PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Beth Koeth
Rum production on Martinique traditionally wraps up by the first week of June, just before the arrival of the rainy season, but Habitation La Favorite was still running at full steam when I arrived on the 12th of the month this past year. The distillery, a ramshackle cinder block and corrugated metal structure, is tucked into a ravine at the end of a dirt drive in the lush hills above the island’s capital, Fort-de-France. When it is running, you smell it before you see it: acrid smoke and the sickly sweet vapors of fermenting sugarcane juice.
The cane-growing season had been troubled and late-ripening, partially on account of the previous year’s record-breaking hurricane activity, and owner Paul Dormoy was scrambling to make up for lost time before the Caribbean’s summer rains returned and destroyed his crop. Most rum distillers don’t have these kinds of problems, but the dominant style on Martinique is rhum agricole, “agricultural” rum, which is distilled from highly perishable, fresh-crushed sugarcane juice rather than the far more common (and shelf-stable) molasses. Time was of the essence.
I was visiting the island with Ed Hamilton, La Favorite’s American importer and one of the world’s foremost experts on the spirit. Hamilton had come to hash out some points of contention with management. An order had arrived in unlabeled boxes and caused chaos in his warehouse in New York, and another had arrived in the wrong proof. He also wanted to check on how things were progressing after a difficult period for the distillery, which had suffered a series of mechanical issues.
An old-fashioned agricole distillery is animated by sugarcane alone. Steam-powered conveyor belts feed cane into a crusher, a tangle of gears that pulverize the grass to extract the cane’s juice. The juice is then diverted into enormous steel tanks to ferment into a lightly alcoholic sort of wine. The post-crush cane continues on to another series of conveyor belts to be burned in a furnace, which provides the steam that powers the machinery and heats the still.
At La Favorite, workers without so much as a pair of safety glasses supervised, periodically intervening when a clump of crushed cane threatened to gum things up. The machinery whirred and clanked deafeningly; steam hissed out from weak spots in the plumbing. “It’s music!” Dormoy shouted above the din.
The heart of the operation, a pair of 20-foot-tall column stills, roared away against the west wall, concentrating the post-fermentation sugarcane wine into rum. Boiling liquid sloshed around in portholes as banks of analog gauges twitched under fogged glass. At the base of each still, a fountain of white rum spilled out at the pace of a kinked garden hose. The left still was more modern, constructed partially of stainless steel. The right still—made out of dull copper and held together by primitive clamps—seemed ancient by comparison, as if Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had turned to alchemy rather than naval architecture.
Hamilton has earned a reputation as a defender of the old-fashioned and authentic in the world of rum, and it went without saying that he preferred the older still. It produces the rum for the main La Favorite product—the one he imports—while the liquor from the left still is sold in bulk and used in lower-cost bottles. He encouraged me to compare the just-born liquors by sticking my finger into each stream. The rum streaming out had been distilled to about 75 percent alcohol—150 proof—and the sample from the left still tasted every bit of it—fiery and harsh. But from the right, the rum had the burning sweetness of raw ethanol but immediately receded into a sort of chalky mellowness. I looked back at Hamilton, then stuck my hand back into the right stream for another taste. He grinned. “It’s not bull—, right?”
The question of whether something is bull— is a persistent one among rum lovers. Today, the spirit has a reputation—one that’s mostly been earned—as a low-quality party fuel, suitable for sweet boat drinks and underage guzzling. “Rum is a junk category,” says San Francisco bartender Thad Vogler. “Virtually all of it is garbage.” This is not to say Vogler is a rum hater: He opened Bar Agricole, named in tribute to the Martinique style, in 2010. (It has been a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s bar program award every year since 2012.) The problem, to Vogler and other frustrated rum enthusiasts, is twofold. On the low end, the rum trade is dominated by a handful of enormous distilleries that flood the market with flavorless industrial liquor, essentially vodka that happens to be made from sugarcane, much of it subsidized by one government or another.
Then, on the high end, many aged rums are dosed with sugar and other added flavorings, making them more of a liqueur than a proper spirit to enthusiasts. These additions are typically a trade secret, but a subculture of amateur sleuths has developed on the internet: They test for sugar with their own hydrometers and trade screenshots from the websites of state-owned liquor stores of Nordic countries, which make sugar content public. They have discovered, to take one example, that Ron Zacapa 23, a popular top-shelf Guatemalan rum, contains about 20 grams of sugar per liter, about as much as a semisweet German riesling.
These two poles represent the vast majority of rum on the market. But for those who know where to look, there are pockets of transcendence, like the unadulterated treasures made at Foursquare on Barbados or overproof Jamaicans like Rum Fire that project intoxicating ripe-banana funk all the way into the next room. “I taste some of these rums with whiskey people, and they’re converted for life,” says Fred Minnick, a bourbon expert who branched out to publish a book titled Rum Curious last year. “The great rums are pound for pound as good as the great whiskeys and brandies.”