Monday, November 10, 2014

A Conversation with Benjamin Mélin-Jones of Rhum Clément

By Antonia Fattizzi, Founder/President, Cork and Tin

A fourth-generation member of the Clément family of Martinique, Benjamin Mélin-Jones was raised with rum in his blood.  While growing up in Maine, he learned to stay warm through the cold winters with Rhum Agricole Vieux produced by his French West Indian cousins. His appreciation for the family business started at a young age when his mother used to reward him for a job well-done with either a little bit of Créole Shrubb over ice cream or sips of aged V.S.O.P. Rhum with other traditional French desserts. Ben has vivid childhood memories of how his uncle, George-Louis Clément, would hoist him up and hold his finger under the drip of pure Rhum Agricole Blanc, fresh off the still.

His mother always had a few bottles of the family rum in the liquor cabinet. As these exceptional rums were not available in the US, they were carefully guarded and rationed out only for special guests in their home. Because the Clément rums were regarded with such reverence, Ben was inspired to import and share Rhum Clément with American rum connoisseurs. As opposed to industrial rum distilled from molasses, Rhum Agricole is made from the finest selection of sugarcane, pressed to extract the most aromatic fresh sugarcane juice.

In 2005, Benjamin Mélin-Jones successfully re-launched Rhum Clément and established the importing and marketing company, Clément USA Inc. Clément USA later added to its portfolio by introducing Rhum J.M. from Martinique in 2008 and Rhum Damoiseau, the leading producer of Rhum Agricole in Guadeloupe, in 2013. The selections of rhums from the Clément, J.M, and Damoiseau portfolios make up the full spectrum of Rhum Agricole available in the US market, and serve all sorts of spirits enthusiasts whether one appreciates rhum neat or in cocktails.

1.  Ben, you had the good fortune while growing up to experience an entirely different culture from your hometown in Maine when visiting your mother's family in Martinique.  How were you inspired as a young adult to bring your family's rhums to the United States?
Frequent trips to Martinique when I was younger gave me happy and long-lasting memories. With each visit to Martinique, our travels awarded us more Rhum Clement in the liquor cabinet, which we served on special occasion throughout the year(s). I made my start in the beverage industry soon after school with a craft beer company in Portland Maine.  Next, I created an import company for Italian wine producers.  That experience gave me the idea to do the same with Rhum Clement. I knew this would be a project that I would be naturally passionate about.

2. What is the difference between Rum and Rhum Agricole?
A great majority of Rum in the world is distilled in a variety of grades of molasses, the industrial byproduct from sugar production. Rhum Agricole is distilled from fresh pressed sugarcane juice, before the sugar is processed. Rhum Agricole is truly distinctive within the Rum universe and is popular for its enticing floral aromas and earthy, vegetal, terroir driven flavor profile.

The rum category is about to be re-organized. Classifications will be drawn up as simply English, Spanish and French style rums. The English and Spanish rums are distilled from molasses, but of different varieties and grades, and are finished according to each region’s cultural tradition. Rhum Agricole falls into a category of its own, and is very much the flagship of French style rum.

3. Martinique is very famous for its Rhums Agricole.  But not to be forgotten is the archipelago of Guadeloupe, which is north of Martinique and boasts three rhum-producing islands.  What are the differences in the rhums from each area?
Guadeloupe makes Rhum Agricole just as Martinique makes Rhum Agricole. Martinique follows tighter regulations due to the AOC, but Guadeloupe Rhum Agricole is produced according to the same standards and does take an appellation. Guadeloupe uses different varietals of sugarcane than Martinique. Guadeloupe is slightly more arid than Martinique.

I find that the overall differences between rums from these two appellations is that Rhum Agricole from Guadeloupe has a savory flavor profile with rounded brown butter and some salinity and brininess throughout the character. Martinique Rhum Agricole has more of an overall crisp tropical grilled fruit flavor, with floral aromas and a grassy vegetal foundation.

4. Your most recent addition to the Clement USA Inc. portfolio was of Rhum Damoiseau.  What are the origins of the distillery?
The founder of the distillery that creates Rhum Damoiseau, Mr. Rimbaud, came from Martinique to
Guadeloupe around the turn of the 20th century and created the Bellevue Distillery in the village of Le Moule. In 1942, Roger Damoiseau purchased the distillery and created the brand Rhum Damoiseau.  Over the past 70 years, the family made necessary investments and transformed the tiny distillery into a producer of world-class Rhum Agricole.  Today Roger’s grandson, Hervé Damoiseau, runs the distillery.

5. Tell us about the Damoiseau products: VSOP and the Virgin Cane Rum. What is their distillation process like, and how do you prefer to consume each of them?
Virgin Cane Rum is crafted from the very best batches of Rhum Agricole from the Bellevue distillery. It rests for a minimum of 3 months in large oak vats to mellow before bottling. This rum has an uncanny brine forward character with a nice salty fat Iberico ham center. It is a great base spirit in any rum or white spirit cocktail.

VSOP is Rhum Agricole is aged in re-charred Bourbon barrels. This rum is one of those best bang for your buck rhums. I love it as a sipper, and it shines in old-fashioned and sazerac style cocktails.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Since 2003, Antonia Fattizzi has managed, marketed and sold boutique wines and spirits in the US market. Her passion for artisinal products propelled her to found Cork and Tin, which serves as a voice and a strategic partner for small and emerging brands. 

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