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Guadeloupe’s Isle of Rum

Above: the rhums of Pere Labat in Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe (all photos by CJ)

By Alexander Britell

MARIE-GALANTE — “I SHOULD do all my shopping here,” I think to myself.

Yes, this is a rum distillery, but it’s also a rum market.

You can find all your needs for the weekend (or the weekday), and many do — meaning that there are nearly as many locals on hand here as visitors.

This is the Distillerie Bielle on the island of Marie-Galante in the Guadeloupe Islands, a sweet place right down to the soil.

Above: shopping at Distillerie Bielle

In the diverse, largely hilly chain of islands that comprise Guadeloupe, Marie-Galante is the round, flat disc to the southeast, an agricultural hub that feels a world away even from nearby Grand-Terre.

It’s an easygoing island, with copious beaches and a few towns that would be better described as villages.

Above: Grand-Bourg

It is French, yes, but it is Caribbean, with the kind of untouched, unadulterated charm you rarely find in the region these days.

But most importantly, though, it’s a paradise for rum (as is the entire archipelago — with nine distilleries in total).

There are a little more than 12,000 people on Marie-Galante, but there are three rum distilleries — or about one distillery for every 4,000 people.

That’s a higher rate than any other island in the Caribbean.

Above: the tasting booth at Distillerie Bielle

There is the Poisson distillery, which makes Pere Labat, named after the 16th and 17th-century clergyman; there is the aforementioned Bielle, which makes its famous rum right at the centre of the island; and there is Bellevue, which is the largest producer on Marie-Galante.

Above: Distillerie Bielle

For visitors, the experience here at Bielle is wonderful: there is a large tasting booth where one can the full portfolio of Bielle’s rums (including its famous 59-percent variety), opposite a rather large shop offering both rum and collectibles.

Above: rum and beaches always go well together

It’s an intimate experience you don’t find at many of the larger distilleries in the region.

I HEAD to Distillerie Poisson, the home of Pere Labat, a complex of buildings with white walls and red roofs.

Like its counterparts on Marie-Galante, it is not a sanitized place built for tourists — it is the real thing. You walk right in medias res.

IN THE French Caribbean, the strength of rum is always counted in degrees. For an 80 proof rum, or 40 percent by volume, that means “40 degrees.”

Pere Labat produces a 59-degree rum — nearly 50 percent stronger than most of the rums consumed anywhere else.

While that may sound daunting, the 59-degree isn’t rocket fuel: it’s smooth, floral and even slightly sweet — perfect inside a classic Ti’ Punch cocktail.

But I have my eyes on Pere Labat’s signature — the 8 ans, or eight-years-aged variety.

It comes in a bottle seemingly from another time, with a white label that looks like it was handwritten by Labat himself one day after Mass.

This rhum is different: it is buttery, rich, exotic, with a hidden sweetness. I can taste the sugar cane that is growing just a few steps away.

That’s what makes the French Caribbean’s rhum agricole unique, of course — it is made from sugar cane juice, not molasses, always using locally-grown cane.

With this rum, you can understand its origins; you can taste a place.

And Marie-Galante tastes, well, pretty good.

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