REASONS TO GO
The Rum Museum and the gift shop
The Distillery Museum
The Little Train tour of the farm
The working distillery
Saint-James, the oldest of Martinique’s distilleries, is a survivor.
The plantation house was built in 1765 on the Trou Vaillant estate, at the foot of the fertile slopes of the volcanic Mount Pelée. The eruption of May 8, 1902 reduced the surrounding plantations to ashes. Only Saint-James was spared.
It resumed operations two years later and in 1974,
production was consolidated at Sainte-Marie.
THE WHITE AND BLUE HOUSE
Unlike other plantation houses, the manor at the Saint-James Distillery is easy for visitors to access: there are no steep hills, wandering paths, or imposing rows of trees. Saint-James blends into the surrounding municipality of Sainte-Marie and the residence it is mere steps from the front gate.
And yet, the beautiful villa, embellished with blue shutters, dates from 1875, which makes it even older than its venerable peers Clément and Saint-Etienne. It is a typical creole house constructed in wood with a brick foundation, concrete tiling and veranda on the ground-floor, a large balcony and wood floor on the upper level, and a red-tile roof. Since 1979, it has been home to the Museum of Rum.
Inside the house, an exhibition recounts the history and fabrication of rum in Martinique through a large collection of photos, engravings, and advertisements. Also included are objects from daily life on the plantations and tools used in rum production.
Nothing much happens on the upper level, except for occasional art exhibits or master classes (about rum, of course).
It’s much more interesting to wander around the first floor, stopping to admire the beautiful wood paneling in the gift shop or settle in at the counter for a rum tasting.
THE MOST BRITISH OF FRENCH RUM
History books often present Fathers Labat and Du Tertre as the founding fathers of rum distillation in Martinique.
Reverend Edmond Lefébure, Superior of the Convent of the Brothers of Charity and a knowledgeable alchemist, is less well-known. In 1765, he founded a rum distillery in the hills of Saint-Pierre to serve the needs of the town hospital. In addition to his incredible talents as an alchemist, father Lefébure had a keen nose for business: he called his rum Saint-James to facilitate sales to American colonists, who had imposed a ban on rum imported from the French colonies.
In 1882, Saint-James really took off.
Paulin Lambert, a poor man from Marseille who became a wealthy industrial landowner, registered the Saint-James brand and its famous square bottle, designed to facilitate sea transport and reduce broken bottles during large storms. Saint-James is also notable for being the first brand to seriously invest in advertising.
THE DISTILLERY MUSEUM
Outside, visitors can wander through an open-air exhibition and take a closer look at a collection of farm equipment and massive old cast-iron machines, along with locomotives that once transported sugar cane on the plantation. These towering machines convey the importance of the rum industry in the early-20th century: until the 1950s, the plantation operated at maximum capacity and annual production reached nearly 2 million liters.
My favorite is the Distillery Museum, a beautiful building located just behind the manor, which houses a wonderful collection of copper equipment, including pot stills and distilling columns. These charming objects are truly worth seeing up close. Downstairs, the Saint-James vintage cellar contains antique bottles of rum covered in century-old dust. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.
No visit is complete without a ride on the Plantation Train, pulled by a steam locomotive from 1925. The 40-minute ride connects the Rum Museum to the Banana Museum, crossing the Saint-James sugar cane fields and the banana plantations of the Nouvelle-Cité and Limbé.
Martinique used to be crisscrossed with train tracks, which served to transport sugar cane to factories built from 1870 onwards. In the early 20th century, the rail network included over 250 kilometers of track. As centralized factories began to disappear in the 1950s, the railroads were gradually abandoned, destroyed, or forgotten.
The little train has been restored and is managed by volunteers from the organization Sugar Cane Tracks.
The museum was inaugurated by Jacques Chirac when he was prime minister under Valéry Giscard D’Estaing.
The Fête de Fin de Récolte (Harvest Festival) is celebrated in June, and the Rum Festival in December.
Distillery operations correspond to the sugar cane harvest, which usually takes place from February to late June. Outside of this period, the machines are at rest or being repaired.
HOW TO GET THERE - HOURS OF OPERATION
Tuesday through Saturday:
departures at 10am, 11am, and noon
The train does not run in September and October.
Museum of Rum opening hours:
Monday through Sunday, 9am to 5pm
Free admission to the museum, gift store and the Distillery Museum
There is a fee to visit the distillery from February to June, during production.
Telephone: +596 596 69 30 02