Originally published by Bon Appetit in October 2012
Sipping Rhum Clément 10-year old Grande Reserve Tres Vieux, a special-edition rum aged in a combination of French and American barrels, may mentally transport you to the tropical idyll of Martinique, but the man behind import, sales, distribution, and marketing of his family’s Rhum Clément does does his business from a decidedly temperate place: Brunswick, Maine.
Benjamin Mélin Jones grew up in Maine, but his mother’s family has owned a rum distillery in Martinique since 1887. “After moving to New York in the late sixties, she answered an ad to teach French in Portland, without a clue as to where that was,” says Jones. “She’s been in Maine ever since.” Growing up, Jones frequently visited Martinique. He remembers being hoisted up by his uncle, George-Louis Clément, to sample the drip of pure white rum straight from the still. “Back in Maine, our family sipped the aged rum to escape the cold,” Jones says, “Maine and Martinique were the yin and yang of my childhood.”
After college, Jones worked in Paris and New York City in the world of finance, only to become disillusioned. While living abroad, he developed a passion for Hoegarden, a Belgian white beer. Returning to Maine for a period of soul searching, he latched on to a local brewery’s version, Allagash White. So fervent was his enthusiasm that he offered to work on the bottling line in return for free beer, all the while maintaining steady bartending gigs in the evenings. The two experiences led him to the craft beverage business, and after a short stint working with a wine importer, Jones’ thoughts returned to the Martinique rum that he had grown up with.
Rhum Clément hadn’t been available in the U.S. since the late 1980s (long story). When Jones finally decided to re-introduce his family’s rums in 2005, he and his partners were optimistic. Experts were predicting that white rum would surpass vodka in popularity, and that the aged stuff would win over those shelling out top-dollar for high-end whiskey and tequila. “Well, everyone was wrong,” says Jones. “However, I am happy to say that both myself and rum have grown up since then.”
Part of this may come from a new appreciation for quality. In countries that observe French law, the provenance, or AOC, lays out very specific rules regarding geographic boundaries, aging, sourcing, and damn near everything else – not unlike in Cognac and Armagnac. Rhum Clément is a Rhum Agricole, which in the French West Indies means it must be made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice, rather than molasses. Labels bearing the term Vieux indicate rum that has been aged for at least three years in barrel. These strict guidelines are paying off. “Rhum Agricole from Martinique has been leading the super-premium rum category,” Jones says, “mainly due to our very distinctive flavor profile that results from our rums being made from fresh free-run sugarcane.”
According to Jones, rum is hands down the single best value spirit in the country, with far more bang for the buck than most premium scotches, for instance. “It’s not as expensive to age, because we don’t have winter in the Caribbean,” he explains. “This climate accelerates the aging process, allowing for aged rums to render the same drinking quality of comparable aged spirits in a much shorter amount of time. Shorter time in barrel means less product evaporates into the ‘angel’s share,’ thus a 4 year V.S.O.P rum is equivalent to a 12-year-aged bourbon or 20-year single malt scotch.”
Jones champions the cause by traveling extensively to deliver seminars on what makes quality rum, as well as on the future of rum in America’s burgeoning cocktail culture. Of course, the best way to learn, in our opinion, is simply to drink as much of it – whether it’s the 6 or 10-year-old Grande Reserves or the cocktail-ready Blanc – as you can get your hands on.