In 1755, Marie Brizard started producing an anisette that quickly became a smash hit nationwide. They then brought out a highly aromatic blended rum called Charleston which contained “20% of ‘great Galleon aroma’ from Martinique or rum from Jamaica” – the rum industry in France was born.
However, in just a few short years in the 1850s, rum imports skyrocketed and Bordeaux established itself as France’s rum capital. A trade that supplanted the wine industry and played a major role in the economic development of the city.
The birth of Rhum Agricole…
In 1870, sugarcane accounted for 57% of Martinique arable lands. Sugar prices plunged heavily due to worldwide over production and the growing availability of beet sugar in Europe. To survive, a number of distilleries started make rum directly from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses. Rhum agricole was born, or rather reborn… This peculiar way of making rum helped the French producers to avoid confrontation with other islands where sugar production ratios were much higher.
There were a vast number of brands over the years, reaching as many as several hundred. Wine merchants also systematically added rum to their catalogues, increasing the number of bottles available.
|English Tommies downing a flagon of rum…|
To supply the huge demand of the armies following the outbreak of war, orders for rum made by the military went through the roof! Bordeaux received 17,000 tons of rum in 1913; this rose to 27,000 by 1915, 50,000 in 1916 and a remarkable 90,000 tons in 1917 – nearly 250 tons of rum a day…Bordeaux was a long way from the front line and had a brand spanking new state-of-the-art port, courtesy of the American army, in Ambarès, capable of handing a vastly increased volume of imports.
Rum was also in high demand being marketed as a remedy against the cataclysmic Spanish flu epidemic 1918-20 which killed over 400 million people worldwide.
Rum imports went into rapid decline after the war and continued steadily downhill over the following decades – the result of drastically increased taxes and regulations in the 1920s and other factors.Le Havre took over as France’s main Atlantic port as it was deeper and easier to access from the sea – by the 1930’s it had taken over the majority of the rum imports as well as coffee, cocoa etc. along with Marseille. Despite major investment, Bordeaux became marginalised and was unable to keep up with the shift in the colonial economies and emergence of modern industrial super-ports – a decline still in effect today…
Trade between Bordeaux and the Antilles stopped completely during WW2 for obvious reasons (local rum merchants began producing a type of brandy and labelling it as rum to try to maintain sales!) and by the end of the war, most of the trade ties had been lost – the warehouses lay empty and the rum merchants had all jumped ship!
In 1981 only four companies distributed rum (and rum cocktails): Marie-Brizard and Roger with Charleston rum (over the years the share of rum in its activities has tended to be limited – sales of amber Charleston have decreased and the brand now supplies a small volume of pastry rum and biscuits); the Cointreau group with Saint-James rum, and two more specialized companies: Clément which distills and produces in Martinique and distributes its products from Bordeaux, and Bardinet which distills small amounts (Dillon distillery in Martinique) but above all negotiates huge quantities of rum of all kinds in very diversified forms – a blend of rums intended for cooking (Negrita), old tasting rum (Dillon), agricultural rum for punch, light rum for cocktails, cocktails made from rum and fruit.Marie Brizard was remarkably still running a bottling plant on rue Fondaudège until 2015!
To learn more about the fascinating history of rum in the Antilles and its intimate relationship with Bordeaux, head to La Petite Martinique on rue Notre Dam in Chatrons. The owner has tasting evenings and is a leading light on all topics related to rum!They also have a tasting session coming up on the 27th September in Le Grand Poste…