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The first rums from French Guiana can be traced back to the 17th century. At the time, they were simply made by distilling the “froth” of sugar. “It’s the only thing left to do with juice that would make bad sugar”, it was said at the time. It was known as “Tafia”, and was only drunk by slaves.
Only one distillery remains in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest in the east. But in the 1930s there were still more than 20 distilleries operating in French Guiana. Today, the hundred or so hectares of sugar cane fields grow on the forest floor, less than two miles from the distillery, on farmland said to be some of the best in French Guiana.
Les Rhums Saint-Maurice sells three different brands of rum: La Belle Cabresse, La Cayennaise, and Le Cœur de Chauffe. You can spot the bottles thanks to their beautiful colourful labels that change almost every year at around carnival time, which takes place between January and March.
In the Saint-Maurice distillery, they only make rum from the farm. This means alcohol produced by fermenting or distilling freshly pressed sugar cane juices, or vesou. It is during the distillation phase that the rum will take on a particular taste and aroma. It varies between brands, but the alcohol content comes in at around 50-55%.
For safety reasons, visitors can no longer tour the Saint-Laurent distillery, but a Maison du Rhum is being planned. It will reveal the process of making rum, from field to bottle, and offer tastings to visitors.
The Saint-Maurice distillery, fully refurbished in 2015, is home to a little gift shop where you can buy rum and punch glasses bearing the image of La Belle Cabresse. But what exactly is a belle cabresse? It’s a light-skinned French Guianan sweetheart, also known as a chabine.
Rum comes in many forms: as an aperitif in a ti-punch, Planter’s punch cocktail, or even infused with fruits and/or spices, as well as a digestive with very sweet aged rums. It is also used in the local cuisine in French Guiana, with a drop being added to some dishes to enhance their flavour.