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

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY CHRIS CO­HEN

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.’”

“THE GREAT RUMS ARE POUND FOR POUND AS GOOD AS THE GREAT WHISKEYS AND BRANDIES.”

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

“IF THIS DOESN’T WORK, GREAT. I’LL END UP BACK ON A 45-FOOT CUT­TER IN THE CARIBBEAN.”

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.