more Ti Punch with the entire staff while strolling through to the gift shop. There are many interactive sensory experiences that aid in learning how to smell/taste the rhum, and what makes J.M. unique. Pretty sure nobody left empty handed.
Following an amazing lunch at a small fourth generation family-run restaurant on the beach, it was back to the hotel for a bit of R&R. After that, we went out to dinner and then rested up for the Rhum Clement experience the next day.
A VISIT TO RHUM CLEMENT DISTILLERY
Clement is one of the largest Agricole rhum producers on the island. The historic Habitation Clement welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year. It’s because of this that they moved the majority of production three miles down the road. The distilleries themselves are dusty, loud, and frankly a bit smelly due to all the fermenting cane juice and spent wine. Not a nice place for most guests
We made a quick stop at the working distillery, though, and it was truly impressive. Under the guidelines of the AOC, the cane must be pressed and fermentation started within 24 hours so there’s a constant supply coming in from the fields, especially because it was dry season in Martinique – the only three-month span you can harvest all year.
The equipment was similar to that at J.M., just a tad more modern (machines from the 30s and 40s) and aided by a pretty high-tech lab that monitors every aspect of the process: sugar levels, fermentation, temperatures, alcohol levels – you name it, they are watching to assure a consistent quality. After following our guides through the distillation process, it was a quick jaunt over to where most if the magic happens…
…I am of course talking about the barrel houses at Habitation Clement. When you open the doors you’re greeted by the most amazingly sweet smells. Rich oaky vanilla is the most dominant and it pretty much takes over your entire consciousness. I had to snap out of it when we were introduced to Robert Peronet, the cellar Master, who has been in the business for 30+ years. He explained how the climate (yearly average temp around 85) on the island leads to a very high evaporation per year (that’s why it smelled so good in there) – close to double what you would get in milder regions like Kentucky or Scotland. Because of this, the Rhum matures faster, but also cannot be aged longer than 15 years.
We toured the gorgeous botanical gardens and contemporary art gallery which plays host to international and local artists alike. The entire place is somewhat of a museum cataloging the history of rhum production in Martinique and the rich family history of Clement itself. After the tour, we congregated in the courtyard to have Ti Punch (of course!) and appetizers before being led into the main original house. We ate lunch at a beautiful long wood table among many old paintings and artifacts (this area is normally roped off from other visitors and they can only look in). Later, we learned that the very some table was where George Bush Sr. and the president of France signed to treaties to effectively end the Gulf War.
We tasted every main expression of rhum they produce, from the single varietal canne bleu (made only from blue sugar cane) on up to the Clement XO, a blend of 15 year old rhums some from reserves dating back to 1976, 1970, and 1952.
The Rhum was all amazing, but the hospitality was the true gem of Clement. There is such passion and dedication involved with everything they do. I urge anyone that hasn’t already taken it upon themselves to try one of their rhums to do so right away. Get to know the category, what it stands for, and what separates it from other rum. Try it in a cocktail or just sip straight. Whatever your choice, you won’t be disappointed
To the talented group of bartenders, our gracious hosts at J.M. And Clement, the people of Martinique, everything was perfect. What I learned from my experiences will stay with me forever.
I would like to extend special thanks to Christopher Morales and Benjamin Jones from Clement USA for taking the chance on a humble guy from Ann Arbor, my family and everyone at The Ravens Club for allowing me to be away for so long. I live for these moments. Cheers!
HOW TO MAKE TI PUNCH
- Each person prepares their own death, so feel free to improvise on the following recipe
- In an Old-Fashioned glass or smallish tumbler, mix two ounces of rhum agricole, a good squeeze of lime and cane syrup or sugar to taste.
- Swizzle the mixture until the syrup is dissolved
- Add one or two ice cubes, if you’re going to sip it
By TRC barman Robyn Cleveland