Words by: Jane Ryan
Rum producers from Mauritius have a new spring in their step and you're likely to be seeing more of the island's agricole rums exported to a bar near you.
It was RumFest 2011 where diffordsguide got its first taste of Mauritian rum. A group of distillers from the small island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa, had travelled to London to showcase their spirit, and returned for the 2012 festival too. On both occasions, they were met with not a few raised eyebrows and even a slight scepticism. Mauritius makes rum? seemed to be the general reaction. Where drinkers had heard of some of the island's products - Pink Pigeon, anyone? - few made the connection with its spiritual home.
Indeed, the island is perhaps better known for its honeymoon resorts, endless summers and breath-taking sunsets. Or even, perhaps, for the extinct dodo, which once roamed its craggy mountain landscapes.
In fact Mauritius hasn't long been producing rum so it's little surprise its makers haven't yet made an international reputation for themselves. However, they are making a united effort to change this. Fuelled by a new law which overturned a ban on distilling agricole rum, and with a new commercial and cooperative footing and government support, they are marketing themselves as a new, rare and intriguing alternative to rums from more established markets such as the Caribbean.
At the end of August this year, as part of a group including journalists, I joined rum experts such as Robert Burr from Miami and Derk Becker, founder of RumFest Berlin, and importers from South Africa, Russia, America and Hong Kong keen to sample some interesting new spirits and spread the word further, to make a pilgrimage to Mauritius. It was organised by Enterprise Mauritius, a governmental department which promotes the country's exports and assisted by international rum ambassador Ian Burrell, ever keen to showcase a new rum market to the world and the locals. He had made a journey here in 2008 and discovered a world of opportunity. Five years later our group is here to check up on an industry's coming-of-age.
If rum isn't what comes to mind when thinking of Mauritius, sugar certainly should be. It's been the island's staple product and economic backbone for centuries. Flying in, the first sight that greets you are the fields upon fields of sugar cane that dominate the landscape, horizon to horizon. This verdant land is literally covered in the vivid green leaves. After landing we head to the appropriately named Sugar Beach Hotel, our base for the week and the site of the Mauritian Rum Fair 2013.
Before the Dutch colonised Mauritius there was, interestingly, no indigenous population and it was covered entirely in forest. Portugal had made some early attempts at exploration but it was the Dutch who named the island after their ruler, Prince Maurice van Nassau, and set up a colony in 1638. A year later they introduced deer and sugarcane. Eventually, however, they abandoned Mauritius in 1710.
The French made a much more successful stab at colonising Mauritius, planting more sugar too. As a foreigner on the island you'll be spoken to first in French and secondly in English, even though the latter is the official language. Mauritians between themselves speak Creole which sounds something like French but is, by definition, a mixed-up language in its own right.
Renaming it Isle de France, the French ruled the island from 1710 for a century until the British took it following the Napoleonic wars. Once the Brits took charge they planted abundant quantities of sugarcane, and had the slave labour to turn it into a successful industry. The sugar was shipped all over the British Commonwealth and, once slavery was abolished, the immigrant workforce became mostly of Indian descent. That culture and heritage is still present all over the island with over half the population of Indian descent. Their ancestors brought with them language and religion and we see a great many beautiful shrines to the Hindu gods on our travels - and there's an annual procession from all across Mauritius to one particular temple.
There's a common misconception about Mauritius which says the island was never allowed to make rum until 2006. In fact, using molasses derived from sugarcane to make alcohol has never been illegal. But while it was never officially banned from producing rum, and the island counts several rum sugar-turned producers who can trace their roots back centuries - including St Aubin, a sugar-turned-rum producer that was founded in 1819, and La Bourdonnais, called Rhumerie des Mascareignes, with 150 years of history - rum production was never commonplace and only began in earnest in the early 2000s. After all, as many of the locals don't drink, there was never much incentive to create a domestic rum market. It was far more reliable and profitable to simply produce sugar from sugar cane.
But while using molasses to make rum was not illegal, using sugarcane juice to make alcohol was banned - though asking around, we found it difficult to ascertain exactly when it became so. It was ever thus, seems to be the only explanation. During our trip around the island each distiller had a different version of events to tell and some were determined that all rum had been under prohibition.
In reality, the ban on molasses-based alcohol dates to the British who wanted to protect the sugarcane crop to make sugar for the Empire. The British economy thrived on sugar and it in no way required any more rum production. Thanks to the value of sugar back in the 1800s, it was a far more valuable product the empire than rum.
When the ban on sugarcane juice-derived alcohol was finally lifted in 2006 the island's few rum producers began experimenting with agricole and simultaneously began taking their first steps into global export markets. Some producers have found their wares are popular in Europe while others have tried to make it big in Asia. But however much the islanders look forward into the future of rum, sugar still dominates its history and will continue to play a large part in the island's future: driving around the island large trucks advertise the local sugar and everywhere canes lie crushed on the roadside where they have tumbled from trucks en route to be converted into sugar.
Whether they make traditional or agricole rum, all producers on the island grow red and yellow variants of sugarcane, which refers to the colouring of the cane itself: the red is a deep burgundy whilst the yellow variety has tones of pale gold and light brown. Most say the red variety yields a higher quantity of juice but in terms of flavour it is much the same. Thanks to the sugarcane's large strappy leaves it is difficult to tell what field is growing which variety as you whizz by - it's only when the cane is stripped from the leaves the colour really comes out.
Harvest, which takes place at the end of each summer, starts at sunrise and most plantations still use manual labour, for a pittance of a wage. The sugarcane will grow a flower which towers over the field like a beacon, letting the growers know it's time to be harvested. On our trip more and more of these thin-stemmed flowers were bursting up above the fields but the harvest was only just starting. The work stops at 11:30am due to the heat each day.
For traditional or molasses-style rums the juice is boiled to concentrate it, which promotes the crystallisation of the sugar, and the resultant molasses will then be fermented and distilled. In the case of agricole rum the juice which pours from the cane is extracted for fermentation and distillation. Despite expectations, drink it neat and you'll find it's not overly sweet and can be extremely refreshing when freshly crushed and served over ice.
Alembic stills, not dissimilar to those used in Cognac or Armagnac production, and column stills are both used on the island. Producers such as St Aubin and Chamarel employ both methods and offer two very distinct types of rum: a single distilled and double distilled product. Both houses use agricole rum but the production line is very different. Chamarel has developed a visitor centre at the heart of its distillery where tourists can watch the cane being crushed, fermented and distilled. In contrast St Aubin is very much a working distillery with large tanks of fermenting juice and industrial column stills. For the alembic area however St Aubin has developed a small visitor centre based around the old plantation house.
Other makers, such as the well-known Pink Pigeon or La Bourdonnais, use only column stills which result in a higher degree of alcohol: Pink Pigeon is a molasses-based rum whereas La Bourdonnais use only fresh sugarcane juice. Pink Pigeon's distillery is proof that rum production was never illegal, with a large 1925 carved over the door to the distillery. La Bourdonnais is much more similar to St Aubin with a stunning restored planation house but it has a small boutique-style distillery.
The number of rum distillers in Mauritius remains small, with just six at the last count. Suffice to say volumes are small at this stage. But there are more than 60 producers who buy new make spirit and infuse or age rum themselves. These range from those such as NPK who target a younger generation with melon, mint liquorice and apple ginger flavours, to brands such as Blue Mauritius, which ages rum into a rich woody product close in flavour profile to cognac and target a more discerning drinker's palate.
Mauritius makes some truly exceptional rums, but where it stands out from its competitors is in its infusions. In addition to sugar, the island produces pineapples, vanilla beans, coconuts and passion fruit, all of which are put to good use inside white rums. What marks out Mauritian rum to its competitors is the exceptionally high quality and freshness of its infusions. Instead of tasting like a sweet syrup the result is a flavoursome, palatable spirit with hints of coffee, roasted vanilla and tart passion fruit.
The Mauritian rum industry is now uniting to promote the country's products, mirroring similar, more established collaboratives in the Caribbean. Ultimately the industry is still very young and it's clear many of its small producers are still finding out how, if possible, to make a profit from their business. But in proof of the growing strength of Mauritian rum, deals were made on the week of our visit and products previously unavailable will be find their way into brand new markets around the world. Ian Burrell, speaking at this first Mauritian Rum Festival, advised: "If all the producers can unite together and promote Mauritius as a category as a whole they will have a much better chance of competing with the world's rum industry."
From my perspective, the prospects are good and to some extent rum makers are rightly prioritising bringing what they do to wider attention, at which point perhaps we'll all be a bit more used to seeing Mauritian rum at our local bars and the individual brands can begin competing a bit more strongly against each other. If the dodo was last seen walking on the moutains of Mauritius, the island's rum producers can be said to have something of a phoenix on their hands.