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Spirits: Sugar Babies

Todd Keith

When Prussian chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf discovered a way to extract sugar from beetroot, he effectively ended the Caribbean’s lock on the sugar market in 18th-century Europe. In the decades following his 1747 breakthrough, a lack of demand for cane sugar left the West Indies with huge surpluses of the once-precious sugarcane crop. "Something had to be done with all that cane growing on Martinique," says Grégoire Gueden, export director for Rhum Clément. "So people started distilling the juice."

In those days, the French-controlled tropical island of Martinique saw a number of distilleries rise to the fore; today only a handful remain. Walking up the steps to Habitation Clément, a 200-year-old Creole plantation house that overlooks the company’s historic distillery, Gueden pauses to survey the property’s hillside garden. "It must have been a nice place to live and work," he says. Like most of the island’s venerable estates, the property no longer distills rhum (the French word for rum); that operation moved to the island’s east coast three years ago, when the plantation underwent conversion to a museum. The firm’s distillate, however, is still blended, cellared, and bottled here, as it has been for more than two centuries.

Another constant is the island’s French authority. As the world’s leading producer of rhum agricole, Martinique is the only rum region designated as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (A.O.C.). The A.O.C. designation entails, as it does in France’s Cognac-making region, rigorous guidelines for harvesting, fermenting, and distillation. Regulations require that rhum agricole be distilled strictly from fresh-pressed cane juice, which generally lacks the trace elements found in the more common molasses-based rum. Aficionados of rhum agricole sometimes refer to this latter type of spirit (not entirely without disdain) as rhum industriel. Rhum agricole, by comparison, is often a smoother sipping spirit that retains much of the cane’s simple, sweet flavors. Rhums vieux, or aged rums, on the other hand, tend to deliver oak and caramel characteristics often associated with Cognac.

Rhum Clément’s Cuvée Homère Clément ($90) and Clément X.O. ($135) offer prime examples of the Cognac-like qualities of fine rhums agricoles. Cuvée Homère Clément, a blend of the distillery’s three best vintages from the past 15 years, presents a buttery, spicy finish. Clément X.O., a blend of rare rums aged at least 30 years, is milder on approach, with spicy fruit and subtle wood notes. "We start with new French Limousin barrels for color and move to charred bourbon barrels for the finishing touches," says Gueden. "The new French oak contributes a strong tannin structure to the rum."

Other rhums agricoles of note include Neisson’s Réserve Spéciale ($72), La Favorite’s Rhum Agricole Blanc ($31), and Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Agricole ($42). First introduced in 2006, Depaz benefits from the rich volcanic soil of Martinique’s Mount Pelée, which imbues this spirit with a superb fresh-cane sweetness and beautiful floral notes. At the lighter end of the spectrum, La Favorite’s Rhum Agricole Blanc—a clear, unaged spirit—reveals lively citrus notes and fresh cane flavors well suited for ti punch, a Martinique cocktail consisting of rhum and fresh cane juice on ice.

Rhum Clément, 718.855.1848, www.rhumclement.com; Neisson and La Favorite, both available through Caribbean Spirits, 312.286.1995, www.caribbean-spirits.com; Depaz, www.depazrhum.com, available
through Kobrand, 914.253.7700

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