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When I learned I was going to be visiting the island of Dominica recently, I extended my trip to include a quick visit to its neighbor Martinique to see what goes into the making of its distinctive rum, or rhum. I had got my first taste of the island's rum on assignment ten years earlier. Unlike many of the other Caribbean islands, where the rum is distilled from molasses, the rum of Martinique is made from the fermentation and distillation of pure cane juice, giving a distinctively aromatic flavor. In Martinique, I quickly learned rum was not to be abused with cola, it was treated with reverence. On my visit ten years ago my French vocabulary, which is admittedly severely limited, grew to include two very important words: "Ti Punch," the preferred rum drink of Martinique (recipe below)

The island is an overseas department of France and the same pride the mainland French take in their production of champagne, wine and cognac is evident in the island's rums. To be an authentic rum of Martinique, the bottle must bear the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Martinique label, and rums without the licensed certificate issued by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine cannot claim the designation.

Like the routes des vin in France, where visitors can travel through a region such as Bordeaux and stop in at vineyards for a sampling, Martinique's eleven distilleries -- most of which are open to the public -- allow you to practically circumnavigate the island on a routes des rhums. Unfortunately, my time this trip was limited and I could only visit three, the first beginning about an hour east of Fort de France, at the Distillery Saint James in Sainte-Marie (Le Bourg, 97230 Sainte Marie; tel. 596-69-50-37).

Surrounded by sugar cane fields and banana trees, the Saint James Distillery with its informative Le Musee Du Rhum, was the perfect starting point. At the well organized museum, the history of rum, from the first Saint James rum in 1765 up until present day is represented in artifacts, old tools and machinery used in rum making, along with colorful posters and advertisements for rum over the years. The distillery also offers a working train which carries visitors from the distillery up through the cane fields to the nearby Banana Museum. After learning all about how rum is made and in particular, Saint James rum, there is a Â?DegustationÂ? or tasting bar where you can sample the St. James rums.

From Sainte-Marie and the Distillery Saint James, I headed to the extreme northern end of the island and the town of Macouba where the Distillery J.M. (Habitation Bellevue, 97218 Macouba; tel. 596-78-92-55) was located. With the red metal roofs of the distillery peeking out of a lush green valley of palm trees the approach to the distillery is a breathtaking site. The J.M. distillery is the smallest in Martinique and most unique; the sugar cane used in production of the rum is grown here on steep volcanic slopes and carted down by tractors before being dumped into the cane crushing machine that extracts the liquid from the cane. J.M. has been family-run since the early 20th century and master distiller, Nazaire Canataous has been proudly blending J.M. rum for 37 years. The labor of love is apparent in, most specifically, the spectacular 20-year old rum I tasted at the end of my tour of the distillery.

The final stop on my condensed rum trail was Habitation Clement in Francois (Domaine de l'acajou, 97240 Francois; tel. 596-54-62-07), about an hour's drive south of the J.M Distillery. There is much to see at the almost 40-acres that encompass the grounds of Habitation Clement including expansive botanical gardens with over 300 species of tropical plants, a beautifully preserved 18th century Creole-style plantation house, an art gallery where local artists display their work, a one-room structure that served as the summit between President George H.W. Bush and Francois Mitterrand of France in 1991, a gift shop and degustation bar, and warehouses where Clement rum is stored in oak barrels and then bottled. What you won't find at Habitation Clement is a working rum distillery. To meet the increase in demand, actual rum making was moved to a larger nearby distillery, while the original 120-year-old, Clement distillery has been transformed with equipment intact into an interpretation center where the history of rum is explained through exhibits, video screens, and artifacts.

Ti Punch Recipe

  • 1 teaspoon of cane sugar (or cane sugar syrup)
  • 2 ounces of white AOC Martinique label of origin rum
  • 1 squeezed slice of lime
  • 2 ice cubes (optional)

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