Mauritius is a beautiful island but there is still that temptation to stay within the confines of one’s luxury and well-appointed resort. That would be a shame as there is so much to see here. There is history aplenty and also celebrated rhum. No that’s not a spelling mistake but rather an indication that this is French-style rhum rather than British-style rum from the Caribbean.
To learn more about this delicious local spirit there can be no better place to start than Chamarel Rhum Distillery (La Rhumerie de Chamarel). It can be found in the hills away from the coast and it’s a lush world of trees and vegetation – one might even see some deer. The setting is idyllic, and the distillery must be classed as one of the most beautiful anywhere in the world.
Chamarel uses 100% sugar cane juice to make their famous spirits. One cannot miss the fields of sugar cane around the island. In Mauritius there are 12 varieties of cane, but this company takes advantage of just two: the red and the yellow. The red is sweeter than the yellow and looks rather like bamboo. After harvesting they must separate the juice from the fibres, to give the sweet raw liquid from which the rhum is distilled.
Harvested by hand
The distillery has its year divided into two distinct halves. There is 6 months of maintenance time (January to June) and 6 months of harvesting time (July to December). There are 35 hectares of sugar cane that belong to the factory, and it is all harvested by hand, due to the steepness of the site.
When the sugar cane plant flowers Chamarel knows it’s time to harvest. The plants will regrow after cutting, and each plant will be productive for seven years. In one day, they can cut as much as 15 tonnes. Once at the factory, a rotating cutter will slice the canes into short pieces, then it goes under a roller press or ‘hammer’ to extract the juice. The fibres are separated out and are dried to become ‘bagasse’ that is used as fuel for heating the water used in the process. That’s a practical way of recycling.
The juice passes to five fermentation tanks, each holding up to 25,000 litres of juice. Using natural yeasts, the juice begins to ferment, and in two days they will have produced a sugar cane ‘wine’. That is sent to the distillation stage, which can be one of two processes – double distillation in a pot still or single distillation in a column still. Take a tour around the Chamarel distillery and see these polished copper vessels.
Aroma of banana flambé
In the pot still they put 2000 litres of sugar cane wine and heat it from 30 to 100 degrees. This will produce 600 litres of first distillate, a rough ‘brandy alcohol’. This is transferred to the second still, which by the same process produces 300 litres of that more-refined double-distilled rhum. This has a strength of 70% alcohol and is described as having the aroma of banana flambé. It’s not legal to sell at a strength greater than 50%, so Chamarel dilute it to 44% with natural mineral water.
The column still takes 2000 litres of sugar cane wine and heats it to 100 degrees. It has 24 plates to separate out the various components of the alcoholic vapour into heads, heart and tails. That is an extremely tall still! Heads, heart and tails are the terms used for the different elements of the vapour as it rises through the still. The heads have a content of 80-90% alcohol, and that isn’t needed for rhum but it is used to make industrial alcohol for cleaning purposes. The tails can be recycled into the ‘wine’ and distilled again. The heart is 50% abv, which is diluted to 42% for the distiller’s ‘Classic’ rhum. It has a distinct cane juice flavour and is best used for making cocktails or for steeping fruits or vanilla pods.
In six months Chamarel make about 75,000 litres of single and 75,000 litres of double-distilled rhum. The spirit can be aged in barrels and here they use both new and old for that purpose. The new barrels may be French or American oak. The French wood gives a ‘cognac’ taste, the American wood gives a tannic, woody and vanilla taste. The used barrels may be American, giving whiskey, fruity or floral flavours, and the French will give cognac or sauterne; Spanish PX a Pedro Ximenes sherry flavour; or there are single malt whisky notes from the Macallan distillery in Scotland.
Chamarel Rhum Distillery offers a polished and informative experience. Its spirits offer the best expressions of this unique beverage. I cannot recommend a visit here highly enough. It’s an education for those interested in the process; it’s a delicious adventure for anybody wanting to taste different styles of rhum, and it is quite honestly just a delightful place to sit and enjoy the sheer charm of Chamarel.
Chamarel Rhum Distillery
Route Plaine Champagne
Phone: +230 483 4980
Visit Chamarel Rhum Distillery here https://www.rhumeriedechamarel.com