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Published: March 21st 2009
The Trois Riviere distillery, unique because it used wind power to crush the sugar cane. Cool windmill!
Once again the Rum Runners are in Martinique. And what do the Rum Runners do in the one of the most abundant areas of sugar cane and rum? We do rum tours! This time we set out from Marin to visit the rest of the rum factories we missed on our last visit here on our tour of the Caribbean.
Martinique is a very manicured island, not disturbed by the slowdown in sugarcane production. Most of the other islands in the Caribbean have either reduced or stopped growing their own sugarcane for rum, and use molasses imported from South America instead. But not Martinique. As you drive through the hills and valleys there are extensive plantations of sugarcane, bananas, coffee, pineapples, and other island fruits. It seems most of the island has been allotted for production and little real estate is lost to the wild. With all this sugarcane it is no wonder that Martinique has more rum distilleries than any other island in the Caribbean. It was our goal to hit them all, but soon into the conquest it was realized that this dream might be an impossibility, if just for lack of time.
Our first stop on
The copper distill of La Mauny- making 4 million liters of rum a year.
the mission was the estate of La Mauny. This beautiful plantation is tucked away in a small valley amongst rolling hills and an ambling river. The old production area, which was established in 1749, is now part of the landscape. The forgotten stone structures and decayed stills add to the quaint ambiance. Today, La Mauny rum is made at a new high tech production facility down the road. This high tech distillery has a production capacity of over 4 million liters of rum per year- holy cow! Now that’s a lot of rum. In all, 28 thousand tons of sugar cane is crushed and turned into rum agricole at La Mauny. On the tour, we try to bone up on our French and are reminded of the difference between French agricole rum (which distils straight from sugar cane juice) and the more industrial version of rum (which is distilled from molasses). This process gives the agricole rum a very distinctive taste of the sugar cane fields with hints of local flavors and aromas specific to the area of production. Whenever you taste agricole rum, especially a suis bois (aged for about 12 to 18 months in oak barrels), it will
It looks like a rum distillery, doesn't it? But sadly it is produces sugar.
give you sensation of being back in Martinique amongst the cane fields.
After the tour we were treated to the first product of the distillation process, pure white rum at 81% alcohol! I could barely get it on my lips let alone enjoy it because of the fire it produces in your mouth and down your throat. This stuff is powerfully potent and we joked that we should buy a bottle, that it would be a great product to clean out the carburetor of our dinghy motor. Can’t imagine that people actually drink this stuff, and most people don’t. In fact La Mauny takes this pure white rum and either dilutes it or blends it or puts it in oak barrels for it to age and mellow, thus becoming the final product. And all that was left for us to do was visit the tasting room to enjoy the final product, agricole rum (always our favorite part of any tour). Here we sampled their white rum at 50% alcohol, the golden aged "suis bois" rum at 40%, and the older aged "rhum vieux" and the "VSOP" (very special old product). We liked the rhum suis bois so much we
The penninsula on the windward side of Martinique- very picturesque!
ended up getting a whole box, kind of like box wine but full of rum instead. What a great idea, especially for the Rum Runners!
On the road again, we accidentally pass by the Trios Rivieres distillery on the highway. It’s hard to miss because of the unmistakable windmill. After finding a place to turn around and park, we arrive at the plantation which looks like it should be in Holland instead of the Caribbean. Traditionally, the distilleries in the Caribbean used a water wheel to power the mill that crushes the sugar cane to extract the cane juice. However, Trios Rivieres used a windmill and the power of the trade winds to run the mill instead. Very unique! Unfortunately like many of the distilleries we visit, this first step in production has been modernized to diesel power and this windmill is a thing of the past. Although it is a wonderful sight, we enjoyed watching it from the tasting room while we sipped the agricole rums.
After a morning of touring, we were in dire need of some sustenance to soak up all of the rum. We started out for Tartane, a peaceful beach town on picturesque
St. James Tasting Room
Jay and Chris hanging out at the St. James tasting room. We loved the rum so much we boaught a box.
Caravelle Peninsula on the windward side of the island. Of course, according to the map there is also a factory nearby and one on the way. Nearing the town of La Trinite we smell the unmistakable scent of hot sugarcane and decide to stop at what appears to be the Galion Distillery. While walking through the old buildings we hear and smell the rum making process, but cannot find the main building for tourists or the tasting room. Confusing?!?! So we eventually are forced to give up and continue on, our stomachs tell us to move forward towards nourishment and we head back out on the road. We finally arrive at the small seaside town with its row of small restaurants, specializing in "fruits de mer" (which literally translates to fruit of the sea, or seafood for all those who don’t speak French). We also see the ruins of Rhumerie Hardy, a distillery that hasn't been open in probably 100 years. Oh well, I guess that makes two distilleries that we won’t be visiting. But we still enjoy our leisurely meal here at a seaside restaurant (we have found lunch cannot be rushed) and take our espresso at the end
Barrel of St. James Rum
In the rum museum we saw how they measured the rum- the final amount is always a little less due to evaporation. They call this the angel's share.
of the meal. To our surprise, the espresso comes with sugar packets from the "Galion Sugar" plant, which we mistook for a rum factory. No wonder why no one expected us to be there, they are not very used to visitors wanting to taste sugar packets, thus no tasting room. How funny! We have a good chuckle at our mistake and make plans to visit 2 more plan distilleries before the end of the day. But decide to keep one Galion sugar packet from the table for nostalgia.
On arriving at St. James, the next distillery on our quest, we are struck by the size of the entire operation. Set at the edge of the town of Saint Marie, the fields of cane rise up behind the town to the top of the hills as far as the eye can see. The distillery and other warehouses for production are huge. We tour the rum museum there, which is located in the beautiful, refurbished plantation house and contains old pictures and the equipment used in rum production. Very cool! Then we realize that in order to take a tour of the entire operation you must ride on a train around
The distellery at HSE, one of our favorite stops on our Rhum tour.
the plantation, thru the sugar cane fields, with a stop at the distillery and the bottling plant. Time and weather (it is now raining of course) are not on our side and we enjoy looking at the items in the museum, but forego the train ride. Bummer! Then it is a stop at the tasting room, which is set up at a giant mahogany bar and is one of the best we have seen so far. The rum here is also excellent, so we buy another box. While sipping our Ti Punch at the bar, we talk to some of the other tourists from France and learn that St. James is the most famous brand of rum back in Paris. Who knew? Afterwards we depart, missing out on the train ride but insist that we will be back. You always have to leave out something to give an excuse to return!
It was a full day of touring and we can not make it to the last distillery on our list. So that makes 3 distilleries that we have visited today, one sugar plantation, and another distillery in ruins. Not bad, but we still have many more to go.
Jen Taps the Barrel
Maybe we should buy this barrel, it is excellent rum!
We realize that another day is definitely needed to even put a dent in seeing all of the distilleries in Martinique. So we retreat to rest and re-coup for yet another early start.
Bright eyed and bushytailed we start the trek from Marin (at the very South end of the island) to the town of Macouba (at the very North end). On the way we stop at HSE, or Habitation Saint-Etienne. This small distillery is tucked away in a valley off the beaten path and gives the impression it doesn't get many visitors. Upon arrival we peak into all the buildings and rum storage areas, while the workers toil about making their product. After finding the main office, which incidentally is also the corporate office, we helped ourselves to the HSE rum that is set up on display on a shelf by the secretary’s desk. It is a little awkward and we feel a bit uncomfortable, but the manager of the plant comes out to greet us and eases any discomfort. He tells us the history of the plant, the specific nuisances of all of their products, the rum market on the island (they sell most of their product
Putting the labels on the bottles of rum at HSE.
locally), and welcomes us to tour the factory at our leisure. After a delightful conversation we purchase some of the best rum and he designated us "Ambassadors" of HSE. On our way out he gives us plenty of HSE shwag to decorate the Rum Runner and serve our ti punches with. We then had to pick up our bottles of rum at the production area, where we experienced the bottling process in full gear. Very cool! After a quick self guided tour around we leave thinking HSE is one of the nicest stops we have done, and certainly worth the effort to find.
Next we are headed even farther north to the Rhum JM. On the drive there we see huge estates of sugar cane and bananas up the windward slopes of Mt Pele, rich with volcanic soil. The Rhum JM distillery and plantation dates back to 1790 and the production techniques look like they have not been changed for two hundred years. Again, the distillery is nestled in a valley by a gently flowing river. Although this operation is much smaller than the other distilleries we have visited. In fact, the entire process from crushing sugar cane to
The entire production facility at Rhum JM, still making rum the same way for over 200 years- wow!
distilling to aging takes place in an old stone building, one that has been used for centuries. We taste their exquisite rum and are tempted to tour the cane fields via little 4x4 dune buggies, it looks like a lot of fun. But with our mission still at hand to visit all the distilleries in Martinique, we decide to leave this for another day. So we hit the road and head over to the other side of Mt Pele to finish our rum tours.
The last two distilleries we visit on the tour are ones we have previously explored, but were worth a second visit. The Depaz distillery still has one of the best views on the island. The sugar cane fields are up on a cliff, as far as the eye can see, and eventually disappear into the Caribbean ocean to the west. Stunning! This distillery is very high tech and automated now, but the old water wheel still turns and turns for the tourist delight. We get some spare parts for our mini rum barrel purchased during our last visit and move onto the Neisson rum distillery. Here is just a quick stop to replenish some supplies,
Roll Out the Barrel
Barrels of Rum at Depaz- this rum agricole is being aged in oak barrels and will become dark rum.
then we are back off to Marin to cart everything back onto the boat.
All in all, hitting seven rum distilleries and one sugar factory in two days made us feel accomplished. We made an impressive show at our goal of seeing them all (there are over 13 in total). We will just have to return to Martinique again to visit the other distilleries on our list. But in the meantime, we reminisced our adventures while sipping ti punches and admiring the collection we brought home.
Ti Punch Recipe:
-1/2 part sugar cane syrup
-4 parts rum agricole
-1 slice of lime
-1 ice cube
Add syrup, rum, and lime juice. Stir with a traditional "lele" stick. Add ice and serve!
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