Plunge straight into the rum barrel at the Reunion’s distilleries and find out how some of the finest aged rums are crafted, what infused rums are and what you should definitely bring back from the island!
Back in the 19th century a wind of independence started blowing on colonies of world’s superpowers forcing them to reshuffle their assets. France lost its prime sugar producers and decided to assign this primary matter to the spice island of Reunion. Today sugar canes cover 70% of its agricultural land. Out of the 585 sugar cane varieties (about two thirds being hybrids) a dozen are used here based on the many micro-climates. Beyond prime quality sugar, excellent rums that have become part of the local culture are produced: aged rums, infused rums and punch’s are inevitable on the island for our greatest pleasure.
The saga of rum starts with the sugar cane. Cut from June to December it is weighed and tested for its sugar content (typically 10 to 13%).
The cane is put in a mill where its juice is extracted and filtered.
Sugar can be made from this juice as well as agricultural rum (rhum agricole). In Reunion most of the sugar cane juice is heated it up to 100°C to increase its sugar content to 95% (primary syrup or sirop la cuite). Then it is heated up once more to 55°C to obtain molasse the base for traditional rum (rhum traditionnel).
Whichever type of rum the primary matter has to ferment. In the mother tank yeast, water and air are added to the primary matter: in less than a day the yeast has multiplied enough to be distributed to the fermentation tanks containing only the primary matter (no air). The yeast transforms the sugar into ethanol alcohol first. Then other alcohols and esters are developed to enrich the flavors. The fermentation process can last from about 20 hours for the local Charette rum to 2 weeks for an aged Savanna rum.
It ends once the sugar is gone: the fermentation time and type of yeast have shaped the rum.
From this moment on it is a matter of collecting the desired flavors (and getting rid off the unwanted and dangerous methanol). The previously obtained sugar cane wine (10 to 15% alcohol) flows from the top of a 15-meter high distillation column while steam is injected at the bottom. The steam makes its way up getting loaded with alcohol and aromas while the wine goes down. Later this vapor is condensed to obtain an 80 to 90% alcohol spirit.
The purest water is added to lower the alcohol content (typically 49% for a traditional rum and 55% for an agricultural one) and get the right balance between power and flavors.
Some of the rums are then aged to obtain third flavors. A 65-degree rum is introduced in oak barrels. With the warm temperatures in Reunion (25 to 28°C in barrel rooms), the angels’ share is up to 7 to 8% a year: every year, some rum is added from a barrel of the same year to top off the others and compensate for this evaporation. The alcohol content decreases slowly. These warm ambient temperatures accelerate the aging by a factor of about three compared to other spirits giving old rums a special twist.
Some rum makers transfer the rum into a final barrel that used to contain another spirit.
The know-how of rum masters is revealed while tasting the rums.
Old rums are the specialty of the distillery of Savanna. For instance its Grand Arôme Herr Japan Tribute is very fruity despite a 61.3% alcohol content! It develops so many flavors during its long fermentation that its alcohol degree is masked by them. After ageing for 11 years in oak barrels it comes as it is straight from the cask.
Both a distiller and liquor maker, Isautier has developed infused-rum recipes. With their 170-year experience and innovative spirit, new liquors are developed regularly. Their Ginger-Lemon and Guyave-Rooibos or Banane-Flambée are simply a must-taste.
Beyond its traditional and cultural aspects, the sugar cane industry has been shaping the landscape of the island for centuries. Today 20% of Reunionese live from it and to its rhythm. The industry is facing current challenges by developing no-waste processes: the initial fiber waste produces 10% of the electricity consumed a year on the island while every by-product is recycled mostly as fertilizers.
If rums may not be as renowned as whiskeys they are becoming more popular and fashionable. Rum bars start to flourish and one thing is certain: if you didn’t know rum prior to your visit (Bacardi, Havana and Negrita don’t count!), we bet it will become your favorite spirit afterwards!
Marcella & Claire
Know your rums!
Agricultural or traditional rums?
The process is the exact same one for both and only the primary matter changes: the sugarcane juice of the agricultural gives it a greener taste and smell while the molasse of the traditional leaves smells of licorice or caramel
Which one is the best?
It all depends on your taste and what you want to do with it. The agricultural rum is probably more famous as the West Indies have been producing some for centuries and it represents only 2% of the production of Reunion where the traditional is more popular. Typically agricultural rum is used in cocktails and traditional rum in infused rums.
Amber, brown, old or grand arôme rums?
Amber rum (rhum ambré) means colorant is added (not the real thing: avoid!).
Brown rum (rhum brun) is aged in larger barrels.
Old rum (rhum vieux) spends at least 3 years in a 650-liter barrel.
Grand arôme is only for rums with a very rich ester content (and only four distilleries in the world make it including Savanna).
How about infused rums?
Take a good traditional rum, add sugarcane syrup and fruits or spices. Let it sit for a couple of month and savor! And repeat…
- Two sugar factories (Le Gol & Bois Rouge) and three distilleries remain on Reunion: Rivière du Mât, Isaultier and Savanna.
- Saga du Rhum is located close to Saint Pierre at the Isautier’s distillery, the oldest one of Reunion (1845). This informative and interactive museum is an initiative by the three distilleries to take you through the rum making process from the sugarcane to the tasting room.
- The distillery of Savanna is located in Bois Rouge by the namesake sugar factory. The site can be visited too as well as the sugar factory in season. Both are very different and really worth visiting.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.