Uncommon Attraction: Martinique’s Route des Rhums
Apparently, it’s National Rum Day (who makes this stuff up, anyway?), and while we at Uncommon Caribbean need no excuse to celebrate the quintessential Caribbean spirit (obviously), it does seem a good opportunity to tell you about one of the best rum-themed journeys you can experience anywhere in the world. I’m talking about La Route des Rhums in marvelous Martinique.
Just as wine lovers visit France to savor the best of French wine along La Route des Vins, so too can rum connoisseurs taste and experience the full range of Martinique’s distinctive rhums by traveling La Route des Rhums. The self-guided tour directs visitors to 10 distilleries located throughout the island.
Yes, you read that right; there are 10 different distilleries spread across Martinique’s 425 square miles! As we noted here, most islands are lucky to have just one distillery these days. Forget National Rum Day; you’ll need a whole National Rum Month to fully experience all the variety available here!
Each distillery welcomes visitors with insightful information on the island’s unique rhum-agricole production methods, Martinique’s history, the role rhum plays in the island’s culture and, best of all, free tastings!
For those who may have missed our little dissertations on Martinique rhums in the past, the thing that makes them so unique is the rhum agricole production technique. Whereas rums produced elsewhere are primarily made from the molasses by-product of sugar production, the rhum agricole method used in Martinique begins with freshly squeezed sugar cane juice taken directly from cane stalks. This unique process yields rums that are more comparable with fine cognacs, offering greater complexity and a more varied array of natural flavors.
Owing in large part to the rhum agricole production technique, Martinique rums are the only rums in the world that have been granted the prestigious Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation. Awarded by the French government agency Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in recognition of the finest agricultural products (wines, cheeses, butters, etc), the AOC designation is an incomparable stamp of excellence in the culinary and spirits world. All rums produced in Martinique bear the AOC marker, making them a favorite of the world’s most discerning rum connoisseurs.
Tasting these fine rhums anywhere is a treat, but sampling them on their own home-turf is an experience you’ll never forget. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many of the distilleries on La Route des Rhums, and I can tell you it’s truly amazing to see, hear and taste the greatness of Martinique’s storied rhum-making tradition first-hand.
One of the best visitor experiences is available at the Saint-James distillery, located on the island’s northern Atlantic coast. The facility dates back to 1765, and its on-site museum bears a treasure-trove of rum-related artifacts, vintage ads, old bottles and machinery. Saint-James also hosts two annual rum festivals: the first in late-June marks the end of the harvest season, while the second in December simply celebrates rum itself.
Another one of my favorites is the small Neisson Distillery, which is also up north, though on the Caribbean coast. Neisson is the last exclusively family-owned rum producer in Martinique. The facility is small, but that says nothing of the big, bold flavor of its rums, reflected in its Creole nickname, Zeopli Kare, which translates to “broad shoulders.” The distillery’s smaller size generally yields a more intimate visit, so don’t be surprised if the person leading your tour actually owns the place.
At the very northern tip of Martinique, in the town of Macouba, travelers along La Route des Rhums will discover the famed Rhum J.M. Distillery, one of the smallest and oldest (est. 1790) rum producers on the island. Rhum J.M. grows its own cane on a hillside right along a windswept shore in rich volcanic soil. In part due to these unique conditions, Rhum J.M. harvests its cane for production 30-60 days later than other distilleries, yielding a distinctive flavor all its own.
In the South, Habitation Clément in François should not be missed. Established in the 18th Century, Habitation Clément is part of a sprawling estate that includes a magnificent 17-acre Botanical Park with more than 300 tropical plants, several historic sites, and a former distillery used solely for aging today. Notably, the main house at Habitation Clément is classified as a historic monument, while La Case à Léo, hosts an ever-changing collection of fine artwork produced by Caribbean artists. Longtime readers may remember our intro to La Case à Léo and La Case des Presidents, where the summit meeting between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and French President Francois Mitterand was held following the first Gulf War in March 1991.
And these are just a handful of the distilleries on this magical tour! If you’re really into the “spirit” of National Rum Day, then you’ll want to look into this unique adventure real soon.
For more info on La Route des Rhums, click here to get in touch with our friends at the Martinique Promotion Bureau. They can hook you up with the map and give you pointers on the days/times to visit each distillery, where to stay and more.
À votre santé!