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Spiritourism atHSE Rum FactoryHabitation Saint-Etienne

Visit to HSE Rum Factory

Today I’m sharing a favorite visit: that of the Habitation Saint-Etienne, home of the HSE rums. I’m lucky enough to take the guided tour with Sophie Pichavant, in charge of tourism development for the estate. I’ll take the opportunity to ask her a few questions…

Sophie Pichavant

HSE Tourism Development Manager

Habitation Saint-Etienne,

a site steeped in history

At the bend of a winding road lined with lush vegetation between Saint-Joseph and Gros Morne, in the heart of deep Martinique, rise – preserved and rehabilitated – the centuries-old buildings of Habitation Saint-Etienne. Every time I visit I’m seized with emotion and wonder at such a scenery! The splendid mansion all dressed in red, dominates the rhumerie. I walk down the driveway lined with majestic royal palm trees before parking. Head for the boutique, or rather “Les Foudres” inaugurated in 2010 by writer Edouard Glissant where Sophie is waiting for me.

The boutique itself is already a work of art! Magnificently restored, the place hosts the tasting area as well as artist exhibitions. The atmosphere is uncluttered and warm at the same time.

Hello Sophie, could you remind me of the singular history of Habitation Saint-Etienne for all those who don’t know it?

-“With pleasure! You need to know that in the 19th century, there was a big sugar factory here called Habitation La Maugée, named after the canton. Its land then covered 440 hectares spread over the villages of Gros-Morne and Saint-Joseph. It was of course built near a water source, essential to the sugar business. As you can see, the property is crossed by the Lézarde river. “

It’s true that water is omnipresent throughout the visit, reinforcing the impression of serenity and abundant nature…

– “The sugar factory was bought by Théobald Monguy, who renamed it Habitation Saint-Etienne in 1863, then by Amédée Aubery in 1882. The latter moved in with his family and set about transforming the sugar factory into an agricultural distillery (it was the height of the sugar crisis at the time!). It was in this year that he had a 500 m canal dug from the top of the garden to the new building where distilled rum would be produced. Planting and harvesting conditions were considerably improved by the installation of railroads and wagons pulled by draught animals. And in 1883, Saint-Etienne rum flowed for the first time! It wouldn’t stop until 1988.”

Although the building no longer houses a proper distillery, the remains have been preserved and restored.

The fascade with its 28 arched windows is one of the last and finest examples of industrial architecture in Martinique!

Why 1988?

-“I’ll continue with the twists and turns of history… In the early 1950s, Henry Simonnet, who had married the Aubéry daughter, took over Saint-Etienne. These were fine years for Saint-Etienne rum, which saw its local market grow rapidly. New mills, a new copper distillation column and a bold sales strategy initiated by Jean Simonnet then made Rhums Saint-Etienne the leader of local brands. The famous bottle and its traditional label that all the old-timers know (for them HSE doesn’t exist!) will remain the most consumed in Martinique until the 1970s.

What happens then?

-“At the end of the 1970s, agricultural rum, still little appreciated outside the West Indies, goes through a period of crisis to the benefit of other spirits, sales collapse. Bought by the Dormoy family, the land and estate gradually went into abandonment. Cyclones David and Allen destroyed part of the 150-hectare plantation. For 8 years, vegetation proliferated, installations rusted… In short, the time of splendor and success seemed over…”

But then how did we go from a derelict estate to what we have before us today, and how did HSE rums manage to re-establish itself in the rum market?

-“In 1994, José and Florette Hayot fell in love at first sight with this sleepy site, preserved from destruction and urban development where the tropical vegetation was magnificent and the distillery impressive, with its 28-window fascade. Loving heritage, art and history, they bought it and embarked on a complete restoration of the site and the gardens. The entire facility was then inscribed on the Inventaire Supplémentaire des Monuments Historiques. And today the old distillery and the Creole column are listed as Monuments Historiques!”

As we talk, we take the “Chemin de la poésie” to the winery.

HSE rums

It’s time to talk about rum! How did Saint-Etienne rum become HSE?

– “Over the next few years, José Hayot set about rebuilding the brand’s reputation. With almost everything having to be redone, a change of strategy proved inevitable. The site and its buildings are rehabilitated but the distillation will henceforth be carried out at the Simon distillery in Le François, to rationalize costs. The distillation column will therefore be transferred to Le François, in order to preserve the typicity of Saint-Etienne rum.

Aside from distillation, all other stages will be carried out on site: bottling, ageing, storage and marketing. Priority is given to investments in ageing, given that it takes at least 3 years to obtain an old rum. The brand is gradually regaining its colors. In 2008, the break was more radical: the new HSE rum was born and with it a new packaging that virtually wiped the slate clean of the past. A more qualitative, resolutely modern bottle brings a youthful touch to a rum that everyone agrees is excellent!”

We walk past the old steam engine with its 3 presses. Even though everything is mechanized now, the cane is still pressed 3 times: first dry, second with water and then a third one.

The rum distillery is in full swing, with the cellars filled from floor to ceiling with barrels! But how is distillation organized?

-“It takes a lot of organization! We master the process from A to Z : we own our own sugar canes on 500 hectares. As soon as the canes are cut, they are transported to the Simon factory. Once distilled, the white rum is trucked back to Habitation St Etienne. Time is of the essence, as for the AOC the cane must be cut, crushed and fermented in 48 hours! In the middle of this period we distill 50,000 liters a day

Part of the rum goes to bottling, the rest is destined for aging.”

The aging of HSE rums

In the “chai aux oiseaux” (the “birds cellar”) the poetry of the place combines the barrels lined up with bird mobiles by artist Federica Matta, creator of the huge mural painted on the façade. This is where the cellar master will expertly blend, refine and polish his aged rums. I’ve never seen such smith’s work to bring out cuvees with strong personality. Lionel Lampin is creating a blend in huge barrels…

-“These are the casks, we use them both for blending, like today where the cellar master mixes 2017 old rum with 2020. He tastes and then adds water to reduce the alcohol content. The aim is to get down from 52° to 42°, which is the titration of old rum HSE VO, VSOP and XO. Other foudres are used for “matured in wood” rum (“straw rum“, “gold rum“), which is aged for between 1 and 2 years. Old rum will be transferred to casks of up to 650 liters.

The choice of barrel is important for the taste he wants to give his old rum, Sophie explains to me.

-“The size, the material, the toasting are all part of the alchemy. When HSE started making rum again in 1994, there were no casks and we chose to buy only new ones, which resulted in rums with a distinctive taste. The first aging (from 3 to 6 years) is done in American Bourbon-type oak barrels. These barrels have only been used once to make bourbon, that’s their rule. That’s how Black Sheriff, one of our best-sellers, came into being. For rum we can reuse them 4 times. After 6 years, the rum goes into French oak barrels, which are more suitable. This exposed barrel shows you the cracked interior: it’s the result of “crocodile skin” toasting. An expert cellar master (ours is, Lionel!) is able to guess the aroma that will emerge from a barrel just by looking at it…

The smaller the barrel, the stronger the extraction, it’s going to give that woody, spicy side with aromas of nuts and fruit peel.”

I really like HSE “Finitions du Monde” (Finish of the World“) collection. In which casks are they aged?

-“This is a third range for which we use another type of cask, much smaller (1000 bottles max), having contained another alcohol (Port, Sauternes, Whisky…). The rum will then aggregate notes of this other alcohol, which is what we call the “finish”. This stage is limited to 6 months, so that the rum retains its aromatic power.”

The remarkable garden of HSE

We now stroll through the garden, sublime and labeled a “Remarkable Garden” since 2015.

-“Our garden has first and foremost a botanical dimension with over 180 plant species, from all over the world: royal palm trees from the West Indies, heliconia, a bamboo grove, an orchard, horticultural trees, red palm trees, cursed fig trees, achiote trees, calabash trees, alpinias, coconut trees, a zamana, lemon trees, queen palms; a large bird population including the kayali, endemic green heron. Three gardeners work full-time to maintain the 5 hectares!”

The historical and heritage dimension emerges as you stroll along: the canal, the waterfall, its little bridge, witnesses to a centuries-old activity. An artistic dimension too with these 3 gigantic sculptures on the theme of colonization: “La Sainte-Alliance” and “La Vision des vaincus” by Victor Anicet as well as “Stairway to Heaven” by Philippe Perrin, a masterful reminder of an era at the heart of so much beauty…

I love this garden, this organized abundance, this mix of trees and flowers, these vast relaxing green expanses with the song of the river where time seems to have stopped.

Foudres HSE

Store and exhibitions

It’s impossible to ignore the boutique! Both a tasting and sales area and a temporary exhibition room (at the moment it’s Robert Charlotte’s photos), the Foudres HSE reveals a hushed atmosphere.

Sophie invites me to discover the XO “à la française” a 2016 vintage limited series, a blend of extra-aged rums. I’m also tempted by a Malt finish, which has benefited from finishing in casks of whisky Kilchoman, Single Malt from Islay for 4 to 5 months. I’m won over… I’m obviously taking the opportunity to buy some bottles to give as gifts and goodies HSE, always very nice!

The tour is free, but if you’re lucky enough to take part in the guided tour, don’t hesitate: it’s fascinating! Guided tours take place every Tuesday and Thursday at 2.30pm.

A big thank you to Sophie who accompanied us… A passionate, erudite and committed woman.

Masterclasses, exhibitions, concerts, shows are regularly organized at Habitation Saint-Etienne. Follow us on the agenda !

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