Outside of locales where French is the local tongue, Réunion Island rum gets little fanfare from enthusiasts obsessed with the latest limited editions from Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Martinique, etc. Set in the Indian Ocean, Réunion is just slightly bigger than Maui, smaller than Luxembourg, and home to some of the most interesting and well-constructed rums made today.
The island is a tropical paradise with stunning beaches and an active volcano. I imagine it as France’s version of Hawaii. Just like Hawaii is a long-haul flight to paradise from the US East Coast, Réunion is a similar trek for folks in mainland France. And just as Hawaii is a US state despite being thousands of miles from the mainland US, Réunion is a full-fledged département d’outre-mer (overseas department) alongside Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana.
Réunion Rum – Who and What
Réunion is France’s largest rum-making region, despite its place in the shadow of Martinique and Guadeloupe among non-Francophones. Réunion’s distilleries make four types of rum:
Molasses rums meeting the requirements for rhum traditionnel
Molasses rums that don’t meet the requirements for rhum traditionnel
Cane juice rums meeting the requirements for rhum agricole.
Grand arôme rum
The island has two sugar factories, and over 99 percent of the rum made on Réunion derives from molasses. The island has a geographical indication (GI) for its rum, just like Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana. Each of France’s seven rum GIs is registered with the European Union, so they are in force across all 27 EU member states.
Réunion has three rum distilleries, each with an eponymous brand:
Rivière du Mat
Rivière du Mat is by far the largest distillery and is owned by COFEPP, France’s second-largest spirits conglomerate that also owns Saint-James, Depaz, Dillon, Bally, and Negrita. Founded in 1845, Isautier is the smallest but oldest distillery in Réunion. It makes both molasses-based rhum traditionnel and rhum agricole. Distillerie de Savanna is in the middle, volume-wise. It distills molasses-based rhum traditionnel and rhum agricole. However, it’s the grand arôme rum, a tiny part of Savanna’s overall production, that is the focus from here on out.
True confession time: having dug into Réunion’s rum making, the island now tops my list of “must-visit rum destinations.”
Among hardcore rum geeks, high-congener Jamaican rums are a particular obsession. (I call them high-congener rather than high ester because the former is a more relevant description. Esters are just one part of the flavor equation.)
Grand arôme (translation: high aroma) is France’s equivalent to high-congener Jamaican rums. Both came about in the late 1800s, and neither was intended for standalone consumption. Rather, they were essentially rum flavor concentrate made with the exectation that they’d be blended with lighter rums or neutral spirits before consumption. Just as German blenders bought Jamaica’s high-congener rums to adulterate with neutral spirit, the same occurred with grand arôme, although it was French blenders in continental France.
To my knowledge, only two French distilleries regularly make grand arôme today: Le Galion in Martinique and Savanna in Réunion. Le Galion’s grand arôme first came to the attention of most enthusiasts from its inclusion in Denizen’s Merchant’s Reserve, a rum designed around making an exceptional Mai Tai and released in 2014. Since then, enterprising independent bottlers have started fulfilling rum geek’s demand for straight-up grand arôme at different strengths and ages.
As the French are wont to do, there are regulations involved. Any old rum can’t decide to call itself grand arôme; there are requirements spelled out in two different geographical indications. Martinique has a distinct GI for grand arôme rum separate from the AOC, whereas Réunion’s single GI covers all the island’s rums, i.e., molasses-based rhum traditionnel, rhum agricole, and grand arôme. Martinique’s GI is slightly more descriptive, but the technical crux of both GIs boils down to these three items:
· Vinasses (“dunder”) is used in the mash recipe
· Volatile compounds must be at least 800 gr/hlAA
· Esters must be at least 500 gr/hlAA
If the last two items are puzzling to you, this article contains a very gentle introduction. But the bare basics to understand is that grand arôme must have a significant amount of flavor compounds.
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The minimum ester level of 500 gg/hlAA is similar to Hampden’s HLCF marque and Rum Fire expression, as well as Long Pond’s LPS and STC♥E marques. However, grand arôme can have much higher ester and volatile compound levels than the 500 and 800 minimums.
Even though the US is among the world’s largest rum markets, Americans had long had less than stellar choices when it came to high-end rums. Europe’s overall appreciation of premium rum is several years ahead of the US. American rum enthusiasts have looked on forlornly as the latest independent bottled hotness rolled out in Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, or the UK. Fortunate people like me who could travel internationally would return with suitcases jammed full of exotic rums we thought we’d never see on a US shelf. The anxiety of passing through US Customs with 18+ bottles of rum is an occupational hazard of being a US-based rum geek.
Fortunately, Eric Kaye started the Holmes Cay brand in 2019 to import rums that US rum geeks have been pining over. Eric is, first and foremost, a rum enthusiast, not someone just dabbling in spirits. He has a keen sense of what rums geeks are looking for, and his early bottlings were exactly the sort of releases I expected. More recently, Kaye has thrown a few curveballs into the mix, surprising even me. At the 2023 Miami Rum Congress that Eric reached under the table, pulled out a small bottle, and in a low voice said, “You need to try this.”
Several years ago and based solely on online chatter from European enthusiasts, I picked up a bottle of Savanna’s unaged Lontan rum while in the UK. I hadn’t yet deep-dived into grand arôme, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Safely back home, I opened it and was completely unprepared for the wave of aromas that overcame my nose, palate, and frankly, the whole room. (Mrs. Wonk isn’t a fan of the 1,200-horsepower high-congener rums, and I noticed her nose crinkled up across the room.) It was a revelation to my palate, and I happily paid a premium to buy more during subsequent international trips.
What Eric poured in Miami was the same distillate that Savanna sells as Lontan. I knew he’d recently been to Réunion Island, but I wasn’t expecting him to return with grand arôme. Many bottlers would stretch out their supply by bottling it at 50% ABV or less, but Eric bottles it at 57.5% ABV, the same strength Savanna bottles.
What do we know about this rum? It’s molasses-based, and we can assume it used dunder in the mash recipe. Online reports on the fermentation length are wildly different, ranging from 6 to 15 days. The rum is column distilled, proving once again that not only can column-distilled rums be flavorful, they can be intensely flavorful. Fermentation matters! We don’t know the ester or volatile compound levels, but presumably they’re above the 500/800 specified by Réunion’s GI. Note to the Savanna foks: if you see this, can you add any details to the above? Especially fermentation duration and esters/volatile compounds, please!
UPDATE: An informed source indicates:
Not a wild fermentation. Specific yeast and bacteria are added.
Seven day fermentation on average.
Volatiles are between 600-1000 gr/hlAA, with 800 typical.
I’m not a fan of hyper-specific tasting notes, but my primary impression is of intense, overripe pineapple stored in a leather bag. My friend Lance at the Lone Caner isn’t shy about tasting notes, however; he writes of the equivalent Velier bottling: …it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical…
I have a good-sized collection of high-congener rums, including all the Velier-issued clairins, River Antoine, all the unaged Jamaican overproofs, DOK, TECC, and Le Galion’s grand arôme. But it’s Savanna’s grand arôme that makes the strongest claim to be my high-congener desert island rum. It’s night and day different than Le Galion’s grand arôme and far more enjoyable in a snifter. Savanna also makes a pot-distilled high-congener distillate known as HERR, but the Lontan remains my jam.
While Holmes Cay initially focused on single-cask limited-edition rums priced about what you’d expect, they’ve recently expanded into non-vintage expressions that are regularly available and priced lower. The Holmes Cay Grand Arôme has an MSRP of $49.99, less than I paid for Savanna’s equivalent Lontan while in France. There’s also a Savanna-distilled agricole rum, bottled at 50% ABV and priced at $39.99 that I very much enjoyed.
Transparency note: Holmes Cay provided me with a bottle of the grand arôme to photograph and compare/contrast with related bottlings.