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Rum is lifting economic spirits

Exploding popularity of premium brands buoys Caribbean producers.

August 12, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

rivière-pilote, martinique -- In the languor of a steamy afternoon, the sweet aroma of fermenting sugar mingles with the scent of orchids, frangipani and hibiscus.

The perfume hangs over the La Mauny distillery, where Laurent Gervoise, a transplanted Frenchman, is at work on his sensuous concoction.

One part chemistry to two parts instinct, the tough decisions involving this French-ruled island's proudest product have already been made: the right patches of soil for growing the sugarcane, the perfect time to cut it, the optimum length of the stalks to be fed into the crusher to produce the freshest juice for rhum agricole.

Gervoise has spent the last decade midwifing the island's unique Appellation d'Origine Controlee, a seal of approval attesting to the origin and authenticity of each bottle of rum produced on the island, much as France oversees and certifies the quality of its finest wines.

"In the aging process, we are using barrels of various woods and from various countries, trying to assemble the different influences on the taste to create something harmonious," Gervoise said of the distillery's quest for an ever more luxurious product.

A slight, thoughtful man who fell captive to Martinique's beauty and promise during a business trip 18 years ago, Gervoise radiates passion for a distilling process he sees as having moved beyond industry to art form.

Riding an international wave of demand, Caribbean rum producers are hard at work refining their famously ruffian wares for the connoisseur. Once a shameful profit of New World slavery, the rotgut fuel of the American Revolution and the favored tipple for frat parties and prom night, rum has entered the crystal-and-cigars splendor of fine parlors.

Sales of ultra-premium rum grew 32% last year, faster than 10 of the 11 other spirits tracked by Nielsen Co., outdone on the luxury front only by top-line tequilas.

Although much of the trade is controlled by several multinational behemoths who mostly sell rum produced from distilled molasses, the exploding popularity of good rum presents struggling Caribbean economies such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Grenada with opportunities to cash in on the global thirst for their upscale spirits.

One of the few unifying characteristics of the Caribbean, rum lubricates the mind and body for the swaying and savoring of Cuban salsa-dancing, Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian steelpan. It speaks to devotees in Spanish, English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Creole, Papiamento and other patois. It conspires with tropical juices and the islands' fragrant spices to offer a swelling palate of products, with more than 1,500 rums now being produced in factories and on family-run farms.

Mojitos may be hot across the global club scene. Daiquiris have held their own through decades of arriviste cocktails that go quickly out of fashion. But rum is on the ascendant, its analysts say, because of the exploding popularity of drinking the good stuff neat or over ice, rebuffing the centuries-old tradition of drowning its taste in juice, sugar and seltzer.

"It seems to have hit its moment. It's like what happened with tequila -- people realized it didn't have to be nasty," said Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails."

All the recent growth in rum sales has been in super-premium, Curtis noted. The clamor for top-quality boutique rums has also pushed mass producers such as Acarid and Captain Morgan to introduce premium brands, much as the microbrew craze spurred companies such as Budweiser to add niche products to protect their slices of the expanding pie.

"But smaller producers can benefit, too, when there's a market for a $32 bottle of rum," Curtis said, crediting Martinique in particular with seizing the moment with its AOC certification.

At the Neisson distillery tucked into the hilly cane fields of Martinique's northwest, financial director Carole Lezin-Mormin said the demand for premium spirits has been a boon for the family-run company, one of the island's smallest producers.

"Rum drinkers today want the best. Industrial rum is very inexpensive because you have no idea where the sugarcane comes from," she said with clear distaste for the molasses-based product. "Our sugarcane is grown right here in St. Pierre, where the volcanic soil gives it a unique and consistent flavor."

Rum has been a drink of boom and bust since it emerged with the arrival of Europeans in the New World, sometime between 1493, when Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane saplings to Hispaniola, and the late 1640s, when a raw cane spirit called "kill-devil" was first mentioned in a British traveler's journal as among the drinks at a Barbados planter's banquet.

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