Wayne Curtis distills the essence of Martinique.

Land isn’t usually associated with liquor. Wine, yes. Oenophiles can talk for hours about terroir—the subtle flavor the soil and hills and elevation impart to wine varietals. Terroir also crops up in discussions of complex tupelo honey and robust blue mountain coffee. But spirits? Not so much. Most liquor is mass produced by large conglomerates that buy such raw materials as grain, sugarcane, and molasses on the commodities market and then convert them into potable alcohol in clamorous factories. The process strips out “the land.” Claiming you can taste terroir in a cheap bottle of vodka is like saying you can taste the Kansas sunshine in a loaf of Wonder Bread.

2013Oct24Martinique2But then there’s rum from Martinique. A while back I was researching the picaresque history of rum for a book. This involved tasting my way, bottle by bottle, through the West Indies, sampling rums from Jamaica and Cuba and Trinidad. When I first tasted a white rum from Martinique, in the Eastern Caribbean, it brought to mind technical advice I had read in an 18th-century distilling manual: If a vat of molasses refuses to ferment, a distiller should toss in a dead goat— something yeasty to kick-start it. The Martinican rum tasted somehow too round, too fecund, like a liquid that was more alive than inert. I thought something must have gone awry in the production process.

However, a knowledgeable friend insisted I should taste it again and introduced me to Ti’ Punch, which is how most people on Martinique drink rum. It was a small miracle: The punch’s raw sugar and lime juice tamed the rum’s wildness. It became suddenly seductive and intriguing; it made other rums seem almost one dimensional and a little sad. I thought I knew the language of rum, but here I had stumbled upon a lost dialect.

I vowed that one day I would fly to Martinique to learn how a little island manages to produce such an outsize rum.

Peering through the window as the jet descends toward the island capital of Fort-de-France one May evening, I note with mild alarm that volcanoes surrounding the harbor have all erupted, and lava is flowing down to the water. As we get closer, though, I realize the lights are from dense neighborhoods that stream down the hills and merge in the city.

I expect to find a quaintly raffish, neo-Moorish waterfront populated by eccentric characters when I arrive. My notions of the city were formed solely by repeat viewings of 2013Oct24Martinique3To Have and Have Not, the 1944 Humphrey Bogart–Lauren Bacall movie directed by Howard Hawks. Ernest Hemingway had originally set his novel in Key West, and Hawks filmed it entirely in Burbank, California, so the fact that the city looked nothing like it did in the film should not have come as a surprise. But it did.

Downtown Fort-de-France is like an experiment in midcentury modernism and aging; its narrow streets are lined with boxy concrete buildings that are chipped and discolored. The streets are largely empty at night, save for a few vendors at their shiny new kiosks in the Savane, the main city park. I consider heading out to look for nightlife after checking into my hotel, and I browse listings online. Via Google Translate I turn up a nearby café where, I read, “Some evenings, groups of musicians beginners make you discover their talent.” I opt to stay in.

In the morning I find the city more inviting. I visit the elaborate pastiche of the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, a library built originally for the 1889 Paris Exposition, then dismantled and relocated here. It appears to incorporate every architectural style known to humankind, along with some not yet known.

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The beheaded statue of Joséphine is almost as iconic in Martinican culture as the rum drink Ti’ Punch.

Across the street is a statue of Napoleon’s bride, the Empress Joséphine. A native Martinican, she migrated to France, married the diminutive ruler, and, to bolster her family’s fortunes, used her powerful position to push for the continuation of slavery on the island. Her influence has not been forgotten by islanders, most of whom are descendants of slaves. The 19th-century statue has been frequently decapitated over the years. The authorities stopped replacing Joséphine’s head in 1991.

I could spend more time in the city, but I’m not learning much about rum here. So I get in my rental car and head north to see Grégory Vernant-Neisson.

Rhum Neisson, one of the smallest of the island’s seven active rum distilleries, is set in a deep valley bordered with sugarcane fields, off a busy two-lane road. If you miss the turn, as I do, you end up in the coastal village of Le Carbet, a one-road cluster of basic single-story shops and homes, many painted white and yellow and trimmed in blue, set along a palm-fringed beach. Doubling back, I drive down a dirt driveway and pass rusting equipment of an earlier era—large iron cogwheels, old riveted boilers—set in the grass like accidental sculptures. You can spot these all over the island, remnants of a time when hundreds of sugar mills and distilleries were operating. The Neisson distillery compound, a dense jumble of bright green and pink buildings, seems to have grown organically over the decades, without much of a master plan.

Grégory Vernant-Neisson is in his early 40s and solidly built. He was born and raised in Paris, which may partly explain his brisk, professional demeanor. But he’s also under considerable pressure. He’s the third generation of Neissons trying to keep his family’s rum distillery going on Martinique, in an industry in which economic success is often determined by global trade whims. Rum has fewer than 400 years of history, he tells me, whereas winemakers have had at least 2,000 years to perfect their craft. Grégory’s task is wildly complex yet quite simple to express: Figure out how to put as much island flavor into a bottle as he can, and then hope the world will find its way here and demand it back home.

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Tropical breezes, the angle of the sunlight, the minerals in Martinique’s volcanic soil—they all influence the celebrated complex character of Caribbean rum.

To show me the lay of the land, Grégory leads me on a hike through sugarcane fields high along a ridge above the distillery. He receives a call on his cell phone and continues to walk while talking assertively in French. My struggle to keep up with him is made harder by the fact that I find much to distract me. There’s the stunning view of an azure, iridescent Caribbean, for starters. Egrets abandon their hunt for lizards in the cane and take wing as we approach. Just behind us are the muscular Carbet Peaks, their summits swaddled in soft clouds. In the emerald-green valley below I see a cottony miniature plume puffing out of the smokestack of Rhum Neisson. Grégory eventually stops at the edge of the bluff and concludes his call.

He holds up his phone and shrugs, the universal gesture for “I’m afflicted with this dreadful parasite, but sadly there’s no cure for it.” Then he looks around as if suddenly noticing where he is. “I love this place,” he says, cheerfully. “It’s my favorite.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t love this place. Yet Grégory’s fondness for these fields is rooted as much in pragmatic concerns as in aesthetic ones. The Neisson family maintains a number of cane fields around the northern end of the island, some 116 acres in total. These fields provide much of the sugar their distillery uses in making rum.

“The first thing you need to know about Martinique rum,” Grégory says, “is that it’s made directly from sugarcane, not from molasses.” The vast majority of rum producers worldwide start with molasses, a by-product of sugar making, which means that most rum is made from—there’s no way to put this politely—industrial waste. Martinicans take a different approach. They harvest 60 percent of their cane not for table sugar but specifically for rum. When the cane is at its peak sweetness, it is harvested, cut, and run through steel rollers. The extracted juice is sluiced into large vessels and fermented before being sent to the still.

The sugar from these upland fields, Grégory continues, produces his most extraordinary and delicious rum. “The more I work here, the more I understand it’s the land that’s important, not the cane,” Grégory says. “But we have yet to understand why. We have much to learn.”

2013Oct24Martinique7What I have yet to learn is why producers in Martinique embraced sugarcane rum rather than the less expensive molasses version, and how distillers such as Neisson came to realize that soil and climate affected the flavors of cane and, thus, rum. To find out, on my third day in Martinique I meet with Michel Fayad, director of the museum at the Saint James Distillery in Saint-Marie on the northeast coast. (Saint James was founded in Saint-Pierre, known as “the Paris of the Caribbean” until it was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1902.) Over a lunch of fried cod and blood sausage, Fayad fills me in on the island’s history. Rum was always made on Martinique, he tells me. At the outset, as on the other islands, sugar makers distilled it from molasses.

Then, in the 1890s, the international sugar trade collapsed as industrial sweeteners made from sugar beets and corn syrup came to dominate the market. The sugar islands of the West Indies, once centers of economic power, found themselves spinning idly in a forgotten eddy off the mainstream of global commerce. Looking to restore value to their crop, islanders cut back their production of granulated sugar and started fermenting more of the cane juice for rum.

This strategy for economic survival began its path to genuine innovation in the early 20th century, when Cognac distillers arrived from France. They brought with them their old stills, sophisticated techniques, and appreciation for aged spirits. “The French helped Martinicans realize that they had something special at home,” Fayad says. Because rum had its roots in slavery, he explains, islanders long believed it was “the drink of no hope.” They brought it out chiefly for funerals. But the French convinced islanders to give the local rum a second look.

Islanders had always been growing cane anywhere they could. Eventually, they began to understand Martinique’s basic terroir: They discovered that the cane harvested from the volcanic soil of the north yielded rum that was different from the rum using cane cultivated in the sandy soil of the south. By the mid–20th century, they started experimenting with different types of cane syrup blends. The making of rum gradually shifted from wholesale manufacturing to small-batch craftsmanship.

Exports are increasing, yet Martinique’s rum industry is almost microscopic in the global 2013Oct24Martinique5picture today. “What all of Martinique produces in a year, Bacardi produces on Puerto Rico in one day,” Fayad says with some exaggeration, and then laughs. But the tradition of artisanal rum making has become central to island life.

Among those who trod the unmarked path to quality sugarcane rum was Jean Neisson, Grégory’s grandfather. The day after my tutorial from Fayad, I meet again with Grégory at the Rhum Neisson distillery. In his office I see a sepia-tone picture of four tall girls and a little boy, all dressed formally in white and looking less than thrilled to be wearing such finery. The boy, Grégory tells me, is Jean, sitting with a few of his seven siblings. Jean went to Paris to study chemical engineering; he was the first black man admitted to the university program. (“My father always said that revenge was best taken in the schools, not in the streets,” Grégory’s mother, Claudine, later told me.) In the early 1930s, after he returned to Martinique, Jean bought this old farm with his brother, Adrien, planted sugarcane, installed a still, and started tinkering with the distillation process.

Jean was the first Neisson to start a regimen of intensive experimentation, founding a tradition of trying to make next year’s rum a little better than last year’s. Martinique, like Guadeloupe, its neighbor to the north, is an overseas département and région of France. In 1989 the island distillers banded together and convinced French authorities to establish an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC, or controlled designation of origin) for rums from Martinique, meaning that only sugarcane rums from the island could be labeled as such. It’s like Cognac or Champagne: Rhum Agricole Martinique is a name protected by international agreements. To earn the label, producers must adhere to strict quality controls governing the type of sugarcane used, the length of aging, and the proportion of alcohol (65 to 75 percent) in the rum as it flows from the still.

The low alcohol percentage is key; it allows for the expression of more delicate flavors from compounds in the sugarcane and the grassy land on which it grows. (By comparison, vodka comes out of a still at more than 90 percent ethanol, leaving it nearly neutral and flavorless.) And those extra ingredients are what define terroir, the sense of place that finds its way into a bottle.

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In 1845, Jean-Marie Martin purchased a historic estate and sugar mill and began distilling rum. Today, the renowned product still bears his initials.

I get a closer look at the tradition and skills involved in making Martinique’s rum, passed down from one generation to the next, later in the week when I visit another rum producer. The Rhum J.M distillery sits in a small valley in the north, near the base of Mount Pelée. Cane is harvested on the volcanic slopes, hauled quickly to the facility by tractor, then dumped down a chute and fed to hungry steel blades. The supervisors aim to get the cane crushed within a half hour of cutting, to capture its maximum sweetness. The whole building vibrates and thrums with a sort of Victorian industrial might.

Near a pair of towering copper-clad, columnar stills, I catch up with the master distiller, Nazaire Canatous. He’s been working here 37 years; his father, who began work on this site in 1940, was also master distiller. The two giant stills, imported from France, burble and clang softly. They look more or less identical, but Nazaire says that one dates from the 1960s and the other from the 1970s. The newer still was designed to mimic the older one precisely, but Canatous says the output varies markedly. To prove his point, he hunts up two glasses, then taps samples from each still. He hands them to me. Both liquids are clear and fiery, but one tastes more confectionary, the other more vegetal and vaguely grassy. Why? I ask. “Je ne sais pas,” he says, and just to make sure I get the point, he gives a broad Gallic shrug. The moment reveals how much he loves his job. “You learn something every day,” he tells me. And he seems pleased that after nearly four decades, he still has abundant mysteries to ponder.

On my last day on the island, I return one more time to Rhum Neisson. As Grégory walks 2013Oct24Martinique8me through the distillery, he points out an ancient but shiny steam engine, built in the 1870s for a sugarcane mill. We pass the copper column stills, which his grandfather had a hand in designing in the 1950s, then we head to the complex’s newest building. It’s filled shoulder to shoulder with 16 gleaming stainless steel vats.

“The rum in every tank you see here comes from a distinct type of land,” Grégory says. “For example,” he continues, resting his hand on one vat, “this is Le Carbet. And it’s different from the rum made from cane from the Saint-Pierre fields, over there.” The subtly different flavors, he explains, are the result of soil, elevation, and even the angle of the sun as it strikes the field.

Neisson’s best rum, made with sugarcane from the ridgetop fields we’d visited earlier, possibly owes its character to the temperature swings at higher elevation. Grégory suspects this might lead the cane to produce more complex sugars, which could translate into a more nuanced spirit.

“But perhaps not,” he says. He shrugs. “It’s another mystery.”

This whole storehouse essentially serves as his palette, from which he and his blender mix and match to concoct rums that best reflect various qualities of the land. “Good rums are like people,” he says. “They are richest when mixed.”

Behind the storehouse, I spot new construction: a clump of modern condos resembling a lunar module that has landed on a steep hill. Grégory squints up at them and shakes his head. “Those were built a couple of years ago,” he says, basically as silos for retirees from France who like the tax advantages of living here. “It’s not a good omen.” Land sold for residential development brings nearly a hundred times the price of agricultural land, he explains, and so, year by year, the old cane fields here sprout new housing. It’s a problem.

“Everything around the cane is important,” Grégory says. “The elevation, the sun, the flowers are very important. A man from Bordeaux recently visited us and said that the type of flowers around the fields, all the biological life around the sugarcane, is important in the fermentation.”

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Ti’ Punch

“But,” he says, after standing silent for a moment, “I’m very optimistic about our yeast research.” He has petitioned the AOC authorities to allow his family’s distillery to ferment longer than is normally permitted, using natural airborne yeast. “If you can slow down the fermentation,” he says, “it’s better for the flavor.”

It’s striking to me that in a world where so many Caribbean rum producers are accelerating, trying to merge onto the high-speed freeway of a uniform global taste, Grégory and his family are willfully slowing down, striving to carve out a niche in the spirits world. In so doing, they’re ensuring that Martinique rum stays more like Martinique.

I follow Grégory to another storehouse—this one filled with wooden barrels of various sizes, some from America, some from France—where the premium rum is set aside for aging. He leads me to a 50-gallon barrel. “Would you like to try some old rum?” he asks.

Yes, in fact. I would.

In 1994, 15 barrels of the very best Neisson rum were set aside—a blend that includes the complex rum from the upper cane fields. Through the miracle of evaporation, that rum has been reduced to about two and a half barrels, so those local flavors from more than a dozen barrels—the cane, the yeasts, the plant life—are all condensed and intensified. This aging spirit is “ready to graduate,” Grégory says. Before the year is out, he’ll empty the barrels, then sell the rum to those who appreciate the finer things and are willing to pony up $465 for a bottle.

Grégory removes a stopper from the barrel, decants a couple of ounces into a stemmed glass, and hands it to me. Typically, when I sample spirits I take a small sip or two, make a polite comment, and hand the glass back. But this time I maintain an aggressive, almost proprietary hold on the glass. It’s a perfectly balanced rum, with a touch of oak offsetting a dense, cherry-like sweetness.

I have found Martinique in a glass.

Photos by TrujilloPaumier. This appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue.