Chai Alambic Habitation La Salle Rhum Sainte-Marie Martinique
©Chai Alambic Habitation La Salle Rhum Sainte-Marie Martinique|MDES
Agricultural Rum from MartiniqueFrom harvest to aging

From Harvest to Aging

It should be known that there are in the world two main types of rum : the industrial rum made from molasses (residue of refining sugar cane) and the agricultural rum from the distillation of cane juice (the “vesou”). This agricultural rum is produced in the French West Indies, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Note that Cachaça (Brazil) is also derived from the distillation of cane juice but with different techniques.

The various stages of making Rum

The sugar cane cutting

Once a year the sugar canes are harvested, during the dry season (February to June). The cutting was once done only manually, by hand (and with a cutlass!). Since the 1990s, the harvest has been mechanized, allowing the cutting, cutting into sections and loading into the machine. The canes are immediately sent to the distillery because they must not dry out in the sun. “The cane must have its foot in the ground and its head in the mill,” says the Creole proverb.

Hand cutting is still practiced by some distilleries and for plots that are difficult to access. Upon arrival at the distillery, the canes are weighed, checked (sucrose content) and classified according to variety (blue, red, yellow cane).


Cut into 20 cm sections, the canes are then rinsed and then crushed in successive mills at the same time as they are soaked, in order to extract the juice and preserve all their sweetness. The residue of the crushing removed from the sugar, which is called “bagasse”, is preserved to serve as fuel to heat the boiler, whose steam is injected into the bottom of the distillation column. The juice is transferred to large fermentation tanks.


This step is necessary to transform all the sugar from the cane juice into alcohol. To carry out this process, industrial yeasts are added that will cause fermentation. Some use yeasts naturally contained in the cane of each terroir. These manufacturing secrets will affect the aromatic characteristics of rums. After 2 to 3 days, the cane wine obtained, the “vesou” is 5 degrees.


This is the stage that will give the vesou its final alcohol content and develop all the aromas of the resulting rum. Until the 19th century, the distillation was carried out in a “repasse” still. In the 20th century, the column still gradually replaced it because it allows continuous distillation, with less human intervention. Called at home “creole column”, or “distillation column “, it allows a faster continuous distillation, in larger quantities, with a higher alcohol content.

The column is composed of several trays in which the steam from the bottom of the column circulates. The vesou is introduced from the top of the column and moves down from tray to tray. It heats up when it meets the steam, and is loaded with alcohol and aromas. Each part of the column is heated to different temperatures.

The alcohol vapors travel up the column and out the top to be cooled and become liquid again. This cooling occurs via a wine-heating condenser and a cooler. The crystalline rum coming out of the column after these different steps titrates at about 70°. After a minimum maturation period of two months, it is then reduced with spring or distilled water to reach a drinking degree of 40° to 62° for white agricultural rums.

One part is stored in stainless steel tanks for white rum. The other part is put in foudres (large barrels of 1000 liters) for an aging between 1 and 2 years for a rum “raised under wood” (rum “straw” or rum “amber”) or in barrels (250 liters on average) for a minimum of 3 years for the famous old agricultural rums that are the pride of Martinique.


Old rum was born out of the need to adapt to the quota imposed in 1945 and the large quantities of surplus white rum that resulted. The planters then decided to put the white rum in barrels and age it, like a cognac or armagnac. Originally, they used used American oak barrels that had contained bourbon or cognac.

The aging is now done in oak barrels, American or French. The tannin in the wood will give it its beautiful brown color. We talk about VO rum for 3 years of barrel aging, VSOP rum for 4 years, and XO rum for 6 years. There are also vintage rums of more than 20 years, and rums known as “out of age “… In recent years, rum makers practice barrel exchanges with spirits brands for a finish: finishing in a barrel that has contained another alcohol – Cognac, Bourbon, Sherry, Sauternes, Port, Japanese Whiskey in order to bring an original touch to their vintages. Unlike wine, the aging stops once the rum is bottled.


An Eco-responsible Culture

The rum industry in Martinique is an eco-responsible sector. It is one of the only industries in Martinique to be practically energy self-sufficient since it uses bagasse (residue of crushed cane) as a renewable fuel for boilers or thermal power plants. With 1 ton of cane, we obtain 300 kg of bagasse that can produce 130 kWh.

Other experiments have also been conducted successfully: the use of vinasse to obtain biogas through the process of methanization; phyto-remediation through the technique of lagooning but also the use of biological control since the 1980s to eliminate the borer larva that was destroying sugarcane plants. (* source Rhums Saint-James).

Sugar cane is also the plant that absorbs the most carbon dioxide.