History & origins

Sugarcane introduction into the West Indies.

Christopher Columbus is said to have brought sugarcane to Hispaniola in 1493, on his second trip. The crop was then introduced by Spanish armies to other West Indies location such as Cuba and Jamaica. Sugarcane was also introduced on the American mainlands (Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, ...).

Dutch settlers excelled in sugarcane cultivation and sugar production. As Brazil offered such a combination of favourable climate and abundance of fertile lands, the crop rapidly gained importance in that part of the world. On a sad note, we must not forget that this production increase was fueled by a massive supply of African slaves.
Not even a century later, the New World had replaced the Mediterranean area as the main supplier of sugarcane.

From 1635, French settlers introduced export crops such as coffee or coton into the West Indies. Sugarcane acclimatization was also tested and it was at first cultivated for sugar production. This production did not offer sufficient profitability, due to poor sugar extraction techniques.

From sugarcane juice to alcohol.

It had already been noted that juice naturally fermented under the climate and ambient yeast into an alcoholic beverage. In 1694, the French priest "Père Labat" got the idea of applying distillation to this beverage. This new step created a spirit which became known as rum. Sugar mills rapidly added a distillery to their facility, offering a profitable use of the by-product : the molasses.

Distillation technical improvements.

Cane wine was then obtained by diluting remains of sugar production (the molasses) with water. Distillation was made through basic equipment where hot alcohol vapours were cooled in vessels running through cold water. Until the early 19th Century, this basic production mode, as described by Pere Labat, was still used.

At the beginning of the 19th century, French West Indies rum was suffering from harsh competition from English speaking West Indies islands. Those Islands (such as Jamaica) had acquired unparalleled skills in the rum production process. That technological advance was obvious in the distillation area with a real expertise on isolating distillation body through cutting of fore-shots, heads and tails. The produced rum was hence safer (without any methanol/fore-shot) but also tastier (without most of the acrid tails). Those techniques evolved to reach the devices used today: distillation columns.

Birth of rhum agricole.

In 1870, sugarcane accounted for 57% of Martinique arable lands. Sugar cane prices which once rocketed, plunged heavily due to worldwide over production and the growing availability in Europe of beet sugar. The plummeting prices made mortgages unbearable to many debt ridden distilleries driving most of them to bankruptcy. The surviving one had to find how to make other products form sugarcane. An obvious option was to make rum directly from fresh sugarcane juice and not from molasses, avoiding to run the sugar production process.

Rhum agricole was born.

Large scale production.

This peculiar way of making rum helped the French West Indies producers to avoid confrontation with other island where sugar production ratios were much higher. In 1902, Martinique volcano, Mount Pele destroyed Saint Pierre and its surroundings, reducing by a half Martinique production capacities.

As first World War raved across Europe, most of continental French distillery (53%) were either on German occupied territories or destroyed. France was on a verge of an alcohol shortage, as alcohol was essential for maintaining troops morale as well as producing explosive. Martinique boosted its production to attain levels which were never to be attained again. In 1918, continental rum producers began to lobby government to create taxes on imported rum. Their efforts drove to the adoption of a 1922 law restricting on a certain volume imports from foreign and non continental producers.

Those restrictions were maintained until end of the second World War, allowing Martinique Rhum (as well as other kind of rums) to be freely distributed in France. During the 60's Rhum Agricole production rose to come close to traditional (industrial) rum. By 1970 Rhum Agricole production had overtaken traditional rum production on French market.