St James

Martinique French West Indies

By the time colonists established a settlement on Martinique, sugar was becoming the most valuable crop in the Caribbean. In 1765, Saint James began making alcohol from the by-products of sugar production. Until only two years before, it had been illegal to export rhum from the colonies to France so ships loaded with molasses from the Saint James Sugar Factory in St. Pierre were sailing to North American distilleries to be made into rum.

The sugar company continued to expand until the eruption of Mt. Pelée destroyed the factory and distillery. Since then, Saint James has relocated to the eastern side of the island but today, only alcohol is produced from the sugar cane processed here. Opened to the public in 1981, the Saint James museum, on the west side of the main road in Sainte Marie, is housed in the mansion previously associated with the Sainte Marie Sugar Factory. On the museum grounds, a collection of machinery documents the development of the equipment used in the sugar industry over the last 300 years.

Inside, in the cool shade of this picturesque mansion are smaller displays of equipment and photos of the sugar and distillery industry in Martinique. A beautiful bar on the ground floor offers samples of the rhums made here. Entrance to the museum is free and time well spent even if the distillery tour, which starts here, is closed.

The distillery, next to the museum, is a large operation that operates nearly year round. Most of the cane processed here is grown by the Saint James Company on its land; the remaining 20% is bought from local farmers. At the distillery, the cane is shredded, then crushed in one of the four three-cylinder cane mills, which are capable of processing sixty tons of cane an hour.

During the cane season, the mills yield more juice than can be fermented. Most of the fresh juice is pumped directly to the fermentation tanks. The rest is filtered, then concentrated by vacuum to a syrup for storage. This is the first step of sugar production, but the sugar is not crystallized as it would be in the more refined process. After the cane season, the syrup is diluted to its original consistency then fermented and distilled into alcohol.

After twenty-four to thirty-six hours of fermentation, the fermented juice, or vin, is distilled in one of the six single-column stills. Leaving the columns at 75º, all of the raw rhum is allowed to rest for six months in one of twenty 68,000-liter stainless steel tanks. While the rhum is resting, carbonic gas, formed during fermentation, is released and other molecular changes take place. The rhum dismisses some of the tastes acquired during distillation and becomes a more consistent and pleasing drink.

After resting, the rhum, which will be bottled as white rhum or Grappe Blanche, is diluted with distilled water to reduce the alcohol content to 50º or 55º. If it is to be bottled as Imperial Blanc Saint James, treated water is used to dilute the rhum.

Another portion of the production is put in one of the many 35,000-liter wooden vats, or tuns, for 18 months. Here, the rhum attains a slight yellow color and some components in the rhum exchange chemical compounds with the wood, forming complex esters that also add to the flavor. This rhum, bottled at 50º and 55º, is sold as Rhum Paille Saint James. Finally, the last part of the production is put in 200-liter oak barrels, where it is allowed to sleep. After three years, the Rhum Vieux Saint James, bottled at 42% alcohol by volume, has a rich, brown color and a mature aroma and taste.

Also bottled at the distillery are Rhum Saint James Hors D’Age, a blend of several aged rhums, and Rhum Ambre Saint James, a two-year-old rhum bottled at 45% alcohol by volume. All of the Saint James rhums described above are bottled in elegant, square bottles from Marseilles. Plantations Saint James Martinique is embossed on the side of these distinctive bottles and make nice souvenirs, pleasant reminders of a popular Martinique rhum.

In addition to the rhum distilled in the single-column stills, a pot still, resembling the one depicted on the label, is used to make small amounts of Coeur de Chauffe. Originally heated by a wood fire, this still is now steam-fired to reduce the fire hazard. Distilled from fresh cane juice, this rare rhum is bottled at 60% alcohol by volume and only available at the distillery.

This is one of the few distilleries in Martinique that utilizes its equipment after June, the end of the cane-cutting season. The six stills represent the second-largest distilling capacity on the island and are employed to make alcohol from fermented molasses. All of this product is sold to bottlers in France and elsewhere.
There are 10 products in our database distilled by St James.
Coeur de Chauffe St James
Grappe Blanche
Saint James Millesime 2000
St James Imperial Blanc
St James Rhum Paille
St. James Hors D' Age
St. James Rhum Ambre
St. James Rhum Vieux
St. James Rhum Vieux 1979
St. James Rhum Vieux 1982

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Last updated November 1, 2008