Bordeaux – rum capital of France

As the city warms up for its first ever official rum festival in December, Bordeaux Expats takes a look into the astonishing history of the Bordeaux rum industry.

Forget about wine, for nearly 100 years Bordeaux was renowned as one of the world epicentres of the rum trade! Cheers!

by Chris Tighe

A brief history of French rum

In 1755, Marie Brizard started producing an anisette that quickly became a smash hit nationwide. They then brought out a highly aromatic blended rum called Charleston which contained “20% of ‘great Galleon aroma’ from Martinique or rum from Jamaica” – the rum industry in France was born.

Rum had been popular in French Caribbean (Antilles) throughout the 18th century, particularly with the upper classes. However, its import and sale was banned in France for fear of competition with the wine and domestic alcohol trade. This didn’t stop the smuggling of guildive (an early name for rum – from the English name ‘kill devil’ given to all sugar cane alcohol from the Caribbean) to mainland France and there are reports that it was already consumed in various Parisian cafés in the 1790’s as the fashionable “punch au rhum”.

The revolution brought changes in the sugar (and therefore rum) economy - slavery temporarily disappeared, Haiti became independent and beet sugar appeared in Europe. In 1819 Martinique exported 7 times less rum than before the revolution... Even up to the middle of the 1800s, import levels into France were extremely low.

However, in just a few short years in the 1850s, rum imports skyrocketed and Bordeaux established itself as France's rum capital. A trade that supplanted the wine industry and played a major role in the economic development of the city.

Bordeaux’s economic backdrop

Bordeaux saw a significant economic revival in the second half of the 19th century 'grand époque'. Over a few decades, a range of new industrial activities sprung up - from heavy chemistry to agri-food, metallurgy and automobile manufacture (notably with Ford opening its first European operation here – and still operating just about in Blanquefort to this day).

For more on the history of Bordeaux as a port city, click here

The port also saw the rapid modernisation of its infrastructure. Vertical docks were built around 1850; these were followed by the Bassins à flots, the 'quais' and the use of steam cranes. The port flourished thanks to the emerging markets offered by the new countries of Latin America, cod (with a sizeable cod industry based in Bacalan (from the Portuguese Bacalao), and later in Begles), and the export of wood from the Landes – there was also a booming trade in sugar cane rum.

Bordeaux played a pivotal role in the history of trade with the Antilles and was France’s principal Caribbean trade port. From slavery to exports of local products (including diminished wine quantities, beer from the brasserie de l'Atlantique, and shoes, hats, clothes, agricultural tools and tinned foods) across Africa and worldwide colonies, the city was an international import-export hub – a huge and diverse range of tropical products passed through, from bananas to cocoa, coffee, rice, cereals, tropical wood, rubber (from Indochina) etc... Bordeaux was also a major import centre for West Indian sugar and had 35 sugar refineries in 1840. It also had a well-established trade infrastructure of negotiating houses, dealers and merchants.

A rum explosion

The dramatic expansion of the rum trade is down to several factors. In 1854 a decree was passed removing prohibition and customs duty on all alcohol of foreign and colonial origin. Alcohol consumption was also on the rise – from 1820 to 1880 the average adult consumption more than quadrupled – with industrialization and particularly among the working classes. 

This rise also coincided with the Great French Wine Blight caused by grape phylloxera aphids as well as oidium mildew which decimated many of the vineyards in France and laid waste the wine industry.

To find out more about the history of the Bordeaux wine industry, click here

There was also a sugar cane shortage which pushed many of the Caribbean rum producers to move to autonomous operations and the ‘industrialization’ of rum production. This meant that much larger quantities could be produced and exported to France!

The birth of Rhum Agricole...

In 1870, sugarcane accounted for 57% of Martinique arable lands. Sugar prices plunged heavily due to worldwide over production and the growing availability of beet sugar in Europe. To survive, a number of distilleries started make rum directly from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses.  Rhum agricole was born, or rather reborn... This peculiar way of making rum helped the French producers to avoid confrontation with other islands where sugar production ratios were much higher.

Inside the rum trade

Rums imported to France mainly came from Martinique, Guadeloupe and Reunion (with a small quantity from Mauritius) - of varying qualities including vesou rum (made from sugar can juice), aromatic rum, and molasses rum. They were transported by boat to French ports and generally ranged from 60 to 65°, their degree being lowered for consumption to 38, 40 or 45°.

Rum arrived in the 3 main French ports (Bordeaux, Le Havre and Marseille, as well as Nantes which allowed smaller boats to get closer to Paris) and was directly stored in the wineries of merchants before marketing (there were also wineries in the capital). Traders could then sell the product to wholesalers either to keep it in their cellars for blending or to allow part of the stocks to age. They were also in charge of colouring, bottling, packaging and shipping.

Rum at the time was not really treated any differently from wine as merchants could raise wine from 2 to 3 years before bottling it.

Initially transported in 240 and 280 litre barrels on ships, the rum would later (after the Second World War) travel in tanks and then in 24 hectolitre containers, evolving finally into ‘tanktainers’, of 210 hectolitres. Long gone were the romantic days where casks of rum were peddled on the dockside after arduous sea voyages!

Large storage barrels underneath the quai des Chatrons...

Rum was generally caramelized to satisfy the taste of metropolitan customers, but smaller quantities of rums were also shipped in bottles: rums aged in American oak barrels, not ‘caramelized’, which owed their natural and amber hue to their long stay in contact with wood.

The bottling was usually done on site and these quality rums, still rare at the time (6 to 8%), are the precursors of the widespread agricultural rums that will be sold after the Second World War, and which are still sold today.

Plethora of brands

There were a vast number of brands over the years, reaching as many as several hundred. Wine merchants also systematically added rum to their catalogues, increasing the number of bottles available.

In its early days, rum had to be from Jamaica, at least by name, because it sold and was considered the best on the market. It is therefore not surprising that the first registered trademarks - around 1859 - bear the names ‘Jamaican Rum’ or ‘Chinese Rum-Jamaica’. The term Martinique did not arrive until 1884, even though the island alone exported more than half of the rum on the French market... In 1896, the first rum stamped from the Ilets de Guadeloupe appeared, and Reunion Island waited until 1901 to appear on a label (Rhum Bourbon - Saint-Louis-Reunion).

 Dominique Jullien's website has a magnificent collection of rum labels of the time 

The largest and most famous houses are still operating today: Marie-Brizard and its Charleston rum, Cazanove and its Black Head rum, Lambert and its Saint-James rum, Mangosteen rum from Barbet and Fournier, and Maroni rum from Coutou and Old Manada from Meynadier... and the Negrita of the Bardinet house, that would later buy many of the other rum houses, and which owned two agricultural rum factories in the West Indies, as well as Dillon and Depaz which produced Old Nick rum.

The golden age of rum imports

Despite various setbacks such as the eruption of Mt Pelée in Martinique which severely damaged production, and tax rises, the Bordeaux rum trade blossomed. Unexpectedly it was about to experience an astronomical boom of rum imports with the arrival of WW1.

English Tommies downing a flagon of rum...

To supply the huge demand of the armies following the outbreak of war, orders for rum made by the military went through the roof! Bordeaux received 17,000 tons of rum in 1913; this rose to 27,000 by 1915, 50,000 in 1916 and a remarkable 90,000 tons in 1917 – nearly 250 tons of rum a day…

Bordeaux was a long way from the front line and had a brand spanking new state-of-the-art port, courtesy of the American army, in Ambarès, capable of handing a vastly increased volume of imports.

Rum was also in high demand being marketed as a remedy against the cataclysmic Spanish flu epidemic 1918-20 which killed over 400 million people worldwide.

End of an era

Rum imports went into rapid decline after the war and continued steadily downhill over the following decades – the result of drastically increased taxes and regulations in the 1920s and other factors.

Le Havre took over as France's main Atlantic port as it was deeper and easier to access from the sea - by the 1930's it had taken over the majority of the rum imports as well as coffee, cocoa etc. along with Marseille. Despite major investment, Bordeaux became marginalised and was unable to keep up with the shift in the colonial economies and emergence of modern industrial super-ports - a decline still in effect today...

Trade between Bordeaux and the Antilles stopped completely during WW2 for obvious reasons (local rum merchants began producing a type of brandy and labelling it as rum to try to maintain sales!) and by the end of the war, most of the trade ties had been lost – the warehouses lay empty and the rum merchants had all jumped ship!

Bordeaux brands

Several dozen brands were set up across Bordeaux – many of which existed until the 1950s, the most famous included: Bardinet with Négrita (they set up shop in 1857. In 1974, the company moved to Blanquefort, in Gironde. Negrita rum is still produced there today), Duquesne, Cazanove, Marie-Brizard & Roger, Galibet and Varon...

Many were small companies and some were also involved in wine trading. Most of them then disappeared and there were only about ten left in 1965 and half a dozen in the early 1980s. The gradual disappearance of rums led to the disappearance of brokers and commission agents. The importing ports and trading centres (Bordeaux, Le Havre, Marseille, Paris) each had their own ‘rum union’; such a dispersion constituted a handicap: the 4 unions grouped together to form the French Rum Union, whose headquarters were located in Paris.

In 1981 only four companies distributed rum (and rum cocktails): Marie-Brizard and Roger with Charleston rum (over the years the share of rum in its activities has tended to be limited - sales of amber Charleston have decreased and the brand now supplies a small volume of pastry rum and biscuits); the Cointreau group with Saint-James rum, and two more specialized companies: Clément which distills and produces in Martinique and distributes its products from Bordeaux, and Bardinet which distills small amounts (Dillon distillery in Martinique) but above all negotiates huge quantities of rum of all kinds in very diversified forms - a blend of rums intended for cooking (Negrita), old tasting rum (Dillon), agricultural rum for punch, light rum for cocktails, cocktails made from rum and fruit.

Marie Brizard was remarkably still running a bottling plant on rue Fondaudège until 2015!

Moko and rue Fourteau

In 1869, Ernest and Maurice Lasserre, two brothers from Bordeaux, decided to create their own rum brand ‘Moko’.

Imported from Martinique and Jamaica, they perfected distillation and ageing techniques to differentiate themselves from the rums offered at that time. These rums quickly became very successful, collecting medals, but the 1960s saw the end of production and distribution.

To the delight of enthusiasts, Moko rum began production again in 2017 – run by Philippe Peyrat, and his children Clémence and Edouard, Ernest Lasserre's great-great-grandchildren. One of the Laserre warehouses can be seen on the right bank next to the old Gare d’Orleans on rue Fourteau.
The initials ‘A.S.’ refer to Albert Lasserre, son of one of the founders.

La Petite Martinique

To learn more about the fascinating history of rum in the Antilles and its intimate relationship with Bordeaux, head to La Petite Martinique on rue Notre Dam in Chatrons. The owner has tasting evenings and is a leading light on all topics related to rum!

They also have a tasting session coming up on the 27th September in Le Grand Poste...

To experience Bordeaux’s first ever official rum festival in La Grand Poste in December, register here


If you're now thirsty and wanna pick up some rum, here are a few of the local vendors...

MAISON DESIRE - 11 Cours Marechal Gallieni

CAVE BH CORNER - 73 avenue de la République

BADIE - 62 allée de Tourny

LE COMPTOIR BORDELAIS - 1 rue du Piliers de Tutelle

TERRES DE BORDEAUX - 126 rue des Terres de Borde

LA CUV - 264 Cours de la Somme

LA CUV - 7 place du Maucaillou

LA CUV - 19 rue Capdeville

LA PETITE MARTINIQUE SO RHUM - 84 rue Notre Dam, Chartrons

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