I’m a bit of a sucker for a good French Caribbean rum, but I’m quickly running out of brands to try that are locally imported here in the United States. Saint James is one such brand that we just don’t really get here in the US but is popular in mainland France, which makes it all the more interesting for me to give it a try. And thankfully, I was able to grab a bottle on a recent trip there.
A small hospital was founded on the west coast of Martinique at the request of Louis XV, then the King of France, and staffed by the Brothers of Charity to care for wounded soldiers. In 1765, Father Edmond Lefébure, who was in charge of the operation, decided to open a sugar refinery on the site to assist the needs of the facility. The refinery worked as intended, providing a steady stream of vinegar, molasses, and other components for the hospital, but Father Lefébure also wanted to try to perfect the local custom of making a sugar cane brandy and to see if he could sell the excess rum for a profit.
Father Lefébure entrusted one of his associates, Father Gratien, with the problem of marketing and selling this rum (which, due to the laws at the time could not be sold to France as it would compete with the local wineries). He took the name of the habitation in which he was staying, Saint Jacques, as the brand name and began trying to sell in the Americas rather than France. The name eventually became anglicized through this trading with the Americas to Saint James.
In 1882, a Frenchman from Marseilles named Paulin Lambert purchased the fledgling company and registered it, along with the trademark square bottle. Lambert had already been in the rum business and had been very successful with his other offerings, and the purchase of Saint James was one of a swath of distilleries he purchased on Martinique. Three years later, he used the Saint James brand to launch the first “vintage” rum — previously the spirit had always been blended, but this would start the tradition of age statements on special rums.
Over the years, the distillery would continue to flourish and remain profitable, despite being partially destroyed in the 1902 eruption of a nearby volcano. Saint James would be sold to Cointreau in 1973, who moved production to a new facility on the Atlantic side of the island, and in 2003 the company was further sold to La Martiniquaise.
- Learn More: What Is Rhum Agricole?
This is a Rhum Agricole Martinique AOC, which has probably the most restrictive requirements of any rum spirit in the Caribbean.
As a rhum agricole, this spirit is required to start from freshly pressed sugar cane juice — not the usual backstrap molasses that you see with most cheap Caribbean rums.
Once cultivated and crushed into a juice, the sugar is added to some water and fermented for no more than five days to an alcohol content of 7.5% ABV. (The idea here is that the lower alcohol content than usual will allow more flavorful rum to be produced in the end.)
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled to a spirit of between 65% and 75% ABV in alcohol content. That newly made spirit is proofed down and placed into previously used bourbon barrels to age.
This is a good way of doing a slightly quirky bottle without a lot of flashy gimmicks. Instead of a standard cylinder for a body, Saint James opted for a slender square profile which really helps it fit into the speed well behind a bar or be more economical with space on the back shelf. The slender boxy shape curves pretty sharply to a nearly flat top and then a longer straight neck that is capped off with a plastic and cork stopper.
The label isn’t much to write home about, though. It’s a straightforward design using a simple color palate, with black background and gold lettering for the main branding information. Each version of this rum seems to use a different set of colors, and for the 7 year edition they went with an orange color for the bottom label. I like the relatively clean aesthetic here and the abundant open space to see the color of the rum inside, features which I appreciate in a good label design.
The first thing I get coming off the glass is the smell of raisins, followed closely by cinnamon, caramel, and brown sugar. Honestly, it’s a set of aromas that I usually associate more with a good Cognac than a rum — the early onset stages of what’s referred to as “rancio“; but after seven years of aging, I feel like it is to be expected that the majority of the stand-out components are imparted from the barrel.
The experience of this spirit being more like a fine Cognac than a rum continues through the taste, when the first flavor you get as you take a sip is more dried fruits. Specifically, I’m getting more raisins, dried apricot, and a touch of orange citrus up front, along with some added brown sugar and cinnamon spice thrown in for good measure as the flavor develops. You do eventually get to the point where you can recognize this as a rum, as there’s the taste of raw sugar cane near the finish but without any of the distinctive sweetness or texture that you get from a (traditionally sweetened) Cognac.
When you add a bit of ice, the lighter and sweeter flavors usually tend to drop out of the running, which leaves only the heartiest components behind. That’s exactly what’s happening here to some extent as well: most of the fruit components disappear, but I think those seven years in a barrel enabled a couple of them to stick around.
What’s left in the glass is a lot of brown sugar, a touch of vanilla, and some nice raisin flavors. The raw sugar is coming through a lot more clearly as well now that the other flavors are toned down, with that crisp component that’s almost like an herbal fresh cut grass developing near the finish.
At this point, the spirit feels a little lighter in depth and complexity. When taken neat, the dried fruits added to a really nice experience, but with the addition of a few ice cubes this becomes a little thinner of a flavor profile that doesn’t do it justice. The good news is that there’s just enough flavor coming through that it might still be okay in cocktails.
Fizz (Dark and Stormy)
I’m not really getting the “dark” or “stormy” components of this cocktail, but it is delicious nonetheless. A bit of a lighter take on the original — and it’s more fruity and tropical somehow.
What’s sticking out the most is that dried fruit and raisin component, which is mixing and balancing with the ginger beer in a delightful way that creates a refreshing and citrus-y flavor with just a touch of fruity depth. It’s interesting and complex, while simultaneously being light and delicious. Just right for a nice summer day when you really want something crisp and refreshing.
The goal in using this cocktail for our rum reviews is really making sure that the flavors in the rum can stand up to aggressive mixers, not necessarily that it re-creates an exact Dark & Stormy as we traditionally know it. And in that case, it passes the test with flying colors.
This is a rum that seems to act more like a Cognac than a rum. There’s some amazing dried fruit “rancio” flavors in here, combined with the brown sugar and herbal raw cane sugar that you’d expect in a Martinique AOC rum. It makes for a delicious and fruity experience that makes me lament all the more the fact that it isn’t available for purchase in the United States.
The only minor thing I’m dinging it on is that I’d like to see a bit more of the raw cane sugar component throughout the flavor profile.
|Saint James Rhum Vieux Agricole 7 Year|
Produced By: Saint JamesProduction Location: Martinique, France
Owned By: La Martiniquaise-Bardinet
Classification: Agricole Rum
Special Type: Martinique AOC
Aging: 7 Years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $50.79 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A delicious French rum that acts more like a fine aged Cognac.