The air as I entered the tasting room (through the aisles, down this stair, find the man in the suit) tasted of spice and smelled of cellar. I was here for a tasting of Rhum Clément, with little idea what awaited me, which happened to be amber-colored magic in a plastic cup. Rhum Agricole, the finest rum in the world (some would say), from the steamy island of Martinique to the crisp bustle of Kansas City, Missouri.
My beverage expertise runs strongly toward coffee, so this was an educational, as well as sensory evening. Chris Morales, the Midwest rep for Rhum Clément (and a classy gent with a strong background in spirits), packed an incredible amount of information into 45 minutes. Before me were 8 samples, ranging from clear to a deep amber.
The classic Clément Première Canne, with a strong impression of grappa and almond bitters, is made from fresh-pressed sugarcane grown on the family plantation, Habitation Clément. A white rhum, it is aged for 6 months in stainless steel barrels. Terroir plays a big part in the development of these rhums, as with any agricultural product. Two of the rhums we tasted were identical, except one was made with cane from the north side of the island, which rests under the looming shadow of Mount Pele and has a heartier, earthier taste. The southern cane produced a simpler and less impactful rhum. Like springtime.
We progressed slowly through our samples, discussing the aging process and lingering over the concept of the “angel’s share”–in the high humidity and heat of Martinique, so much alcohol evaporates during the aging process that barrels of the same distillation year must be combined several times over the process, which produces an exceptionally rare liquor. Rhum Clément offers a classic 3.5 year aged rhum, as well as 6 and 10 years. I’m relatively new to spirits, and I could feel my palate opening and tentatively receiving impressions as time passed. I surprised myself by identifying pomegranates in the 10-year rhum, and quickly started finding creme brûlée, pecans, and a wide variety of spice and mellow fruit.
As you can see in this video, Rhum Clément is a richly evocative brand. Established by Homère Clément (who, incidentally, was the first person of color to graduate from the University of Paris) in 1887 during the peak of the Martinique sugarcane crisis, Rhum Agricole was an innovation that saved the entire island’s economy. Other rums are made from molasses (hello, Bacardi & your good enemy Captain Morgan!), while rhum is made directly from sugar cane. Here is a basic post on the difference. Based on his experience with French liquors like armagnac, Homère created a recipe which his descendants still create.
The result is countless evenings like this one, where palates of all ranges and humans from every background gather to sip in silence and sigh, appreciatively.