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The Civilized Explorer > Distilleries of the French West Indies > Tour of Rhum Damoiseau
The ox clearly had its nose out of joint.
We were driving around a bend on a two- lane asphalt road on the Grande Terre side of the island of Guadeloupe. The ox stood in the middle of the road, facing us, with its head up in the air, glaring at us, with its one visible eye rolled up almost out of sight.
Its yoke- mate was trying to go into the driveway with the cart load of sugar cane, and the driver was lashing his whip at the recalcitrant ox and pulling on the line that lead to the ring in the ox's nose. After much shouting and cracking of the whip, the ox gave in, and the two oxen pulled the heavily laden cart off the paved road and into the dirt drive leading to the scales.
While Guadeloupe is as modern as any country in the developed world, there are still places where the most efficient means of transportation is the draft animal. In the days of buccaneers, much of the West Indies was devoted to growing cane for sugar, which was shipped to Europe. The work was done by slave labor, imported to work under horrendous conditions. With the end of slavery and the spread of sugar plantations to North America, sugar was no longer profitable. Guadeloupe has the remnants of some of the plantations, and now the crop is converted to the more profitable alcohol to be sold as rum.
The distillery Rhum Damoiseau is located on Grande Terre, and it is a small, family run business. They buy cane from local farmers who bring cut cane in on ox carts. During the height of the cutting season, the carts are lined up in the driveway, sometimes out on the paved highway, waiting for their turn at the scales and off- loading into the grinder. Each cart is brought onto the scales, oxen, driver, cane and all, and weighed and waved on. The carts are then driven around a loop and up to the pit where the driver throws the cane in to be ground up for pressing. There are no chains, posts, guards, or any protection from falling in. The cane lands on a metal conveyor which pulls it into a shredder. The cane is chewed into bits and pieces, amid much dust, and then conveyed into streams of water to moisten the grindings into a slurry.
This slurry is then fed into large screws where it is pressed under great pressure to wring all the moisture from the cane itself. This liquid is a light brown color and is drawn off and run down a cooling tower over vents that look very much like a radiator from a giant car. The cooled liquid is drawn into vats perhaps 20 meters high and 10 meters across. We walked up metal stairs and looked into the vats. The liquid was full of very tiny bubbles constantly rising to the surface, covering the top with foam. The occasional bug drifted by in the scum, presumably having died a happy death.
This liquid is percolated and refined through various stages until a nearly pure, colorless alcohol is obtained. An employee asked me to hold out my hand, and he poured some into my cupped palm and invited me to taste. "Whoa!" I shouted. He grinned. The alcohol is 80% pure at that stage, and a significant part of the remainder is sugar. It was both remarkably strong and remarkably sweet. The alcohol is then aged in vats for varying lengths of time, depending on the desired outcome.
We purchased some 15- year- old rum that is 45% alcohol and some merely "old" rum that is also 90 proof. They are a rich, dark, warm brown color, and they are not meant to be served in mixed drinks. In Guadeloupe, aged rum is often served in a wine glass, to better appreciate the color and odor of the liquor. The glass of rum is served on a small saucer with a paper doily and a lump of sugar. The sugar takes some of the edge off the rum -- sip and suck.
We serve the rum in liqueur glasses and without the sugar. We warn people ahead of time so they are prepared for the alcoholic content, and there has always been apprehension of drinking "just straight rum." But after a sip, eyes light up and apprehension turns to appreciation. It is a totally different rum than American tastes are used to.
All of the machinery at Rhum Damoiseau is unguarded, and visitors are free to, and do, wander at will around the distillery without a guide. Employees may be around some areas and will answer questions, but visitors are left to their own devices. It is a working distillery, and the employees have been welding while we were there (which attracted a nice crowd).
There is, of course, a tasting room. This is located in a building separate from the working distillery, and there are bottles of all the rums that Rhum Damoiseau produces, T- shirts, blouses, and other articles of clothing with the Damoiseau logo, and small dolls with the madras clothing alleged to have been worn by slaves in the olden days. (Contemporary daguerreotypes and photographs do not show color, but give us the impression that no slave ever wore the nice madras clothes shown on the dolls.) Prices of rum and souvenirs range from reasonable to outrageous. We do recommend that you buy as much rum as you can reasonably carry back home, particularly if you are from the States. You will likely not find this quality of rum outside the Indies.
The distillery is a very interesting place to visit, and we recommend it highly. If you are staying on Grande Terre, Rhum Damoiseau can be part of a pleasant half- day tour of the Atlantic side of the island. It is located on road D101 just outside the coastal town of Le Moule. We have photographs of our tour at our dotPhoto site. Please visit there and enjoy the ox and the fermenting rhum.
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