Plantation of Flowering Cane MartiniquePlantation of Flowering Cane Martinique
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Martinique, world capital of rumBirth of rum

Martinique Land of Rum

Much more than a simple alcohol, rum has a real cultural dimension in the French West Indies. It is present on the tables certainly, but also in traditional medicine, in popular beliefs, in literature and poetry, in music… Today it accompanies all the festive events in the lives of the Martiniquais…

“Yo pa ka dômi adan an kay san ronm” (One does not sleep in a house without rum)

Birth of rum

During his fourth voyage to the West Indies, Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane, a grass native to India and New Guinea. From 1640, sugar canecultivation developed and gradually replaced those of tobacco and indigo. The sugar produced then is synonymous with great wealth for European countries where it is used mainly for its properties of preservation of fruits. At that time, privateers and other freebooters who travelled the seas of the region discovered that a kind of alcohol could be obtained from molasses (sugar residue). First named “guildive” from the English kill devil, “taffia” and then “rum” from the English rumbullion.

Rum is therefore initially a by-product of cane sugar, resulting from the fermentation and distillation of molasses. Throughout the Caribbean – including Martinique – hundreds of small, completely self-sufficient plantations are created, living in autarky. On the planter’s property, there is a mill, the master’s house, the Case-Nègres street, a chapel and, finally, all the machinery and equipment necessary for the manufacture of sugar and industrial rum. At a time when transportation was not developed, most men spent their entire lives on the estate.

In the 18th century, Father Labat passing through Martinique brought a new distillation technique from the metropolis: the Charentais still. Little by little in the French islands, distillation and fermentation techniques are developed and refined.

Industrial Revolution

The first industrial revolution, with the invention of steam engines and the use of charcoal, marks a decisive step in the history of rum. Planters then realized that bagasse (dried sugarcane skins) was an excellent fuel and could therefore replace coal. Large-scale production was established and organized. Around 1850, all the small plantations are concentrated in each part of the island forming central factories. These use more and more cane and set up a star-shaped system of railroads around the central factory: it thus recovers the cane from all the small plantations around.

However, some plantations remain too far from the factory and the railroads; they are thus landlocked, not knowing how to transport their sugar production to the central factories. They then decide to ferment and distill the pressed cane juice (the “vesou”) and make a pure cane juice rum, a “rhum z’habitants” (“home-made rum”)… This is the birth of agricultural rum, which is finally the result of both the arrival of steam and the geographical distribution of the plantations!

Around 1870, the sugar crisis, due in large part to competition from beet sugar in France, caused the inexorable closure of the central factories. Ironically, they were bought up by small agricultural rum producers who transformed them into distilleries. Indeed, while beet sugar has supplanted cane sugar in France, rum remains a highly sought-after product for its many uses. At the beginning of the 20th century, Saint-Pierre is the world capital of rum; and Martinique, the 1st producer in the world

The eruption of Mount Pelee on May 8, 1902 marks a stop to this success, dozens of distilleries disappear. A deeper crisis set in after the 1945 armistice. However, Martinique remains the only country to produce agricultural rum which excellent quality has gradually established its reputation among European consumers. It is still only used as an ingredient for pastries or in cocktails, whereas in Martinique it is consumed neat, at any time of the day. An imagined and picturesque vocabulary is created around the different moments of the day of the ti’punch (“décollage”, “cocoyage”, “mabiyage”…).

The rum from Martinique,The only agricultural rum with the Protected Designation of Origin.

Sugar cane was already used in prehistoric times. It was spread by the Arabs in the 8th century and taken to America by Christopher Columbus. The species was introduced early throughout tropical Asia and America and soon became one of the most important industrial plants.

In 1970, a group of planters including Philippe Laschnay-Heude (Trois Rivières), Jean-Pierre Bourdillon (one of the B’s of the BBS group, former owner of La Mauny-Trois Rivières-Duquesne), Jean Bally, André Depaz or Jean Neisson and Jean-Claude Benoit (Rhums Saint-James) – decided to apply for a controlled origin appellation for Martinique’s agricultural rum. Indeed this one corresponds in every way to the very definition of an AOC: “the name of a country, region or locality used to designate a product that originates therein and whose qualities or characteristics are due to the geographical environment, including natural and human factors.” On November 5, 1996, a decree published in the Official Journal recognized Martinique supplemented with the mention “agricultural rum” as an AOC. It is the first product outside the hexagonal borders to obtain it. It is also the first rum in the world, the first product from the cane, the first product from a tropical climate, the first white alcohol to be so recognized!

In Martinique, the 3 “star” cane varieties out of the 30 or so authorized by the AOC for their quality and better resistance to mechanical cutting are the Canne Paille (R570), the Canne Bleue (B 69.566) and the Canne Rouge (B64.277).

Martinique is definitely and officially asserting itself as the Land of rum.