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THE RUM RUNNER

RUM PRODUCTION ON MARTINIQUE TRADITIONALLY wraps up by the first week of June, just before the arrival of the rainy season, but Habitation La Favorite was still running at full steam when I arrived on the 12th of the month this past year. The distillery, a ramshackle cinder block and corrugated metal structure, is tucked into a ravine at the end of a dirt drive in the lush hills above the island’s capital, Fort-de-France. When it is running, you smell it before you see it: acrid smoke and the sickly sweet vapors of fermenting sugarcane juice.

The cane-growing season had been troubled and lateripening, partially on account of the previous year’s record-breaking hurricane activity, and owner Paul Dormoy was scrambling to make up for lost time before the Caribbean’s summer rains returned and destroyed his crop. Most rum distillers don’t have these kinds of problems, but the dominant style on Martinique is rhum agricole, “agricultural” rum, which is distilled from highly perishable, fresh-crushed sugarcane juice rather than the far more common (and shelf-stable) molasses. Time was of the essence.

I was visiting the island with Ed Hamilton, La Favorite’s American importer and one of the world’s foremost experts on the spirit. Hamilton had come to hash out some points of contention with management. An order had arrived in unlabeled boxes and caused chaos in his warehouse in New York, and another had arrived in the wrong proof. He also wanted to check on how things were progressing after a difficult period for the distillery, which had suffered a series of mechanical issues.

An old-fashioned agricole distillery is animated by sugarcane alone. Steam-powered conveyor belts feed cane into a crusher, a tangle of gears that pulverize the grass to extract the cane’s juice. The juice is then diverted into enormous steel tanks to ferment into a lightly alcoholic sort of wine. The post-crush cane continues on to another series of conveyor belts to be burned in a furnace, which provides the steam that powers the machinery and heats the still.

At La Favorite, workers without so much as a pair of safety glasses supervised, periodically intervening when a clump of crushed cane threatened to gum things up. The machinery whirred and clanked deafeningly; steam hissed out from

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