Distillery spotlight: Saint James – always on the square with rum!

As the market leader of agricole rums in Martinique, and as one of its precursors, Saint James offers the widest range of agricole rums currently being produced by any distillery. However, it has taken more than 250 years of history to achieve this undeniable success… with its exclusive square bottle!

Rhums saint james Martinique
© Laurent Ardhuin

Its exact name is Les Plantations Saint James (Saint James Plantations), which has been in use since at least the 18th century… yet its origins are not clearly defined or historically proven. For it is not a locality, or even a commune in Martinique, let alone a plantation (as a domain is called on the island) or even a distillery. And there has never been a “Sir Saint James” to preside over the destiny of the name, which is first and foremost a trademark. The official history merely mentions the existence of a certain British admiral, by the name of Saint James, who spent a long time in the vicinity of Saint-Pierre, at the time when this port was the capital of Martinique. But the chronicles make no other mention of him, or of his relationship with the taffias of the time.

It would appear that the name was chosen to appeal to British customers, at a time when a 1713 decree prohibited the marketing of Caribbean rums in France as a protective measure to safeguard brandy! In addition, Martinique was, for a time at least, a British colony. And the name, already in use in 1765, had another reason to please the English, since Saint James’ Palace was home to their king and his administration long before Buckingham Palace. But these rums could just as easily have been called Trouvaillant, Sainte-Marie, Paulin or Lambert… which shows that before the advent of marketing experts, luck did indeed play a role in the success of a brand.

A hospital in search of charity

The history of Saint James begins in the middle of the 17th century in a hospital that was located in Saint-Pierre and used primarily to treat royal troops. It was entrusted in 1685, after some meandering, to the Pères de la Charité (Fathers of Charity), a Hospitaller order which took the better-known name of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu (Saint John of God) in 1790. Operating costs were to be covered by royal subsidies, but also in part by taxes levied on drinking establishments! However, the money promised by the king was a long time in coming, so, as the good managers that they were, the Fathers had to find their own funding. They received donations of houses and shops, and agricultural holdings.

Rhums saint james Martinique
© Laurent Ardhuin

But, as we are in the Caribbean, the principle resource at the time was sugar, and so it was that the religious order came to own sugar mills. The first was located in Saint-Pierre itself, but their agricultural estate developed quickly just 2 km away, in a place called Trou-vaillant, perhaps so named as it took much valour to climb the very steep path in order to reach it. Some old buildings can still be found on the site to this day. Of course, the friars produced sugar but they also produced molasses, which were exported and became known as tafia before becoming rum. As tafia was sold for a higher price than sugar and, to keep some semblance of moral high-ground in their activities, they could argue that tafia could also help in treating their patients. After all, doesn’t eau-de-vie translate as water of life?

The origins of Saint James officially date back to 1765, as evidenced by a plaque found at Trouvaillant, which pays tribute to the superior of the community, Father Edmond Lefébure, for having built the sugar mill. The name of Saint James was already used for this alcohol, which was sold at a time when smuggling was rife, under a name that could conceal its origins which were perhaps a little too French. It has also been written – without any proof to back up such a claim– that Father Lefébure originally came from a village in France called Saint-Gemmes or Saint-James…

A very detailed inventory dated 1777, specifies that at Trouvaillant, there was a “vinegar factory or kill-devil distillery” equipped with a still, with a “tafia hut” nearby containing four “casks” with a total capacity of 6,500 litres. This inventory specifically states that three different products were found in this hut: tafia, tafia spirits and rum! This already showed a certain focus on quality, even if there were no explanations as to the methods used to create these products.

Then came the French Revolution and its sweeping changes, which also affected Martinique. In Saint-Pierre, the Fathers of Charity lost all their possessions and gave way to State representatives. The latter handed over the domain – including its activities, namely the sugar factory and distillery, to a private lessor. Ironically, the first of these private lessors was Edouard Henry, none other than the former Superior of the Fathers of Charity, who was also a freemason! Under his leadership, the area of Trouvaillant prospered, as evidenced by a report written in 1828, when a new lessor was appointed.

Rhums saint james Martinique
© Laurent Ardhuin

Throughout the 19th century, lessors succeeded each other with more or less satisfactory results, while the abolition of slavery resulted in profound changes in the economic organization of Martinique. Ownership of the Trou-Vaillant domain eventually moved from the State to Martinique’s General Council, but the end of a quasi-free workforce made it increasingly difficult to manage, causing many problems. No wonder, then that in 1861, the estate was privatized, and bought at auction by Paul de Grottes and his three sons.

It was also a period of great technological change, with the development of column stills, which were more productive and economic: small sugar mills built directly in the fields give way to larger units, which centralized the production of entire regions. In the late 19th century, Martinique became the world’s leading rum producer, providing one-third of the rum consumed globally, and had to import molasses from Guadeloupe and elsewhere.

Phylloxera and other vine diseases allowed rum to overtake wine-based spirits, and by 1882, there were 190 distilleries on the island. This prosperity led to the emergence of new players, with Saint James Plantations in first place.

From Paulin Lambert to Saint-James

Born in 1828, François-Paulin Lambert was a self-made man of humble origins. A cook by trade, he was attracted to the sea and set sail at a young age and reached the West Indies before he even reached adulthood. As he was gallivanting around the world, he gradually discovered how the rum trade was organised, from its production to its distribution in metropolitan France and eventually became a rum importer and trader.

Rhums saint james Martinique
© Laurent Ardhuin

Like his fellow citizens, he brought rum in barrels over from the French and English West Indies, which he then bottled in metropolitan France and marketed under different brand names, including ‘P. Lambert Rum’ from Martinique. But he needed to differentiate himself from his competitors. Thus, in 1882, he registered his square bottle design, which was easier to store and presented a lower risk of breakage during transport. This definitely proved to be the case when bottling was moved to Martinique.

It was during this same year, that he trademarked “Rhum des plantations de Saint-James” at the Registry of the Marseille Court of Commerce, highlighting the “long-standing reputation in the West Indies of their rums ranked first for their finesse and aromas”. The primary concern of Paulin Lambert, soon to be joined by his sons Eugène and Ernest, was the quality of his products. Indeed, he was one of the first to develop the technique of heating the sugar cane juice– the inventor behind this idea has never been identified – which was a kind of rapid pasteurization (before its time!) which eliminated harmful bacteria and ensured better control of the fermentation process, resulting in a spirit with a more consistent flavour.

In order to be absolutely sure of the quality of its provenance, Paulin Lambert became the owner of Saint-James in 1890, having bought by notarial deed the plantation and distillery of Trou-Vaillant. A little later, he bought another domain, called Beauséjour or Daguerre. He was therefore able to market his own rums, which he publicized through a massive advertising campaign in metropolitan France and also abroad, as in Argentina, for example.

His success earned him many imitators, especially with regards to his square bottle – which he continued to protect without hesitation in the courts. The first representation that we have of this success, published in the newspaper “L’Illustration” of March 13, 1886, shows the sugar cane plantations above Saint-Pierre, surmounted by an immense sign “St James” just like the Hollywood sign, and which, for several decades, served as a landmark for sailors at sea.


The miraculous survivors of Saint Pierre

In 1902, Martinique was shaken by the eruption of Mount Pelée, which completely devastated the city of Saint-Pierre, killing nearly 30,000 people and leaving most of the city’s distilleries in ruins. However, as it was located in a rather protected ravine, Trou-Vaillant was only covered with ashes, and was soon back in working order.

The Lambert sons (their father had died in 1905) therefore needed to diversify their supplies and so bought up several other plantations that distilled rum: Rivière-Blanche in 1911; Acajou at the Lamentin in 1912; Fonds-Bourlet at Case-Pilot in 1929. The First World War brought about a veritable euphoria of rum in the Caribbean, particularly in Martinique. Between the needs of the army (distilled spirits were essential in the production of gunpowder), rations served to the troops and the ban on absinthe in 1915, production reached 183,000 hectolitres of pure alcohol in 1919, without taking into account clandestine distillers.

During the four years of World War One, Saint James sold up to two million litres of rum annually. After 1920, the rum market collapsed, leading to many bankruptcies, but Saint James resisted well, even building a second distillery and going back to producing vintages, of which it was a precursor as well as rum “crus”. Its reputation went global, and even reached countries like China and Indochina, where a good million bottles were sold before the war.

Rhums saint james Martinique
© Laurent Ardhuin

The Lambert family controlled Saint James until 1955, when Ernest’s widow sold the company to a financial group in the metropolis headed by Mr de Vibraye, under the name of Société d’Investissement des Caraïbes (Caribbean Investment Corporation). And so a page was turned…

Saint James Plantations became… Martiniquan!

Martinique was at an important turning point, not to say undergoing a real economic revolution. Its sugar factories went through difficult times which finally resulted in their decline. Because their production costs (especially wages) were higher than many other countries, they were no longer able to find buyers and gradually ceased their activities. Hence a growing lack of molasses for industrial rum distillers, who were also subject to importation bans.

Sugar cane, which was becoming less and less profitable, was replaced by the cultivation of bananas and pineapples. Martiniquan distilleries were forced to turn to agricole rum made from sugar cane juice (vesou), which was only sold locally. Although of better quality due to its aromatic richness, it would take much effort to have it truly recognized, in metropolitan France and then for export, through the AOC (controlled designation of origin) label, obtained in 1996 after years of administrative procedures.

The ambitions of Saint James’ new owners, based around infrastructure modernization and diversification (distillation of aromatic plants), were however not successful, far from it. Thus, in 1965, ten years after the distillery was bought from Lambert’s widow, the Caribbean investment company was forced into bankruptcy. But there was a buyer: Picon, its distributor in France, for whom Saint James rums were of essential interest.

But the entire industrial structure needed to be reviewed. A solution was found thanks to an agreement with the Despointes family, who owned a sugar mill in Sainte-Marie on the east coast of Martinique. With the collapse of the sugar market, the idea was to convert this sugar mill into an agricole rum distillery. Which would take a very long time… The entire production of Saint James was moved to Saint-Pierre for a while, and the other sites closed and their lands sold.

Furthermore, Picon was then acquired by Cointreau, who provided more means to create the distillery of Sainte-Marie. The latter finally started production in 1974, with its inauguration on December 23 by the then Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, who once again proved his attachment to the overseas territories.

With this new production unit, Saint James threw itself wholeheartedly into the production of agricole rum, starting from new bases. In this modern distillery, it was no longer necessary to heat the sugar cane juice, which allowed the juice to be treated at its freshest. Moreover, taking advantage of the impact caused by the creation of the new distillery, Saint-James undertook to regaining market share… in Martinique.

Since the 1950s, it had been almost impossible to find rum in the island’s shops or bars, as it was all exported. The last stage in the company’s history was its acquisition in 2003 by the company La Martiniquaise, a sort of return to particularly symbolic sources. The company, founded in 1934 by Jean Cayard, has over the years become a leader in the world of spirits, with Cruz port, Label 5, Glen Moray, Glen Turner and recently Cutty Sark whiskies, Poliakov vodka, Duval and Casanis pastis, Caraïbos fruit juices and many other liqueurs, aperitifs and spirits…

It is also a leader in rums, which was the first business line of La Martiniquaise, with such brands as Depaz, Dillon, Bally, Bellevue, Montebello, Rivière du Pour, Old Nick and Negrita. So it has come to pass that Saint James is now in the hands of one of the leading experts in the rum sector.

A leader in sustainable development


Today, the Sainte-Marie distillery is the largest in Martinique for agricole rum production. Between 70% and 90% of its cane supply comes from 250 ha of Saint James’ own land, the rest being provided by small producers on the Atlantic coast, who benefit the most from the trade winds, yet they also close enough to the distillery that the time between when the cane is cut and when it is processed does not exceed 24 hours.

Fermentation of the sugar cane juice takes place for an average of 36 hours in 24 stainless steel tanks with a 48,000 litre capacity, equipped with copper coils in which river water flows to maintain a fermentation temperature of 38° to 40°. 6 Creole-type column stills with copper condensers are used to distill the ‘wine’ obtained (which is between 4° and 5° alcohol).

Then, the distilled spirit measuring 70 to 73% alcohol is transferred into large vessels for six weeks to rest, where it is stirred and aerated to remove volatile compounds which are too bitter. The white rum can then be bottled, at different degrees which are obtained by adding the most neutral water possible. The rest will undergo refining or aging in two categories: the ‘wood-aged’ rums spend between twelve and 18 months in about 60 large, French-oak barrels with a 33,000 litre capacity; for “old” rums, the spirit is stored in barrels of less than 650 litres (as per AOC Martinique legislation) but at Saint James, aging is mostly in bourbon barrels with a capacity not exceeding 220 litres.

Most of the rum spends between three and six years there, but this can reach 15 years or more for cuvées produced in very limited quantities.
With more than 15,000 barrels, Saint-James has the largest stock of agricole rum in the French West Indies, and its average annual production is almost 4 million litres for 55% alc.vol. To produce these quanties, it is necessary to harvest approximately 40,000 tons of sugar cane, and the factory’s storage capacity is nearly 8 million litres!

Equally interesting for enthusiasts, it is important to emphasize that Saint James, through the ambition of its shareholder, is at the forefront of environmentally-friendly development techniques (see interview with Marc Sassier on the following pages).

Sainte Marie is therefore the only distillery on the island to own its own methane digester and has been able to share its know-how in this field with its sister distillery, Rivière du Mât at Réunion. From cane production to energy production, Saint James has created an autonomous circular ecosystem which is sound and should serve as a model for the industry.

Thus, we see the extent of the journey from the small “vinegar distillery” of Father Lefébure and the sheer size of the Sainte-Marie site, which extends over several dozen hectares. But there is a continuity in the focus on the quality and finesse of the rums produced.

The museums built on-site bear witness to this: the rum museum (the first in Martinique) located in a Creole house dating back to 1872, the museum of distillation (opened in 2010), and most recently the opening of Habitation La Salle (see following pages) which educates more than 100,000 visitors per year on the history of Martiniquan spirits and their methods of production.


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