J. Hervé—There is rhum and rhum as there are heretics and heretics, 1931

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Hervé (J.). — Il y a rhum et rhum comme il y a fagots et fagots. Fort-de-France 1931.

[I approached the title with trepidation but it appears to be from an old expression from Molière in the 17th century that is still probably offensive, but I don’t understand its context enough to calibrate my disgust. Anytime you invoke Molière, it is probably a queer friendly context so lets read on!

Hervé appears to be differentiating “heretics” which use the name rum from the virtuous, unadulterated, terroir driven rhum agricole we know today; its a fun to read propaganda puff pieces that supports a policy proposal. Real true rum, since far back in the 19th century has competed with an ocean of so-called rum. West Indies producers of true rum were always frustrated by continental attempts to produce a spirit from molasses that just didn’t live up to the name. Rum doesn’t easily leave a cane growing region, but even within those regions there is a lot of junk masquerading as rum. The big problem today is that many firms that produce true rum also produce stuff unworthy of the name under the same roof. What’s a consumer to do? They can bait you to a rum festival with true rum then tell you what you want is rare and unavailable and give you some bland heretical stuff. At the same time, even more concocted stuff, just like the 1930’s, monopolizes distribution free of any economic schemes to promote quality and production improvement.

True rum’s strength is its diversity, but sadly it is not well explored enough to differentiate it from the ocean of the so-called. My plan to strengthen true rum has always been to promote the use of fission yeasts which are historically associated with quality. That way we can give true rum a suffix as fission-rum. Another way to express it could be as grand arôme rum whose labeling designations would feature historical and established production complications that differentiate it from so-called rum. You may see a grand arôme rum that features a trash cistern starter, aged dunder, butyric acid bacteria, an aromatic mildew yeast, or the aromatic pineapple disease. You many also see complications like a distinct single varietal cane expression or a single block of cane cultivation with a distinct terroir or single farmer association. These last approved complication may not even necessitate a fission yeast. Complications can multiply on the shelf just like the single malts. But enough, on to this fun vintage puff piece!]

II. – There is rhum and rhum as there are heretics and heretics

A truism!
Also the purpose of this article is not to prove that there are rhums of more or less merit; but to enumerate, after a short historical account:

The different kinds of rhum which are made in the Colonies; to point out to the metropolitan reader the existence of rhums which he does not know and which are nevertheless the best; to explain why these valuable rhums are not known; finally, to indicate to people of refined taste how they can obtain these extra rhums which are almost entirely consumed at the very places of production.

And first of all let’s recall a brutal fact—I call on the testimony of all the Europeans I met in Martinique—as soon as they taste the punch served to them under a friendly verandah, they exclaim “That’s rhum? But it’s delicious! It has nothing to do with the rhum I tasted in France…why? Explain to me…”.

To properly explain the mystery that disturbs the metropolitan in front of his “colonial” gleaming in a crystal cup that the ice makes weep, let’s take things a little “ab ovo”. [from the very beginning.]

When the first settlers established in the West Indies some 250 years ago began to cultivate cane to extract sugar, they soon learned the hard way that the juice of the precious reed was an eminently complex sap (such as grape juice), which had to be processed very quickly, otherwise it quickly fermented and decomposed.

Father Labat, one of the legendary heroes of the West Indies who was a missionary, engineer, soldier, ambassador, is said to have installed the first water mills, the first sugar refineries and the first distilling apparatus in the Caribbean islands. Boilers for cooking sugar and boilers for distillation still bear his name.

Sugar was at that time a product of great value; therefore, only the waste products and spoiled juices were sent to the “guildiverie” or “vinaigrerie“.

The terms “guildiverie” and “vinaigrerie” which then designated the distillery sufficiently indicate what fate was to be that of the waste left to spontaneous fermentation and under unspecified conditions.

While sugars were highly sought after, the new by-product obtained by distillation had not yet flowed. The savages, the common people, the slaves, the sailors were initially the first customers of this “water of fire”.

But as in all ages there have been people with a grieving spirit—the very people who have advanced civilizations—who always strive to do better, the product of “vinaigreries”, “guilderies”, the “guildive “soon improved was called “taffia”. In lucky “boilings”, where chance had put its skilful hand, we had obtained an exquisite liqueur. By dint of observing and spying on this old coincidence—great master of so many scholars, promoter of so many discoveries—we end up surprising “its tricks”. People hastened to put them into practice, to the great advantage of both producer and consumer.

In their “trinkets” the sailors brought to French friends “taffia” that the Dutch—probably foreseeing that the liquor was to conquer the world—had called with a play on words heavy with spirit but full of phlegm rhum or rum.

It is superfluous to say that the taffias exhibited in France by the sailors did not always represent samples of the fine flower of the guildiveries. There were no doubt in these “trinkets”, excellent products with powerful, fruity, suave aromas; but there was certainly also a lot of very strong-smelling alcohol, the smell of old slippers, old leather, tar, etc.; and, curiously enough, it was towards these revolting spirits that the clientele went.

However strange the thing may be, it is none the less easy to explain: Real rhum, good rhum is so sweet a liquor that all those who once tasted it could not help talking about it. You would think you were derogating if you didn’t know how to praise rhum; it was stronger than the coffee.

It happened that those who came across a horrible taffia or guildive from a badly run “vinaigrerie” thought it fashionable to go into ecstasies; the jay is adorned with the feathers of the peacock.

It was precisely at the moment when public taste was once again distorted by this snobbery that beet sugar factories, newly established in France, began to transform the residues of their manufacture into alcohol. They first obtained a revolting alcohol, then, after employing processes of rectification, a neutral alcohol just as unusable for consumption as the first.

It is understandable that the grocers, well served by the reputation of rhum and the imprecise taste of the customers, were not long in imagining blends between these valueless beet alcohols and rhum.

In France, the alcohol situation is completely different today.

Special legislation means that alcohol from grains and beets can no longer be consumed as beverage. Moreover, the so-called quota system limits the quantity of rhum that each colony—and even each colonial distillery—has the right to introduce into France; this law at the same time prohibits foreign alcohols.

It would seem that as a result the fraud should cease and rhums should no longer be appreciated for the strength of their smell, but for the sweetness of their aroma, the sweetness and the finesse of their taste. If it is true that the fraud has not stopped (it continues with grape spirits which are cheaper than rhum), it has nevertheless decreased considerably, especially since a Syndicate of Producers actively tracks down the fraudsters. It must be said that thanks to habit, and perhaps also to an ulterior motive of fraud still existing among merchants or their grocer customers, it is still today the strong aroma that is demanded by the trade.

It follows that the metropolitan consumer who has never been able to taste real good rhum has no idea what it is, and cannot help exclaiming when it is served to him: “That’s rhum? but it’s delicious! it has nothing to do with what I tasted in France!”

At present, distilleries that produce rhum in Martinique can be divided into 3 categories: rhum distilleries attached to sugar factories; industrial rhum distilleries; agricultural distilleries.

There remains to the sugar factories, after they have extracted all the sugar possible from the cane juice, a by-product called “molasses”. It is a dark, thick syrup which has all the appearance of beet molasses; but which is distinguished by a strong and pleasant “sui generis” smell. It is a syrup rich in caramel, which gives it a slight bitterness; the Spaniards call it “miel de cana”, cane honey.

This molasses, added with water and dunder (residue from previous distillations), is left to ferment. It gives a rhum with a very strong aroma sought after in the trade under the name of “industrial rhum”. This product, unless it has several years of barrel aging, is not consumed at the place of production where it is derisively called “Coco-merlo”. It is understood that molasses, extracted from a cane juice deeply modified by several successive cookings in the open air and in a vacuum, having undergone purifications with quicklime and sulfur dioxide, an extraction of its constitutional sugar, a stay of often more than a year in open cisterns where it is exposed to humidity, dust, mold, insects, etc., etc., can only give a product with a very strong aroma without a doubt; but acrid and harsh in taste and without any finesse.

Industrial rhum distilleries also employ the same molasses that they buy from sugar factories. To satisfy the taste of the clientele they tend to force the aroma still further; each has its own “sauces” and manufacturing secrets. Also, the rhum they produce is even less consumable as it is than that which flows from the distillation apparatus of factories.

All these “industrial rhums” are bought by port merchants and delivered to their customers who “concoct” them on a large scale, each to the supposed taste of their customers.

What’s more, we see certain metropolitan houses—whose brands are today the best known—which, having made the mistake of believing that rhum must have a taste of leather and the smell of old boots, and having launched a product concocted in this way, have ended up, by dint of advertising, by creating a clientele accustomed to this foul drink. Later, when these same houses bought distilleries in the Colonies, they were forced, so as not to back down in some way and not upset their clientele, to continue to concoct the excellent natural rhums of their distilleries with the same terrible sauces from the start.

All this explains why until now good rhum, real rhum, is still almost unknown in France.

This real rhum, the one that the agricultural rhum distilleries make with canes harvested on their own land and with the full juice of their canes, in addition to the qualities of the soil, is the object of all the owner’s attention. They does not neglect care in cultivation, monitors the point of cane maturity and chooses the species apt to give the best rhum—because just as not all grapes make cognac, the canes from which the finest sugar is extracted are not not the ones that make the best rhum. This rhum from agricultural distilleries which is the real rhum, we cannot repeat it too often, is unfortunately not known in France.

Indeed it is too fine, its aromas, although powerful, are too delicate for it to withstand the slightest concocting. It therefore does not interest the manipulative grocer.

The agricultural distiller, all of whose rhum was consumed at the very place of production, did not worry about the presentation of his product in bottles in France.

The application in Martinique of the Contingency Law had unexpected effects, the most remarkable of which was to highlight quality rhums.

We know that, in accordance with this law, each distillery has been allocated, by virtue of a apportionment, established moreover on much disputed bases, the right to import into France, duty-free, a certain quantity of its rhum manufacture (out-of-quota rhums are subject to a surcharge when they enter the Metropolis which only tends to be prohibitive). Rums enjoying the privilege sell for a much higher price—currently 10 times more expensive—than those not eligible for the quota certificate. If the allocation had been made on other bases, all the distilleries should have had a quota share of approximately 1/3 of their production capacity. Unfortunately, it happens that some benefit from a share of the quota that the production of their rhum has never been able to reach, while for others this share does not reach 5% of the capacity of their distilleries.

It is easy to understand that an owner who is certain of seeing his rhums snatched up, whatever they are, at a price that leaves them with prodigious profits, is not encouraged to improve production.

It is not the same with someone whom fate has not favored, who finds himself handicapped by the privilege granted to his neighbor. To support this economic struggle where he is so disadvantaged, he must develop all the resources of his industry, in particular by tending to do better.

If the largely contingent neighbor does not need to sell their product to take care of its manufacture, they, the sacrificed, will have to work wonders to improve the quality of their rhum. As they generally cannot sell all the harvest, they keeps the best “chauffes” for aging and after 3 or 4 years (or even more) they will have an exquisite rhum that will have only its value—exceptional it is true—to counterbalance the privilege granted to rhums subject to quotas.

This original rhum bottled and sold under its brand will be able to obtain a price which will compensate—at least in part—for the unfair and unequal surcharge it is subject to when entering France.

This leads to this practical conclusion for the metropolitan consumer, that if they wants to drink real pure, fine and unconcocted rhum, real agricultural rhum, they should only accept original bottles offering all the guarantees of desired authenticity.

I must, in ending this study, pay tribute to Governor Gerbinis who kindly authorized the Martinique Customs Service to issue, in the form of strips printed and stamped by customs, certificates of origin and surcharge which, stuck on each bottle, guarantee the consumer the authenticity of the product it contains.

I must also say that the High Administration, justly moved by the importance of the question, both from the point of view of equity and general interest, was good enough to take into consideration and study a request to obtain that original rhums aged at least 3 years and leaving the colony with a certificate of origin from customs stuck on each bottle would be “ipso facto” taxed and would enter France free of surcharge.

Adoption of these measures would encourage and help those who work to improve rhum manufacture, would make real rhum known in France and promote the product, would repair to some degree the injustices of quota distribution, would cause this privilege—by becoming a reward granted to effort—to lose, for this part at least, its character of immorality. Even the Colony’s budget could profit from it by a duty on the certificates of origin that the customs would issue to be stuck on the bottles.

If the metropolitan consumer wants to obtain good and real rhum, pure rhum which has not been soiled by any sauce or concocting, it is rhum of origin that they must demand, in bottles each bearing a stamped certificate from the Martinique Customs Service.

I say Martinique because everyone knows that Martinique rhum—and this is due to the terroir even more than to the manufacturing processes—that Martinique rhum is, and by far, the leading rhum in the world.

Plantations de la Meynard, 31rst of July 1931.

Joseph HERVE.

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