When I first started looking at this whole whirlwind around the country the ting that decided me was the ability to go to St Lucia and Martinique. For the rhum obsessed like me it was my golden chance to go visit the mother ship. Islands rising out of an azure sea, full rigged ships plying the waves, lush jungles, and most importantly cask upon cask of rhum as far as the eye could see, as soon as that image sprang to mind clicking the button to buy the ticket was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Crossing the continent again and then heading for points south, I swear I could smell the rhum in the air as the plane got closer and closer to St
After traversing some truly spectacular mountains, seeing sheer drop-offs just feet away from the edge of the road, Rodney Bay opened up before me. A beautiful placid place, small interisland freighters unloaded their cargoes, a quiet bustle happening all around me, if only every harbour could be so picturesque. I would like to give a shout out to the Empire at this point. I had agonised over paying for exchange rates and getting killed on ATM fees, then I spotted a ScotiaBank, oh bless you and your extension of Britannia to these shores. No fees for me! Suck it American banking system!
On checking into my hotel, welcome words were uttered, remember to show your key at the bar for free rum punch. Hells yes! Now that’s what I call hospitality and civilisation! Dropping my bags, I quickly jumped in the pool and made my way to the bar. Upon assuming the familiar position of perching on a barstool, I partook of my first of many rum punches that evening. I also discovered Baron’s hot sauce. Over the course of the next few days I would liberally apply it to everything I ate. I think I ate a whole case of the stuff over a matter of just a few days. Most gratifying though, here at this poolside bar, my bartender Jacob explained to me that every bartender worth the name on St Lucia had his own particular rum punch recipe. No two would be same, and I watched as he pre-batched his punch for the evening. Carefully measuring with no real tools, just using proportions long perfected with whatever implements could be found.
You could see and taste his pride in his work. Most of the tourists coming through would probably never really stop to think about his punch other than that fact that they liked it and would probably drink way too much of it. Their loss, they would miss out on the fact there before them was an excellently made, well balanced drink, to sip or quaff as they enjoyed life. Taking it entirely for granted and not thinking about the fact that we take our availability of ingredients and implements for granted sometimes. A fantastic fish stew and about a gallon of punch later it was off to bed as I would need to be up bright and early the next morning to go visit St Lucia Distillers.
At the crack of normal waking time for normal people I was picked by Laurie Bernard of St Lucia Distillers. (Digression: I’m not normal, never have been. That is all.) Driving up to the gates we pulled over and had a look at an experimental plot of sugar cane that they were growing. While still small in scale the idea was that juice from this cane would be used to make rhum agricole for blending into their other rhums. I love that more people are getting into agricole. Obviously, while I love spirits in general, r(h)um is first in my heart and rhum agricole is first amongst those. It has been thus for a long time and I don’t see it ever changing. So right off it was a great omen to see what was in the works at St Lucia Distillers.
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We moved on into the distillery checking out the fermentation tanks, stills, and holding tanks. There was a certain feeling of place here. Like every piece of equipment had been set just so and had worn in. Much used and showing all of the signs of a facility in long use, you felt a total sense of permanence and age in the air, as if there would be rum produced here from now until eternity. What is visiting a distillery without sampling its ware though? Sample I did. Sitting there in the blending lab as I sat and tried every single rum that they made of varying ages and types, I had a total my life is awesome moment. As each one rolled over my tongue bringing with it it’s own particular nuances I saw how each year of the same spirit in barrel made such a huge impact here. It was better than a vertical tasting of finished product, it was tasting the maturation and the growing up of a spirit. Seeing it progress from young, rough, and unpolished to a rounded, mature, and more elegant version of itself was instructive and amazing. The promise of youth made to blossom and come forth, there was such a wonderful progression there.
From tasting my way through the lineup at St Lucia I went directly to cross the little bitty strip of water that separates St Lucia from Martinique. It was such an amazing difference, though you can see one island from the other, they were worlds apart. The very French-ness of Martinique seemed to manifest itself at every turn. There is something though aside from the rhum, and the glorious beauty of the island that I really truly loved about Martinique. It was driving there. I am a rally racing fan. I love to see people go balls out, pedal to the metal on twisty roads of any type. On Martinique I discovered to my delight that much of the island was covered in small twisty roads and most of the cars driven there were small and fast and most drivers drove like they meant to get somewhere. The next few days were spent in a state of driving bliss as I navigated by the grace of an incredibly crappy map squealing my tyres around turns, pulling the occasional hand brake turn, over-steering, under-steering, dragging the rear end of the car around turns with the front wheels, a silly shit eating grin plastered upon my face.
As picturesque as St Lucia was, nothing prepared me for Martinique. Majestic Mt Pele rose at one end of the island, manicured plantations, lush jungles, azure seas came rolling in, pristine beaches, you get the picture. It was a paradise. Once again as soon as I checked in I was told that there would be a cocktail waiting for me as soon as I was ready. Really world, can learn from the Creole world please? Life would be so much better. Anyways, Ti’Punch awaited as I contemplated dinner, the other guests a most convivial bunch, as we sipped our drinks and made more for each other. This is what I imagined life would be like here and I was definitely not disappointed.
The next morning, I awoke to blue skies and a most glorious view from the balcony of my room. The air perfumed with flowers and the sea, rhum awaited and I would heed its call.
First up, Habitation Clement, home of Rhum Clement, great fields of cane, rolling lawns, the old distillery – now a museum, and the great aging facilities or chais, greeted my eyes. Here was a place that was instantly dear to my heart. (Disclosure – I work for Rhum Clement in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a good gig) Touring the grounds with Emmanuel Becheau the Production Manager I got to enter the chais and walk amongst the racks of barrels, feeling all of that rhum around me. It brought a shiver of delight, knowing that someday I would be sure to be drinking some of what came out of those barrels.
The chais at Clement were open on the ends of the buildings to allow the island air to flow over the barrels, imparting their character to the terroir of the rhum. What followed during the tasting made me both happy and sad. Here were so many marks and vintages of Rhum Clement that would never see the light of day in the US. It only added to the impetus to bring more awareness of the category of agricole to everyone. No longer should these wonderful spirits from so many great distilleries in Martinique be the province of Europe, and people like me who made the trip down. We should all be able to enjoy these beautiful spirits damnitall. Anyways, needless to say I bought my share and other people’s share of rhum that day. Leaving Habitation Clement I made my way up the coast to Macouba to Rhum J.M. (Disclosure – I work for these guys too) there to meet Hubert Duchamp de Castaigne, the fifth generation General Manager for Rhum J.M. As I rounded the bend in the road heading to the distillery, a magnificent vista opened before me.
Nestled in a little dell with waterfalls and ponds and jungle surrounding the distillery seemed to spring forth from the ground, as much a part of the land as the trees around it. I paused and thought that if a place like Rivendell were to exist then it would be like this when you first encountered it. After meeting up with Hubert, we went into the chai. A much smaller facility than the ones at Clement the ones here at the northern end of the island where it was even more humid and warm were enclosed trapping the angel’s share in the room, filling your nose with its heady aroma. Dear god, you could probably get drunk standing and breathing if you remained long enough. Truly amazing and I’m sure I will never experience its like again unless I get to go back.
All too soon my time in the islands drew to a close but I knew that my love for the area and the rhums would draw me back again and again in the future. Here was something special on this earth. Though more travel was to come, more friends, and more great experiences on this whirlwind my goal was accomplished. Everything else would pale in comparison, not because they were not wonderful but because this was simply sublime.