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Somewhere in the Caribbean, between Puerto Rico and St Lucia, is the archipelago of Guadeloupe (pronounce gwa-de-loop). The French West Indies or French Caribbean are currently two territories (St Barthelemy and St Martin) and two overseas states -“départements” in French- (Guadeloupe and Martinique). The French West Indies have always looked towards the old continent rather towards their Caribbean neighbors. Flying from the USA, a long journey and a couple of connected flights will bring you to this gem of the Caribbean. As a French citizen from the continent, those islands, those pieces of France far away in the Caribbean have always been for like a dream, an El Dorado, heaven on Earth.
While many Caribbean islands are for tourists, Guadeloupe is for travelers. It’s a land of adventures where you could enjoy scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking and all kinds of outdoor activities. The volcano – La Soufrière – is one of the most active of the region. But besides luxurious natures, this archipelago is a land of flavours…
The rich culinary heritage of the French-Creole cuisine is everywhere on the islands, especially in the colorful and flavorful markets that you will find along the beaches or in all the villages. Seafood abounds, farm-fresh fruits and vegetables are organic and everything is cooked with a melting pot of different spices. Always served in generous portions, the meals are usually paired with rhum, the national drink. Indeed, Guadeloupe is an important producer of rhum agricole. And I can tell you that no this H is not a typo. This tiny letter makes a big difference between two products. Rum and rhum are both made from sugarcane but it is the only thing they have in common. The opposite of industrial rum distilled from molasses (by-product of the sugar production), rhum agricole begins with the finest selection of sugarcane, which are then pressed to extract the finest and most aromatic fresh sugarcane juice. This distinction is essential. As the sugarcane hasn’t been cooked down to produce sugar, all the aromas and flavors of the cane are still present in the rhum which allows the terroir to express itself in the spirit.
From a historical point of view, how did that happen? Originally, rhum agricole is from Martinique, another island of the French West Indies, which has long had the reputation of having the best terroir for sugarcane cultivation. But in the 1800’s, both introduction of sugar beets and the increasing availability of cheap South American sugar lead to a major economic crisis in Martinique, at that time driven by sugar commerce. Homère Clément, very popular member of the Martinique community, bought the Domaine de l’Acajou in 1887, made the necessary investments and transformed one of the island's most prestigious sugar plantations into a producer of world-class rhum agricole. Inspired by the enjoyment of great brandies while studying in his early years in Paris, Homère has the idea of pressing the estate grown sugarcane to extract the aromatic and flavorful juice to then distill it. That’s how rhum agricole was born.
So what’s make rhum from Guadeloupe so distinctive? The fact that the rhum is crafted from sugarcane juice, the place of origin is very important. It gives to the rhum its earthy, vegetal, terroir-driven flavor profile. You can actually taste the sugarcane so each rhum you will get from a different family, distiller, island or brand is really an individualistic spirit on its own. Terroir is everything when you speak rhum agricole.
You could explore all the different expressions of rhum in the archipelago’s 9 distilleries. And I found myself appointed brand ambassador for one of the most famous - Rhum Damoiseau.
The Damoiseau story began at the end of 19th century, when Monsieur Rimbaud came from Martinique and created the Bellevue Distillery in the village of Le Moule, on the Atlantic coast. Roger Damoiseau bought the distillery in 1942, decided to make some rhum agricole and founded the brand Damoiseau Rhum. It’s now his grandson, Hervé Damoiseau who is running the family business.
As the years went by, the family turned the old tiny distillery into a producer of world-class rhum, which now has 50% of the market share in Guadeloupe, is distributed in France and is also exported to more than 40 countries. For a year now, it's also been available in the US. If you decide to visit them, Hervé or his niece Melissa will welcome you at the distillery and will be please to give you a tour and taste you on their gorgeous rhum range. I recommend you taste the Damoiseau White 55% ABV (110 proof) that is on my opinion the purest expression of Guadeloupean terroir – not too grassy or vegetal, smooth but not too sweet. Like a hug in the mouth. The whiskey aficionados will particularly enjoy the aged rhums. Indeed, all the rhums are aged in re-charred bourbon barrels; which bring a little of Kentucky to those wonderful islands.
A vôtre santé!
For more information on Guadeloupe: http://www.myguadeloupeislands.com.