Crossing the Atlantic to learn more about Rhum Agricole from Guadeloupe was like having a déjà vu moment for the writer as she explored the island and its historical connection with India.
Centuries ago, sailors, merchants, and slaves embarked on long voyages sailing across the globe. Many were explorers out on an adventure. Some were traders exchanging or selling goods accumulated along the way, from India to Africa, Portugal, and Spain, ending the journey in a newly discovered world. The thriving sea route also made way for the sugarcane seed/cuttings to be carried from India to Portugal and eventually to the newfound land of Columbus. The first plantation was notably by Christopher Columbus himself. Little did he know that the white gold, as the colonists liked to call sugar, would one day make way for a far more valuable item, liquid gold.
The story of the first sugarcane plantation in Guadeloupe has many versions. However, it is a fact that the creole culture blended well with the French colonisers, working on distillation techniques to produce Rhum Agricole from the juice of the sugar cane plants growing in abundance on the island.
During my recent trip to Guadeloupe, a French overseas region in the Caribbean where I was judging at the international spirits competition ‘Spirits Selection’, I had a chance to discover this land blessed with fertile terroir, favourable climate, and a spirit well integrated with the way of life. Just like water is to sugarcane, Rhum is to the people of Guadeloupe.
Rhum Agricole is produced from the indigenous varieties of sugarcane such as black cane, red cane, yellow, blue cane, and many other varieties that offer different styles and flavour profiles to Rhum from Guadeloupe. In addition, the local yeast provides a distinct character to the spirit. Unlike Rum, Rhum can only be made from 100 percent sugarcane juice or in combination with molasses depending on the area of production.
The archipelago, including Guadeloupe and Marie Galante have the official designation (Geographical Indication status) to produce Rhum de Guadeloupe. Various styles of Rhum produced in the region can be categorised as White Rhum (le rhum blanc), Dark Rhum (le rhum brun), Rhum aged in oak (le rhum élevé sous bois) and Old Rhum (le rhum vieux).
Visit to Rhum distilleries
The aroma of freshly crushed sugarcane juice filled the air as we entered one of the biggest distilleries producing Rhum Agricole in the French West Indies. We could barely cope with the humidity and heat on a jetlagged body. But a refreshing glass of Ti’ Punch awaited us at the reception.
Our visit began at Rhum Damoiseau, the largest producer (by volume) in Guadeloupe. Originally founded as an agricultural estate, the distillery in Le Moule, Grande-Terre, is known for its careful method of fermentation and distillation, leaving most of the work at the hand of the distiller. The distillery produces a range of classic rums, macerated rum, and premium aged rums.
A day-long trip to the Marie Galante Island (a one-hour boat ride) from the main island of Guadeloupe helped us explore another aspect of the appellation. The first stop, Distillery Bielle, was established in 1726. Bielle specialises in single varietal rums from heirloom sugarcane varieties. The distillery works with different sugarcane growers. Grey sugarcane and a variety of indigenous plants such as Baltazia and Broken Knee make the backbone of Rhum Bielle.
Bielle is bringing back the ‘broken knee’ (referring to the shape of the plant) variety that was on the verge of disappearance. It is also helping the distillery produce rums that are more sought-after and valued. Only a few hundred bottles of Bielle are produced and sold at a premium price, just like some high-value appellation wines.
Not too far from Bielle is a stunning old windmill in a historic location that has become the poster image of the island itself. It belongs to Domaine de Bellevue. The distillery uses sustainable and environmentally friendly methods to produce its rums. Rhum Blanc Agricole from Bellevue is a particular favourite among Rhum lovers. So is the boutique, small-scale distillery Rhum du Pere Labat.
Sugarcane bagasse (a by-product) is served as a nutrient medium for the cultivation of diverse microorganisms at the Rhum distilleries and add to the old-world charm, rustic and authentic set-up of the distilleries across Guadeloupe. Thanks to the bagasse, if you notice mouldy, cobweb-laden walls inside the distilleries, one must know that nature is at work, contributing to the creation of some of the finest spirits in the world.
But not all distilleries bear that look. Rhum Bologne in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, is a distillery that dates back more than 300 years. They are one of the largest producers, with 150 ha of plantation land owned by the company, specialising in Rhum produced from red and black cane. The distillery recycles 100 percent of the manufacturing waste to produce energy and practices sustainable agriculture.
Cultivation of another rare variety, yellow sugarcane (from a small parcel of land) has helped Bologne produce the first certified organic Rhum Agricole from Guadeloupe. The distillery also boasts of a state-of-the-art cellar room.
On our next visit, we toured Papa Ruoyo, a company established in 2021 but with a history dating back to 1900, the year of the birth of Charles Albert Ruscade, also known as ‘Papa Rouyo’. It is the only distillery to use pot stills (a combination of stainless-steel pot stills and copper pot stills) for distillation in Guadeloupe. The stills at Papa Rouyo distillery are named after his family members, ‘Agathe’ his wife, and ‘Danielle’ his daughter. Papa Rouyo’s white rum ‘Rejeton’ proves that Rhum is a matter of terroir as it captures the true essence of the terroir of Le Moule, showcasing the uniqueness of the pot still and the identity of the distillery.
The location of the estate of Mabi is surreal. Nestled on a hilltop surrounded by fruit, flower, and vegetable plantations, it offers a breath-taking view of the island. I joined the group for a special Mabi punch tasting. As we settle down on the balcony of the house of Mabi producers Marie-Anne and her two daughters, they explained to us that every Mabi punch bottle has ingredients from their garden showcasing the fruits and vegetables of Guadeloupe. A punch is fruits macerated in rum with sugar. At Mabi, this maceration takes place inside the bottle. Made with the base of 50% ABV Rhum Agricole, it is the fruit that embraces the rum in a bottle of Mabi Punch.
The family is not only preserving the local guava, acerola (local cherry), orange, lime, hibiscus, and other varieties of fruits and flowers but also keeping alive a tree that is on the verge of disappearing from the island called ‘Mabi’.
Montebello distillery was established in 1930 and has always focussed on the aging aspect of Rhum. All its liquid matures in 40-foot maritime transport containers with shelves inside. However, with a young team of professionals at the helm, the distillery is experimenting further with different cask finishes, using a variety of wine and whisky barrels.
We ended our week-long trip with a tour of the Longueteau distillery, a sprawling property in Marquisate de Saint Marie estate dating back to 1895. Francois Longueteau, the fifth generation of the family, is the Cellar Master. He talks about his family’s involvement in every aspect of the business. The Longueteau estate grows blue and red sugarcane near the distillery so that post-harvest, the freshness of the juice is retained in the spirit. Care is necessary at every stage of the production, and this special attention has garnered Longueteau the reputation of being one of the premium Rhum producers. The limited production label (6,000 bottles) from Parcel No. 9 gets sold out as soon as it is in the market.
From cultivation, fermentation, and distillation to aging, the producers in Guadeloupe may adopt different methods, but they all have one common goal. It is to keep the freshness of Rhum Agricole alive for future generations.
Ti’ Punch & the India connection
Ti’ Punch, national drink of the French West Indies, is a shorter version (meaning ‘small punch’) of the original punch cocktail. A good amount of Rhum, a squeeze of lime, and a dash of sugar or sugarcane syrup makes it powerful enough to pack a punch.
Before boarding a transatlantic flight, I sipped on my last glass of Ti’ Punch on the island. I reminisced about the incredible journey of a cocktail that was born in India during the British Raj (many references to the origin of ‘punch’ indicate the Hindi word ‘panch’ meaning five ingredients) and made a long voyage to the other end of the world.
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