The Rum Run­ner

The rum in­dus­try is dom­i­nated by bland in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion, sug­ary ad­di­tives, and car­toon pirates. But in some cor­ners of the Caribbean, ar­ti­sanal tra­di­tions and great rum are sur­viv­ing, and one sin­gle­minded re­formed sail­boat bum is im­port­ing some of th


One rum-ob­sessed im­porter is scour­ing the Caribbean to find the best bot­tles the is­lands have to of­fer

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 la­t­eripen­ing, 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 bull­shit, right?”

the ques­tion of whether some­thing is bull­shit 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.”

Hamil­ton has made the search for the good stuff his life’s work, first as an au­thor and ed­u­ca­tor, then as an im­porter. He has done it all with a cranky and out­spo­ken ob­ses­sion with trans­parency. “He was out there preach­ing about high-qual­ity rum be­fore rum was cool,” Min­nick tells me. “Now there are peo­ple in­ter­ested in it and money flow­ing into it, but we still have this shit rum. He was talk­ing about the shit rum be­fore any­body. He had the guts—and I mean this—to stand up to the big brands to say, ‘You suck.’”


there may be no denser con­cen­tra­tion of pure, hon­est rum than on Mar­tinique, where Hamil­ton got his start im­port­ing. The is­land is some 200 miles from South Amer­ica in the Lesser An­tilles, the vol­canic arc of is­lands that de­fines the bor­der be­tween the Caribbean Sea and the At­lantic Ocean. It is also a de­part­ment of France, an in­te­gral com­po­nent of the Repub­lic, with rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Par­lia­ment just like Paris or Mar­seilles.

The rum in­dus­try has ben­e­fited from this ar­range­ment. Shiny dis­tillery equip­ment with a sign in­di­cat­ing it was pur­chased with the sup­port of Euro­pean Union agri­cul­tural pro­grams is a com­mon sight on the is­land, and French la­bor reg­u­la­tions have out­lawed the ex­ploita­tion of sug­ar­cane field work­ers that is too com­mon through­out the rest of the Caribbean. But the great­est ben­e­fit to the is­land’s rum has come from the French na­tional ge­nius for food bu­reau­cracy. Rhum agri­cole from Mar­tinique is reg­u­lated by an ap­pel­la­tion d’orig­ine con­trôlée, an AOC, France’s des­ig­na­tion for prod­ucts that may be pro­duced only in a given re­gion. This means the rum is sub­ject to the same sort of rules that gov­ern the pro­duc­tion of Bordeaux wine or Bresse chick­ens. In Mar­tinique, the rules dic­tate ev­ery­thing from the max­i­mum dis­til­la­tion proof to the time of year it’s le­gal to dis­till, and they pro­scribe many of the bad prac­tices that make rum such a trou­bled cat­e­gory—fla­vor­less ul­tra-high-proof dis­til­la­tion, mis­lead­ing aging claims, added sugar and fla­vor­ings. Rums made from fresh sug­ar­cane juice are found else­where, and even some Brazil­ian cachaça is sim­i­lar, but the AOC en­forces a base­line level of qual­ity on the is­land, which helps the style reach its high­est highs here.

The is­land, pop­u­la­tion 375,000, is about a third the size of Rhode Is­land but feels much larger be­cause of its rugged­ness: Dense rip­ples of cane field and rain­for­est mean the roads are never straight. On the north side of the is­land, a vol­cano called Mount Pelée rises to more than 4,500 feet above sea level just a few miles from the sea. From be­low left: Ver­nant ex­tracts a sam­ple of aged rum; a worker su­per­vises cane crush­ing at La Fa­vorite; the Rhum J.M. dis­tillery.

Mar­tinique was a cen­ter of France’s bru­tal colo­nial slav­ery regime for nearly 200 years, re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing sugar and oceans of mo­lasses-based rum. The two typ­i­cally go hand in hand: Mo­lasses is es­sen­tially a waste prod­uct of sugar pro­duc­tion. (Dis­pos­ing of it was enor­mously an­noy­ing to the first colo­nial sugar barons be­fore rum dis­til­la­tion was de­vel­oped early in the 17th cen­tury.) Two disas­ters struck around the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Mount Pelée erupted in 1902, killing 30,000 peo­ple, de­stroy­ing the city of Saint-pierre (then the cap­i­tal and one of the most de­vel­oped cities in the Caribbean), and lead­ing to the clo­sure of many small dis­til­leries. The other dis­as­ter was slower mov­ing. Over the course of the 19th cen­tury, Euro­pean agronomist­s bred ever-more-po­tent sugar beets, en­cour­aged by Napoleon and other lead­ers ea­ger to find a way to pro­duce sugar in cold cli­mates. Their ef­forts led to a glut on the world mar­ket, plum­met­ing prices, and the col­lapse of the Mar­tinique sugar in­dus­try.

In 1887, at the height of the sugar cri­sis, a politi­cian named Homère Clé­ment pur­chased a bank­rupt plan­ta­tion. Clé­ment was a pop­u­lar fig­ure on Mar­tinique. The son of a slave, he was the first per­son of color to be­come a li­censed med­i­cal doc­tor in France, and he rep­re­sented the is­land in the Na­tional Assem­bly in Paris as a rad­i­cal­so­cial­ist. Rather than let his new es­tate’s crop rot in the field, he be­gan mak­ing rum di­rectly from cane juice. Other peo­ple had made rum this way, but Clé­ment did it on a larger scale, and used his clout to cham­pion the style. To­day, the vast ma­jor­ity of the rum pro­duced on Mar­tinique is made from fresh cane juice.

hamil­ton is 64 years old, 6 feet 5 inches tall, and per­pet­u­ally clad in a Hawai­ian shirt and Panama hat.

He keeps his white hair shaggy and main­tains an enor­mous white wal­rus mus­tache. The over­all ef­fect is of a rum im­porter as imag­ined by a Times Square car­i­ca­tur­ist.

Hamil­ton came by the look hon­estly. The story he likes to tell is that in 1978, when he was 24, he was work­ing as an en­gi­neer for a com­pany that made tiny, pow­er­ful ac­tu­a­tors for air­planes and bombs. His boss asked him to write down his five-year plan, and how he planned to get there. He wrote: “Go sail­ing. I quit.”

He moved to Sin­ga­pore to build sail­boats, then found one-way work as the en­gi­neer on a com­mer­cial ship bound for Manila. (“Hired off a bar stool—i was not qual­i­fied.”) He ended up based in Perth, Aus­tralia, work­ing as an en­gi­neer on oil rigs across South­east Asia, and re­solved to stay un­til he could af­ford a boat of his own. The job meant white-knuckle plane flights and nights spent sleep­ing in ship­ping con­tain­ers in the Pa­pua New Guinea jun­gle.

Five years af­ter quit­ting his desk job, Hamil­ton bought a 38-foot sloop. He sailed for years un­til, dur­ing a rum­fu­eled full-moon reverie, he came up with the idea of vis­it­ing ev­ery dis­tillery in the Caribbean. It still seemed like a good idea in the morn­ing, and he turned his years of wan­der­ings into the still-ac­tive Min­istry of Rum, the first large web­site de­voted to the sub­ject, and sev­eral books, in­clud­ing 1997’s The Com­plete Guide to Rum, which de­scribed close to 200 dis­til­leries at a time when the largest liquor store in the coun­try had seven rums on the shelf.

Hamil­ton sup­ported him­self with odd cash jobs, most col­or­fully smug­gling rum and cig­a­rettes and tourist knick­knacks (“ev­ery­thing but drugs”) be­tween Caribbean is­lands. But this was just one job among many. An en­gi­neer’s skills were al­ways in high de­mand in ports packed with sail­boats in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair. And an all-time jack­pot gig came when he and a group of friends made $50 a day as ex­tras on the set of Speed 2: Cruise Con­trol, which was filmed in St. Martin. He still talks rue­fully about not hav­ing time to work on Pirates of the Caribbean like the rest of his crew.

By then he had gained a busi­ness part­ner and an im­port­ing li­cense. His first con­tain­ers of Mar­tinique rum left the is­land in 2004. “I just wanted to bring back rum for my friends,” he says. “I thought, if this doesn’t work, great. I’ll end up back on a 45-foot cut­ter in the Caribbean.” There were com­pli­cated years dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, when Hamil­ton had to buy out sole con­trol of the busi­ness. But the op­er­a­tion has seen steady growth, and his port­fo­lio of a few dozen rums is now avail­able in 42 states.

More than other liquor brands, Hamil­ton’s busi­ness model re­calls fig­ures in the wine in­dus­try, like Ker­mit Lynch, who chal­lenged Amer­i­can con­sumers to seek out smaller pro­duc­ers mak­ing a purer, unadul­ter­ated prod­uct—prefer­ably one he im­ported. Hamil­ton’s port­fo­lio has ex­panded to in­clude a line of Hamil­ton­brand rums he buys in bulk from dis­til­leries in St. Lu­cia, Ja­maica, and Guyana, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from vin­tage rar­i­ties to cock­tail work­horses with the same fo­cus on trans­parency. The idea was never to sell only to col­lec­tors and con­nois­seurs—in al­most ev­ery state, you should be able to find or or­der his rums at a de­cent liquor store.

“When I get a De­mer­ara rum from Ed Hamil­ton, it’s go­ing to have the right charred-wood taste, the right kind of smoke. It’s go­ing to have ev­ery char­ac­ter­is­tic that is go­ing to make a trop­i­cal drink taste the way it’s sup­posed to,” says Jeff Berry, a writer and bar owner re­spon­si­ble for re­con­sti­tut­ing much of the once-lost tiki cock­tail canon. “I know it’s go­ing to be a pure rum. It’s not go­ing to have any ad­di­tives or fla­vor­ings. He’s joust­ing with these cor­po­rate be­he­moths that are flood­ing the cat­e­gory with anony­mously sourced, adul­ter­ated prod­uct. Rum needs


peo­ple as dog­matic and sin­gle-minded as Ed is.”

Out of a solo sailor’s com­bi­na­tion of thrift and mis­an­thropy, Hamil­ton runs the busi­ness com­pletely by him­self, do­ing ev­ery­thing from dis­tri­bu­tion con­tracts to sales calls to log­ging in­ven­tory on his own home­brew soft­ware. He now splits time be­tween Florida and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and spends much of the year fly­ing around the coun­try with his girl­friend, Caro­line, an old friend from his boat­build­ing days, on the move from bars to con­fer­ences to dis­trib­u­tor of­fices. In 2009, Hamil­ton’s 45-foot cut­ter was de­stroyed by ter­mites while in dry dock on Saint Lu­cia.

hamil­ton’s easy­go­ing is­land-time ap­pear­ance is just a thin ve­neer over a de­tail-ori­ented and com­pet­i­tive per­son­al­ity, and the sup­posed in­au­then­tic­ity of his ri­vals is one of his fa­vorite top­ics. Rhum J.M. was al­ready the best­look­ing dis­tillery on Mar­tinique be­fore it was pur­chased by Bernard Hayot, an in­dus­tri­al­ist who con­trols a huge por­tion of the com­merce on Mar­tinique. Since then, the fa­cil­ity has been ex­pen­sively ren­o­vated, with a fresh coat of bright-red paint, ev­ery sur­face buffed to an an­ti­sep­tic shine. It now runs on elec­tric power. While there is no rea­son to sus­pect that this re­sults in an in­fe­rior rum, when I vis­ited with Hamil­ton, he grinned as he pointed out that the pris­tine steam en­gine was now mostly dec­o­ra­tion.

J.M.’S new man­age­ment also sped up their fer­men­ta­tion process, the step when rum de­vel­ops much of its fla­vor. The faster fer­men­ta­tion is not a se­cret—the tour guides brag about it to vis­i­tors. But to hear Hamil­ton tell it, the change ru­ined what had once been pretty good rum.

“I am not the rum po­lice,” Hamil­ton likes to say, be­fore launch­ing into a di­a­tribe about one of his com­peti­tors. The spir­its in­dus­try does run on se­crecy, back-slap­ping in­sid­ers, and enor­mous mar­ket­ing bud­gets, and Hamil­ton is a voice in the wilder­ness stand­ing up for bet­ter rum. But he some­times makes lit­tle dis­tinc­tion be­tween bad rum and ar­ti­sanal prod­ucts that he hap­pens to be com­pet­ing with.

Af­ter vis­it­ing J.M., we drove to the es­tate where Homère Clé­ment first dis­tilled rhum agri­cole. Rhum Clé­ment is also owned by Hayot, and while pro­duc­tion has been moved to a large dis­tillery on the is­land where sev­eral other brands are made, the grounds are still home to aging fa­cil­i­ties and a tast­ing room—plus a con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tion—which are open for tours. There was plenty for Hamil­ton to raise his eye­brows at: the quin­tes­sen­tial Mar­tinique dis­tillery re­duced to a mu­seum. But he went fur­ther—in­sist­ing, mis­tak­enly, that the bulk of their lineup hadn’t been made ac­cord­ing to the AOC rules. This was based on a sim­ple mis­read­ing of the la­bel, but it was easy to see how stuff like that could ir­ri­tate his com­peti­tors.

Both J.M. and Clé­ment are im­ported to the United States by Ben Jones, a great-grand­nephew of Homère Clé­ment. He got his start im­port­ing the very same month as Hamil­ton. It’s re­mark­able how much they sound like each other when de­cry­ing the flaws of the cat­e­gory as a whole. But the two are bit­ter ri­vals, and Hamil­ton’s com­bat­ive­ness frus­trates Jones, who says it doesn’t make sense for Mar­tinique pro­duc­ers to fight for the same tiny slice of a much larger pie. “Agri­cole is one­tenth of 1 per­cent of all the rum in the United States,” he says. “A ris­ing tide lifts all ships. When Ed gets into all of that, he doesn’t do the cat­e­gory any fa­vors.”

hamil­ton is at least an equal-op­por­tu­nity griper. The pri­mary rea­son for this par­tic­u­lar visit to Mar­tinique was a stop at Dis­til­lerie Neis­son, the crown jewel of his port­fo­lio, a fam­ily-owned op­er­a­tion that’s con­sid­ered by many to be the best on the is­land. It’s tiny, even by the stan­dards of Mar­tinique dis­til­leries, painted in sat­u­rated shades of pur­ple and lime green. We weren’t there for 10 min­utes be­fore Hamil­ton scam­pered into a pile of sug­ar­cane, dodg­ing a swing­ing set of mechan-

ical jaws that were ac­tively load­ing the cane into the dis­tillery. He was dis­mayed by what he found. Cut sug­ar­cane be­gins to spoil al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter it is har­vested, and the cane he pulled off the pile had gone soft on the ends. Owner Gré­gory Ver­nant emerged from his of­fice and con­firmed Hamil­ton’s hunch, aghast: There had been a me­chan­i­cal prob­lem on Sat­ur­day af­ter­noon, and it was now Mon­day morn­ing.

Ver­nant is in the last phases of tak­ing over the dis­tillery from his mother, Clau­dine Neis­son-ver­nant, 76. Ver­nant has cho­sen to take over the busi­ness even though he could sell out to a big multi­na­tional lux­u­ry­goods com­pany and re­tire when­ever he wanted. He says Her­mès was the most re­cent suitor, and that they were of­fended when he de­murred be­fore they could even name a price.

Ver­nant talks like a wine­maker, about ter­roir and the fla­vor of par­tic­u­lar yeasts. He’s ex­per­i­ment­ing with aging rum in ex­pen­sive, brand-new Amer­i­can oak bar­rels. (Most Mar­tinique rum is aged in used bour­bon bar­rels.) When things are re­ally hum­ming at the dis­tillery, he shows off by bot­tling 70 per­cent al­co­hol rum straight off the still, es­sen­tially raw dis­til­late. This is prac­ti­cally un­heard of in the world of dis­till­ing—raw liquor is gen­er­ally dis­gust­ing. But these bot­tlings are sought af­ter by col­lec­tors.

Ver­nant is most pas­sion­ate about his or­ganic rum project. Neis­son is the first dis­tillery on Mar­tinique to work with or­ganic cane, though the ven­ture has not been with­out its prob­lems. Yields have been lower than con­ven­tion­ally farmed cane, and is­sues in the fields were why Neis­son was still pro­duc­ing so late in the sea­son. Ver­nant says it’s worth it, that even­tu­ally the en­tire es­tate will be or­ganic, that he’s seen the changes in the fields him­self. “Peo­ple think I’m crazy when I start talk­ing about the but­ter­flies,” he says, “but I’m never go­ing back.”

Hamil­ton had come to Neis­son to taste bar­rel sam­ples to sell as lim­ited-edi­tion sin­gle-bar­rel and vin­tage bot­tlings. Rum aged in the harsh, hot cli­mate of the trop­ics ma­tures much faster than it does in cooler parts of the world, and these old agri­coles had be­come for­mi­da­bly con­cen­trated in fla­vor. Hamil­ton clearly still loves rum, and drinks it most days, but he tastes it like a mer­chant rather than an en­thu­si­ast. “This is so smooth,” he said at a cou­ple of points. “But can I af­ford it?”

Ver­nant re­turned to the aging ware­house for an­other sam­ple. Hamil­ton turned. “I knew this son of a bitch was go­ing to do this to me. I came to buy five bar­rels of this rum, which I can af­ford,” he said, point­ing to a sam­ple of a younger blend. “He shows me three other vin­tages that are much bet­ter,” he said. “When you get a chance to buy some­thing like this, you buy it, but this trip is go­ing to cost three times as much as I thought it was go­ing to.”

the aged neis­son rums were markedly more in­tense than any­thing else I’d tasted on Mar­tinique, and Hamil­ton’s bot­tles are sure to be quickly snapped up by Amer­i­can con­nois­seurs. But on Mar­tinique, most peo­ple drink the fresh, un­aged white rum. If you re­mem­ber your first sip of good mez­cal af­ter a life­time of big-brand tequila, the first taste of un­aged agri­cole is a sim­i­lar kick in the teeth. It is a brac­ing ex­pres­sion of the essence of sug­ar­cane, a grass. At­tempts at de­scrib­ing its fla­vor in­vari­ably skew green: lime peel, olives, basil, freshly mowed golf course.

It’s typ­i­cally con­sumed as a ti’ punch. Short for petit punch, it’s as sim­ple as cock­tails get: a tiny bit of lime, a lit­tle of the fla­vor­ful lo­cal sugar, and a glug of rhum agri­cole. They don’t ac­tu­ally drink mai tais in the South Pa­cific, and good luck find­ing a de­cent daiquiri in Havana these days, but the ti’ punch is what peo­ple on Mar­tinique ac­tu­ally drink.

I thought of this on the way to lunch late one morn­ing. Hamil­ton was hold­ing forth about his fa­vorite topic, in this case about a par­tic­u­larly “heavy” Ja­maican rum, one that in­cludes liquor from late in the dis­til­la­tion process that is usu­ally thrown out. “It’s un­fit for hu­man con­sump­tion. The Ja­maicans don’t drink it,” he said. “It is not part of the cul­ture there. Ac­tu­ally go to Ja­maica, or Trinidad, or wher­ever else, and find out what they’re ac­tu­ally do­ing there.” It was an in­ad­ver­tent sum­mary of the en­tire Hamil­ton world­view.

We ar­rived at the restau­rant, in Sainte-anne, on the south side of the is­land, lit­tle more than an open-air wooden plat­form perched spec­tac­u­larly above the har­bor. It was four min­utes be­fore noon, but Hamil­ton’s bro­ken French got us a round of Neis­son ti’ punches. Down be­low, crews were rac­ing yole boats, col­or­ful tra­di­tional ca­noe­like crafts with rect­an­gu­lar sails. It was the low sea­son, and the bar was sparsely pop­u­lated by lo­cal guys chat­ting in Cre­ole and half-watch­ing the boat race. They were drink­ing ti’ punches too.

From left: Rum ages in bar­rels at Neis­son; Hamil­ton in a field of sug­ar­cane; a ti’ punch in progress; Hamil­ton tastes aged rum at Neis­son with owner Gré­gory Ver­nant.

Clock­wise from right: The steam-power and cane-crush­ing works at La Fa­vorite; the beach out­side Saint-pierre; set­ting aside rum to age at J.M.

From top right: Cool­ing off in Saint-pierre; a leap into the Caribbean.

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