MARTINIQUE, French West Indies — One of the things I love most about my job is the continuing education that it provides.
Before my recent visit to the Caribbean island of Martinique, I was of the opinion that all rums were alike — Captain Morgan's, Bacardi, Mount Gay, whatever. As long as it went into making a delicious daiquiri or a perfect planter's punch, rum was rum.
Then I discovered rhum.
There's more to distinguishing the rhum of Martinique and the rum of the rest of the Caribbean than the spelling. Ninety-seven percent of the world's rum is industrial rum made with molasses, a process dating to the 17th century, when frugal distillers found a way to keep the byproduct of sugar manufacturing from going to waste.
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The remaining 3 percent, known as rhum agricole, or agricultural rhum, is produced on this mountainous island, not from molasses but from a dozen varieties of pressed sugarcane juice, with fermentation beginning within 24 hours of harvesting the cane.
In short, this is the good stuff — so good, in fact, that it might be a sin to mix it with fruit juices and accessorize with a paper umbrella. It deserves to be uncluttered, devoid of anything but an optional ice cube. Drinking it this way, I was amazed at rhum agricole's complexity. Some distillations are as peaty and grassy as a single-malt scotch; others as smooth and velvety as a fine cognac or Armagnac.
The latter is not surprising. Armagnac is distilled in a single-column copper still. In the 19th century, when Homère Clément, a native of Martinique who was studying in France, first observed the process, he decided it would work for rhum distillation as well.
You'll still see that process today at Habitation Clément, possibly the most glamorous of the island's distilleries, situated on the grounds of an 18th-century plantation house surrounded by lush botanical gardens. Visitors may taste barrel samples in the cellar, then visit the Great House, where, in 1991, French President François Mitterand hosted President George H.W. Bush for lunch as the two leaders sought a way to end the first Gulf War.
Martinique has the sandy beaches, serene blue-green waters and swaying palms characteristic of the Caribbean, but it's the rhum culture that lures many to the island. In Jamaica, Barbados and Puerto Rico, they love drinking rum; in Martinique, they love making it, and the idea of terroir is as important here as it is to the winemakers of France.
Where Bordeaux and Napa have their wine trails, Scotland its Whisky Trail and, of course, Kentucky its Bourbon Trail, Martinique has its Rhum Trail, although it has shrunk considerably since the 19th century, when there were 500 distilleries on the 436-square-mile island. Today, there are 11, with just seven open to the public, ranging from large operations such as Clément and St. James to the small, family-owned properties La Favorite and Neisson.
Some of these are prepared for tourism. (Clément, along with its distillery operation and the Great House, has a gallery of contemporary art, and the St. James Distillery has an informative museum and tasting bar inside its colonial stone building.)
At other sites, taking a tour means successfully navigating an obstacle course. (La Favorite has no amenities, but two spirits writers on my tour proclaimed the rhum here the best they had tasted.)
For spectacular scenery, pay a visit to Depaz, reached by snaking up narrow mountain roads lined with verdant banana plantations. Lying beneath 4,580-foot Mount Pelée volcano, the distillery has produced its famed blue cane since 1651.
Colonized by France in 1635, Martinique, located in the Lesser Antilles between Dominica and St. Lucia, has retained a strong bond with its European conqueror. Unlike the member nations of the British Commonwealth, which maintain a largely ceremonial tie with the mother country, Martinique is an overseas department of France, enjoying all the French rights and privileges. Its people are French citizens, its currency is the euro, and the official language is French, although that might be hard to tell when you listen to the hybrid French/Creole patois many islanders speak.
You're not going to mistake the capital city, Fort-de-France, for Paris or the Rue Victor Hugo for the Champs-Élysées, but there's enough here to please a casual Francophile. You can shop at Les Galeries Lafayette, tour a local version of Montmartre's Sacré-Coeur Basilica and marvel at the ornate Schoelcher Library, a masterpiece of Romanesque/Byzantine architecture built for the 1889 Paris Exposition. Afterward, it was shipped, mosaic by mosaic, to Martinique and reassembled, and it stands as a monument to French politician Victor Schoelcher, who was instrumental in abolishing slavery on the island.
Fort-de-France is the island's main city, but for two centuries, the town of Saint-Pierre, on the north coast, held that honor. Often referred to as "the Paris of the Caribbean," it was the richest city on Martinique, commercially and culturally.
That all ended in 1902 with the eruption of Mount Pelée, which left Saint-Pierre a modern-day Pompeii, killing all but one of its 30,000 inhabitants. The lone survivor was a prisoner who had been incarcerated in the town jail.
There's not much to see in Saint-Pierre today, but I was told there's a government effort to begin restoring the town to something of its former glory.
You might not linger in Saint-Pierre (although it is a good base for touring the distilleries, most of which are on the north side of the island), but you will want to venture farther south and visit the seaside town of Les Trois-Îlets, not just for its beaches but for the historic site La Pagerie.
This former sugar plantation was the birthplace of Josephine La Pagerie, who became Josephine Bonaparte, empress of France — until her inability to provide her husband with an heir cost her the job.
The main house was destroyed by a hurricane, but the kitchen quarters remain. Today they house a library with many mementoes of Josephine's life with Napoleon.
Martinique is a Caribbean island that is anything but generic. It has a dramatic landscape, a fascinating history, a celebrated cuisine, a unique culture and, of course, the rhum.
So, I suggest you find a palm tree on a deserted beach, take your favorite rhum, and with the use of a lélé, an oddly shaped swizzle stick, make your own version of the island favorite, Ti-Punch (rhum agricole, cane syrup and a lime wedge.)
You can have a bartender do it, but it's more fun to make your own. In Martinique, they like to use a French phrase, Chacun prépare sa propre mort, which translates to "each prepares his own death."