Rum is lifting economic spirits

Times Staff Writer

rivière-pilote, martinique -- In the languor of a steamy afternoon, the sweet aroma of fermenting sugar mingles with the scent of orchids, frangipani and hibiscus.

The perfume hangs over the La Mauny distillery, where Laurent Gervoise, a transplanted Frenchman, is at work on his sensuous concoction.

One part chemistry to two parts instinct, the tough decisions involving this French-ruled island’s proudest product have already been made: the right patches of soil for growing the sugarcane, the perfect time to cut it, the optimum length of the stalks to be fed into the crusher to produce the freshest juice for rhum agricole.


Gervoise has spent the last decade midwifing the island’s unique Appellation d’Origine Controlee, a seal of approval attesting to the origin and authenticity of each bottle of rum produced on the island, much as France oversees and certifies the quality of its finest wines.

“In the aging process, we are using barrels of various woods and from various countries, trying to assemble the different influences on the taste to create something harmonious,” Gervoise said of the distillery’s quest for an ever more luxurious product.

A slight, thoughtful man who fell captive to Martinique’s beauty and promise during a business trip 18 years ago, Gervoise radiates passion for a distilling process he sees as having moved beyond industry to art form.

Riding an international wave of demand, Caribbean rum producers are hard at work refining their famously ruffian wares for the connoisseur. Once a shameful profit of New World slavery, the rotgut fuel of the American Revolution and the favored tipple for frat parties and prom night, rum has entered the crystal-and-cigars splendor of fine parlors.

Sales of ultra-premium rum grew 32% last year, faster than 10 of the 11 other spirits tracked by Nielsen Co., outdone on the luxury front only by top-line tequilas.

Although much of the trade is controlled by several multinational behemoths who mostly sell rum produced from distilled molasses, the exploding popularity of good rum presents struggling Caribbean economies such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Grenada with opportunities to cash in on the global thirst for their upscale spirits.

One of the few unifying characteristics of the Caribbean, rum lubricates the mind and body for the swaying and savoring of Cuban salsa-dancing, Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian steelpan. It speaks to devotees in Spanish, English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Creole, Papiamento and other patois. It conspires with tropical juices and the islands’ fragrant spices to offer a swelling palate of products, with more than 1,500 rums now being produced in factories and on family-run farms.

Mojitos may be hot across the global club scene. Daiquiris have held their own through decades of arriviste cocktails that go quickly out of fashion. But rum is on the ascendant, its analysts say, because of the exploding popularity of drinking the good stuff neat or over ice, rebuffing the centuries-old tradition of drowning its taste in juice, sugar and seltzer.

“It seems to have hit its moment. It’s like what happened with tequila -- people realized it didn’t have to be nasty,” said Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.”

All the recent growth in rum sales has been in super-premium, Curtis noted. The clamor for top-quality boutique rums has also pushed mass producers such as Acarid and Captain Morgan to introduce premium brands, much as the microbrew craze spurred companies such as Budweiser to add niche products to protect their slices of the expanding pie.

“But smaller producers can benefit, too, when there’s a market for a $32 bottle of rum,” Curtis said, crediting Martinique in particular with seizing the moment with its AOC certification.

At the Neisson distillery tucked into the hilly cane fields of Martinique’s northwest, financial director Carole Lezin-Mormin said the demand for premium spirits has been a boon for the family-run company, one of the island’s smallest producers.

“Rum drinkers today want the best. Industrial rum is very inexpensive because you have no idea where the sugarcane comes from,” she said with clear distaste for the molasses-based product. “Our sugarcane is grown right here in St. Pierre, where the volcanic soil gives it a unique and consistent flavor.”

Rum has been a drink of boom and bust since it emerged with the arrival of Europeans in the New World, sometime between 1493, when Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane saplings to Hispaniola, and the late 1640s, when a raw cane spirit called “kill-devil” was first mentioned in a British traveler’s journal as among the drinks at a Barbados planter’s banquet.

Because it was easier to transport than wine or water, the British Navy was issuing rum to its sailors by 1655 in a daily ration known as the “tot” -- about 2 ounces. The tot was to remain a tradition on the high seas until its repeal in 1970 in a bow to concerns about the wisdom of mixing alcohol and high-tech warfare.

In the American colonies, rum was drunk like water. In his 1989 book, “Rum and the American Revolution,” historian John J. McCusker estimated that by the late 18th century, the average American adult drank seven shots of rum a day.

But once U.S. grain production began to flourish shortly after the revolution and American tastes turned to whiskey, rum distilling was repatriated to its cradle in the Caribbean, said Edward Hamilton, founder of the Ministry of Rum website and author of one of at least half a dozen encyclopedic books on rum published in the last few years.

Today, with the Chinese market opening up and growth prospects promising for the Caribbean, regional strategists are weighing the opportunities, and wisdom, of more collaboration among the small distilleries to achieve economies of scale.

Manuel Madriz Fornos of the Assn. of Caribbean States has gently nudged distillers to collaborate in modernizing the industry and to ponder synergies in marketing and advertising. Public service ads promoting responsible drinking are one example of collective effort that takes nothing away from each product’s uniqueness, Madriz noted.

“Rum is a product of culture, and each island, each producer, has its own particulars,” said Madriz, who is trade representative for the 27-nation association. “We are not trying to push anything on this private and very individualized industry.”

The association, based in Trinidad and Tobago, is one of the few alliances that includes rum producers throughout the region, across language, national, political and prosperity divides. But distillers proud of their distinctions are wary of any moves toward standardization.

“Rum from the Dominican Republic has a distinctive personality. The aroma is different, even from other Spanish-speaking islands,” said Luis Rafael Concepcion, a department head at Brugal & Co., the largest Dominican distiller. He doesn’t see much to be gained by transnational alliances.

At several meetings of an exploratory “Rum Dialogue” group, Madriz said, the participants haven’t been able to agree on even a common definition of what constitutes rum, a name affixed to any liquor made from sugarcane or its byproducts.

Carlos A. Bermudez, president of J. Armando Bermudez & Co. in the northern Dominican city of Santiago, has been steering his distillery back toward making rum from fresh, local sugarcane juice.

“You can drink it with just ice, like you would drink whiskey. You don’t need to mix anything with it,” said the great-grandson of the 155-year-old company’s founder.

At La Mauny on Martinique, founded in 1749, Gervoise struggles to balance tradition with innovation. Should the 60-year-old cane press be replaced, or does its mechanical squeezing contribute that je ne sais quoi to the distillery’s concoction? Should the 19th century brick-walled furnace give way to a more modern version?

“Rum is a living thing,” the distiller observed quietly, as if thinking out loud. “Some things about how you make it change. Others need to stay the same.”