Beyond the beautiful beaches, warm ocean currents and tropical gardens, Martinique is known for its exceptional rum.

Sugar Cane Spirits

The Caribbean is famous for its rum, but there is only one island where the rum carries the distinguished AOC Appellation d’Origine Controlee label – Martinique. This mark of excellence is only bestowed on rums that meet a strict standard of production and aging. To begin with, Martinique rums are classified as rhum agricole (rum made using fresh sugar cane juice), while most other rums are industrial or traditional rum (made from molasses, the byproduct of sugar refining). In addition, Martinique rums can only be made from 12 varieties of sugar cane, fermentation must begin within 24 hours of harvesting, and caramel cannot be added to enhance the colour of the aged rum. These stipulations and the unique terroir of the sugar cane fields all combine to create the variable flavours and aromas that are acclaimed by rum connoisseurs.

“There’s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion”
– Lord Byron

La Route des Rhums

The red roofs of the Rhum J.M distillery in a valley on the northern tip of the island.  Credit: Julie Kalan

The red roofs of the Rhum J.M distillery in a valley on the northern tip of the island. Credit: Julie Kalan

Dispersed throughout Martinique are 12 prominent distilleries ready to welcome visitors with tours and tastings. So, no matter where you are on the island, you can easily find a distillery or two to visit.

The Rhum J.M distillery is nestled in a verdant valley in Macouba, on the northern tip of the island. The red roofs of the distillery buildings stand out amid the lush green foliage. The setting looks like a movie location – as if a set designer planned every detail, including the muted orange-yellow coconuts adorning the palm trees. Sugar cane flourishes here, in the volcanic soil. The penultimate stop on the self-guided tour is a room dedicated to the olfactory sense. Each niche in the wall is devoted to a different scent. Simply press the button and breathe in the soothing scents of vanilla, oak, white flower (such as jasmine or orange blossom) and the like. After this aromatherapy, please your taste buds by sampling this fine island spirit.

The elegant dining room at Habitation Clément's plantation house. Credit: Julie Kalan

The elegant dining room at Habitation Clément’s plantation house.
Credit: Julie Kalan

Further south, located in Le Francois, is Habitation Clément. With an audio guide in hand, the tour begins with a walk through the palm grove. If you love nature and gardens, you will surely be enthralled by the array of 300 tropical plant species. The path continues through a small sugar cane field and then on to the old distillery (Clément’s current distillery is located a few kilometers away). Signs located throughout the large expanse describe the old machinery before me and their part in the rum making process. The tour continues past three storehouses; one contains enormous casks, while the other two are filled with neatly piled rows of rum barrels, branded with the face of Homère Clément.

Perched on top of a hill is the Creole house, a classified historic monument. Dating from the 18th and 19th centuries this original plantation house is charming. The many shuttered windows (with no window panes) are esthetically darling and in terms of air circulation surprisingly efficient. The spacious dining room houses an elegant table set for ten. Even the flooring is impressive, featuring wooden herringbone patterns and decorative blue tiles. A period telephone and typewriter add to the ambience.

The tour concludes in the boutique, where an array of rum is ready to sample. Alongside the bottles of aged and white rum are passion fruit, coffee, and coconut flavoured punches and flavoured rums like Clément Blue Cocktail (with pineapple, passion fruit, orange and grapefruit) and Clément Gold Cocktail (with a mix of pink mango, pineapple and coconut flavours).

Chacun Prépare Sa Propre Mort – Each person prepares his own death

At the hotel Villa Saint-Pierre, André Givogre demonstrates the proper method for making 'Ti Punch.  Credit: Julie Kalan

At the hotel Villa Saint-Pierre, André Givogre demonstrates the proper method
for making ‘Ti Punch.
Credit: Julie Kalan

You may hear this saying when invited to prepare your own ‘Ti Punch – a surprisingly common occurrence, whether at a restaurant or friend’s house. While it is up to you to decide how much rum to pour into your glass, you should always follow the proper technique. Luckily for me, the owner of Hotel Villa Saint-Pierre is proud to give us a demonstration. Standing behind the bar in a tropical shirt, André Givogre has set out a bowl a sugar, a plate of lime wedges and a row of short glasses that bare the local Depaz Distillery logo. The first step is to add the sugar (or sugar cane syrup, if you wish). Then squeeze the lime wedge and drop it into the glass. The next step is to add the rum (a word of caution – if this is your first ‘Ti Punch, be careful not to add too much rum – this drink packs a punch). The final step: using your thumb and middle finger to grasp the glass, gently rotate your wrist to mix the drink, or for a more elegant method, use a bois lélé. This specialized swizzle stick, with five branches radiating out the bottom, is made from a local tree (plastic versions are sometimes used). ‘Ti Punch may be enjoyed with or without ice.

Travel Planner

For more information on Martinique, including a list of distilleries on La Route des Rhums:
Hotel Villa Saint-Pierre
Rhum J.M
Habitation Clément
Note: Unfortunately, the SAQ does not carry the Rhum J.M or Clément brands, but does carry St. James Rhum agricole.