Interview with Marc Sassier
Rumporter: 2019 was a successful year for the distillery with, in addition to its usual business, the launch of a well-received aromatic bitters and the opening of Habitation La Salle. Can you tell us about the origins of this project and its purpose?
Marc Sassier: Habitation La Salle is adjacent to the Saint James plantations and we acquired it in order to increase the surface area of our cellars. There were still the remains of the old sugar mill and during its renovation we found, buried under a layer of earth and rubble, the remains of a 17th century sugarcane plantation similar to that of Father Labat (which existed at the same time at Fonds Saint-Jacques in Sainte-Marie).
Imagine our surprise when we discovered the chassis of a still, an array of boilers, complete hearths in both styles, French and English, the base of the chimney, and an entire stone underground network for waste water disposal, a holding pond to power the waterwheels…
It was at this point that the idea of restoring the site to its former glory was born, which has actually taken almost 4 years! It is a unique place in Martinique. Visitors can rediscover the history of plantation rum at La Salle and, just a few hundred meters from there, go on to discover the agricole rum currently being produced at the Saint James site.
“Martinique is the biggest region in France for spirit tourism.”
Rumporter: Spirit tourism is a strategic development axis for Martinique, what is being implemented collectively throughout the island, whether in the regions or at the interprofessional level?
MS: If we limit ourselves to the field of spirits, Martinique is the biggest region in France for spirit tourism. As an important axis, its development has long been initiated by rum producers who have developed their sites in this direction, each with a different focus giving a plurality of approaches and identity to each brand. These investments continue, La Salle is the most recent, but it involves more than just having a site, you also have to make these sites known and available for discovery.
This is where spirit tourism has had a recent boom, initiated by our profession, in facilitating tourists’ visits to our sites from the ports of entry, namely the sea port and airport. These strategic development issues quickly gained the support of elected officials, and indeed also of the entire economic fabric.
However this requires a significant financial commitment and rum producers want to remain on the steering committee, essentially, we have set up a distillery itinerary with a distinction between A.O.C. agricole rums which can use the terminology and allusion to Martinique, and those who aren’t AOC, for whom this is prohibited, and also historic sites that don’t actually produce any rum.
This itinerary will include a whole raft of signs and specific notice boards on the roads and sites of Martinique and then there will be studies on the environment (hotels, restaurants…), with a charter certifying our spirit tourism partners.
Rumporter: Returning to the subject of La Salle, the inauguration of the plantation is accompanied by the release of two new cuvées, a VSOP and an XO. Knowing you, you didn’t just bottle Saint James under a new label. Can you tell us a little more about these two rums?
MS: La Salle is a place steeped in history with stone, fire, wood… so we had to create a range to set it apart, with products that do justice to its roots and heritage. So we have developed pretty solid rums with well-marked woody notes that bring length to these cuvees, with a fairly smooth VSOP while the XO has a more pronounced and full-bodied structure.
“Cane planters in Martinique are very concerned about their future.”
Rumporter: We’ve been talking a lot together, in recent times, about sustainable development. Your parent company, La Martiniquaise, seems to have made it a priority, whether in Reunion, Martinique or Guadeloupe. Can you tell us what you have implemented over the past decade in Saint James more specifically? What about the recent problem of smoke treatment?
MS: La Martiniquaise is the only company in Martinique to use methane digesters to treat rum distillers’ vinasses. Thus with this anaerobic phase of methanization, there is a reduction in the demand for oxygen of more than 80%, which is complemented by a reduced aerobic phase to lower the difference and leave only a few percent at most.
The clean residue is then spread in the fields as fertilizer. And that’s just for the treatment of vinasses. Our profession has long been committed to sustainable development. The cane itself is a “sustainable” plant by nature. In C-4, it sequestrates more carbon than other plants, it is called a “carbon sink.” With 4,000 ha planted in Martinique, the equivalent of 25% of air pollution caused by the island’s cars is sequestered each year as carbon dioxide.
Moreover, sugar cane reflects heat which helps to refresh the ambient air. Let’s plant sugar cane! Furthermore, we can add a continuous, GMO-free varietal feed, an ongoing biological fight since the late 1970s that has led to the absence of insecticides, fungicides or nematicides in Martinique. Only a few herbicides remain in use, with an annual treatment frequency index (TFI) of 2, against 40 for apples, for example.
Cane roots and rhizomes serve as a food supplement for animals during times of drought when the cane is harvested, cane straw silage is used to feed sheep and goats in the south of the island, and bagasse is used as a compost ingredient or energy source!
Saint James uses its bagasse to supply steam to the mills and to operate the columns stills, thereby avoiding the necessity of using other types of energy. By adding air-cooling towers, the distillery optimizes its recycling of wastewater, fermentation dregs are filtered… it’s a combination of several actions that leads to sustainable development and also generates new, dedicated jobs.
However, there is a downside because these additional costs are substantial, as is the cost of decontamination – about 20% of the cost price which represents in and of itself the production costs of some third-party countries.
When will there be an obligation to apply these rules in third-party countries? This is one of the French and European problems – defining rules that are hardly ever applied to imported products. We could talk about the conditions of organic production compared with Latin American countries, which differ massively from our own. We also have new European standards where France goes beyond what is requested.
Thus, for smoke treatment, certainly through a lack of knowledge of bagasse, we see the most restrictive standards applied whereas Europe was targeting specifics. We are not talking about going against the law, but we are talking about common sense and weighting, because for a few micrograms, we would have to change all our boilers, which would cost us over 40 million euros and a 2-year shutdown.
And which would probably result in a shift to petroleum products because they, very curiously, are much less limited! Cruise ships at the port of Fort-de-France emit more particles during one visit than one of our distilleries in an entire year of production! And we haven’t even addressed private car usage. We have therefore recently requested that the specificity clause of the European text be applied and that bagasse be considered separately.
Rumporter: We have also addressed the issue of the herbicide Asulox, whose authorisation was never renewed in Europe and for which French overseas territories had a derogation until 2018, a derogation that was not obtained that year. Given the global context of non-compliance with plant protection products, and given that the derogation may never be granted again, what have you (the planters and yourselves) implemented regarding weed control without the use of chemicals?
MS: With regard to the elements already provided above, we use herbicides in the first few months of growth to give the cane time to ensure vegetation cover over other grasses. Weed control is essential in ensuring the final tonnage, because one day of delay in weed control equals 400 to 500 kg of sugar lost per hectare (Marnotte, INRA, Reunion). And we don’t benefit from the most efficient weed control available on the old continent – winter.
And if for between-rows, this is still mechanically possible, it quickly becomes a challenge, because it’s different to perennial crops like vines, where the vine stock is always in the same place. The stems grow in all directions over a fairly wide band, and that is problematic. The solution of chemical weeding has so far been able to remedy this with very specific products, because sugar cane is from the same family as the grass that has to be removed. Asulox is one of these products, which at the time of its resale has not been re-approved in Europe.
This product must therefore once again pass all necessary tests according to European standards. After the results were obtained, the planters of Martinique had requested a derogation since it was proved by ANSES (ed.: French National Food, Environment and Labour Safety Agency), one of the most serious bodies in Europe, that this molecule meets the European criteria and that derogations had already been requested by countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Scotland, France for other crops. The approval of the product submitted by Scotland is currently being processed. Despite this, there has been defiance in Martinique in comparing this molecule with Chlordecone (an insecticide), which is a far cry from it and intended for a completely different use.
At the time, the DGAL (ed.: French Food Directorate General) promised to work wonders for us, to help us find financing, but there are still other mountains to climb. And we find ourselves alone. As for finding staff for manual weeding, it’s an uphill struggle, we have to consider hiring foreigners despite a high unemployment rate.
We have discussed these problems with the I.N.A.O. Rum Commission, because we must take agro environmental measures for this institution too. We’ve tried almost everything that they have thought of but without success!
This balance must be maintained otherwise third-party rums will gain ground
Rumporter: Do you think the current government is doing everything it can to support farmers in this new cultural revolution?
MS: In Paris, when we participate in trade shows, they talk about “societal demands,” yet they do not give us the means and time for implementation. We have been a model student for many years in the biological fight, we’ve only used a few herbicides since 2009, we are looking for alternative solutions, but none of this counts.
And the very few hectares of organic production (less than 0.2%!), the few mechanized tools which are unfortunately ineffective in our areas, are used to better hide our forest of weeds. For they are not viable solutions today, with a return of only 40%, with production costs multiplied by 5 or 6 depending on the year and climate, how can cane planters survive?
Planters in Martinique are very concerned about their future, the fate of their plantations, being abandoned by decision-makers so far from the realities of the field, despite the fact that we take the safeguarding of our heritage very much to heart. It is vital that we keep what tools we currently have and sensitize these same decision-makers for tomorrow. Metropolitan France, historically, has always been the biggest market for French rums, because as exports, they represent only a tiny share of consumption.
This balance must be maintained, otherwise third-party rums will gain ground and gradually have an impact on our sugar cane plantations, distilleries, tourism and jobs. In the end, will French or European consumers accept to pay the difference or will they buy imported products free from these restraints instead?