[Lady Saccharum] Chantal Comte : the grande dame of martinique rum goes off the beaten track

She was probably France’s first “assembleuse embouteilleuse” in the early 1980s, and for a long time was a strong ambassador for Martinique rum, at a time when it was not selling well. Today, this former winegrower (in the Gard region of France) presents a new series of vintages as pure and limpid as ever, which have taken her outside her beloved island. For our great pleasure.

Chantal Comte

Where does your passion for aromas come from?

I was born in Morocco. I was lucky enough to have a garden, and I grew up surrounded by smells, whether orange blossom, spices, horse dung or garden flowers. In fact, I used to terrorize my parents because when we went somewhere and it smelled bad, I’d tell them! Kids say whatever comes into their heads.

My sense of smell was my trademark, and it still is. I wanted to smell everything, and share my sensations. So I was predisposed to working in environments where I had to use my nose.

So this passion survived childhood?

I passed my baccalaureate in Paris, then studied modern literature at the Sorbonne. I married very young, because my future husband wanted to go to the USA to continue his studies. In my generation, the only way for a young woman to follow her partner to the USA was to get married first. It was a vision that today would be described as macho, of course… At the time, I wasn’t working because I was looking after my children, of whom we had three.

When did you feel the need to launch your career?

In the early 1980s, I wanted to work. The cellar master at the Château de la Tuilerie winery, which my parents had bought in the Gard region of France, had retired. My father and husband asked me to take over from him.

For me, it was as innocent as accepting the chair of Chinese at the Sorbonne! I had a nose, but apart from that I knew nothing! Besides, I didn’t drink wine at the time. So, before accepting, I went to the Salon de l’Agriculture for ten days to interview winemakers. Listening to them showed me that this was a difficult but fascinating profession, and it confirmed my idea that this was what I wanted to do.

So I enrolled at the Université du Vin. I did an internship as a caviste at Anfopar and then studied oenology. I loved my job, even if it was never very profitable. That’s the lot of agriculture, as we can see from the recent farmers’ revolt. These are extremely difficult jobs, where you have to be driven by passion.


Chantal Comte

So you were a winegrower?
Yes, for 35 years, in the Costières du Gard appellation (now Costières de Nîmes). At the time, it was a despised appellation, but my ambition was to make great wines there. We quickly switched from bulk sales to bottling on the estate. We reorganized the cellar, worked on hygiene, invested in high-performance equipment… and I quickly earned a reputation for quality, because that was my only motivation.
And when did you become interested in rum?

I discovered Martinique rums in 1983, three years after I started in the wine business. And I imagined that selling the exceptional rums I was discovering would offer a synergy with my wines. At the time, distillers often kept for themselves “the crème de la crème”, i.e. exceptional vintages that weren’t on the market.

One of them, our friend André Depaz, a great producer from Martinique, offered to sell me his rums. I accepted out of friendship and because I really wanted people to discover these marvels. Of course, back then, Martinique rums weren’t at all known for their quality, as they are today. So here again, the early days were difficult!

Chantal Comte

What was rum like back then?

When I discovered rum from Martinique, I wasn’t interested in white rum, but I was immediately fascinated by the ageing of old and extra old rums in barrels, and at André Depaz’s request, I began distributing them under my “Rhum Chantal Comte” brand. I was convinced of the quality of Martinique rums!

So there were already great old rums in the 1980s?

Of course, there were some marvels that had trouble finding outlets, because at the time rum wasn’t sold, it wasn’t fashionable. So for 20 years, I had a hard time selling the rums I selected. But I persevered, because I knew one day I’d be right. I could have bought many more of these treasures, but as I wasn’t selling them, I only allowed myself to buy small quantities. I didn’t want to be an agent or a dealer, but to address collectors, connoisseurs… There were no words for my profession at the time. So I imitated what existed in whisky: the title of blender and bottler.

Chantal Comte
When did you achieve success?

I’ve been preaching about these magnificent spirits for twenty years, and my first customers were Michelin-starred chefs Alain Ducasse and Michel Guérard, the latter of whom has been with us for forty years. It was during a lunch at Michel Guérard’s Prés d’Eugénie that Christian Millau discovered one of my rums and devoted an entire chapter to it in his book “Le dictionnaire amoureux de la gastronomie” (Édition Plon).

Why is Martinique less present in your new collection?

For 40 years I’ve worked with some of the greatest names in Martinique, and it was time to broaden my horizons. I was too much labeled Martinique and I discovered very different worlds (Madeira, Mauritius, Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe). On the other hand, Martinique is sorely lacking in sugar cane and its supply has shrunk. And it’s true that rums from all over the world are making progress (Mauritius, for example), and I’ve been thrilled by these new cuvées. In fact, just this morning, the results of the first competition at which we presented our new rums, the Catavinum Wine & Spirits Competition, came in: six “Gold Medals”, including three “Grande Médaille d’Or”. Which says a lot about the quality of my new cuvées.

Chantal Comte

Where do you source your new rums?

This year, I tasted a lot, but didn’t travel as much, because I got to know the world’s number one distillery installer, Dominique Honoré, owner of Chais Saint Eloi 88 in the Vosges. He’s a meticulous perfectionist – he could have been Japanese!

We share the same vision of things. In his cellars, he has perfected highly sophisticated ageing techniques. He’s a master of micro-oxygenation, and ages his rums in Tuscan terracotta amphorae, which give the rum a beautiful minerality. So it’s with him that I’ve sourced my new collection, with an offer of exceptional variety and quality.

Your new collection includes an ESB, l’Or des Caraïbes, which can be found for over €150 in wine shops. How do you explain this price?

Luxury isn’t luxury because it’s expensive, but it’s expensive because it really is luxury. As you know, price is first and foremost linked to degree. In 40% rum, there’s more water than rum. I was the first to make raw rums from casks.

Then there’s the cost of ageing, i.e. the investment required to produce a luxury object or spirit. In the case of L’Or des Caraïbes, the barrels were chosen by Seguin-Moreau, the absolute excellence. Then there’s the price of the exceptional, because if you make millions of bottles, you’re no longer in the exceptional, but in a mass-market product.

My cuvées are always in small numbers, because I’ve never broken my rule: even if there are only a few bottles, I’ve never added an extra barrel (to make more money) to what I consider to be a masterpiece.

I once selected the equivalent of a single cask at Maison La Mauny, which yielded just 515 bottles, not one more, and this one, “La Tour de l’Or 2005”, was voted best agricultural rum in the world at the 2018 World Rum Competition in Madrid. Only true luxury gives pleasure and deserves its price. Copies and imitations give no pleasure.

You don’t think rum’s age necessarily determines its price?

For many people, age, or an old vintage, is proof of quality. There are some exceptional old rums, and my old vintages are proof of that, but “value does not wait for the number of years”, as Corneille said in Le Cid. The masterpiece can also be found in a younger rum, because the quality of the cane was perfect, because the cellar master succeeded in maturing it with attentive care to the rum’s evolution, because the management invested in perfect barrels.

“L’Or des Caraïbes”, for example, underwent delicate micro-oxygenation and spent time in terracotta amphoras from Tuscany, which added to the minerality of the product, without obscuring the sunny, pure and magical color of this juice. There are child prodigies and old fools. The opposite is also true (laughs).

The rums in your new collection are also very clear.

I was trained in rum by some of the great “Messieurs de la Martinique”, as they say. André Depaz and Paul Hayot, of whom I’ve often spoken, were great avant-garde distillers. They used to say to me, “Beware of color! If the rum is dark, there are three reasons: poor hygiene, bad burning or the addition of caramel. The light has to shine through the rum. Choose blond rums”. Over the past forty years, I’ve never stopped looking for that blondness, that purity, rums of light! But there’s so much to be done to change bad habits…

And what do you think of finishes?

I’ve already said how important the choice of barrels is. The tradition in Martinique has long been to use American oak barrels that have contained bourbon, and this is part of their typicity. Some have moved on to other origins (Jerez, Porto, Bordeaux) and this has also produced good results.

It was also a question of economy, as the barrel itself had become unaffordable. At Chais Saint Eloi 88, where Dominique Honoré’s exacting standards spare no sacrifice, the deliberate choice of new barrels from the best coopers makes all the difference, restoring the rum to its original purity.

Chantal Comte


We’ve talked about aged rums, but what about white rums?

It took me a long time to get interested. Back then, my friends in Martinique used to joke that white rum was mainly used to clean windows. And it’s true that in the 1980s, sometimes it wasn’t much better. And I think that in recent years, the greatest progress in rum has been made with white rums, thanks to much more sophisticated equipment. I now select as many white rums as aged rums.

Are you interested in the notion of varieties of cane and plots of land?

Unlike wine, rum is the product of distillation, not vinification. Variety therefore has less impact on the final result than the grape variety of a wine. It seems to me that anyone can be challenged to find the variety of a rum in a tasting. For me, it’s more a question of marketing. Distillation has the effect of further erasing the varietal effect. For me, it’s the ageing process that’s more important, bringing finesse and subtlety to the rum.

Chantal Comte


And terroir?

There is terroir in rum. It’s less perceptible in older rums, because the ageing process takes over. But in white rums, it’s much clearer. In my new collection, my Figthing Spirit Gold rum comes from a distillery on the Atlantic side of Martinique, which has its feet in the water. So there are oceanic influences, with salt and iodine. And you’re right there when you taste the cuvée. And I have a white rum from Maison La Mauny which, on the contrary, offers the characteristics of its environment: aromas of humus, damp earth, tropical forest.

What are your plans for the coming years?

It’s hard to say what my plans are for the coming years, but I’m always on the lookout for a tasting that will make my heart beat faster.

So you’ll be releasing other cuvées in the future?

In my 40 years in the rum business, I’ve only released 25 cuvées. In the three years between my last two collections, I couldn’t find anything to my taste, until I visited Dominique Honoré’s Chais Saint Eloi 88.

And what about molasses rum?

Molasses rum is distilled from sugar residues. I don’t think I’ll ever select one, but never say never. The distillation of fresh sugar cane is incomparable. When I select a cuvée, I try to find a rum that gives me an emotion. Rums made from molasses and cane honey are too sweet for me. But there’s a customer for everything!

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