Madeira Rum - the most important rum article you'll read this year - pt1
Updated: Jan 12
Madeira - the most important place in the history of rum...!?!?
In 1426, just 7 years after the island was discovered, decades before Christopher Columbus first reached the West Indies, and a hundred or so years before cane was established in the Americas, sugar cane was planted in Madeira!
Although sugar cane had been cultivated in New Guinea, the Philippines and India for thousands of years, it was in Madeira where it found a new and incredible successful home. A crucial steppingstone, from where it was later to spread to the Americas.
A tiny, rugged, mountainous island with rich fertile soil whose location offers an ideal year-round warm climate and long sunny days. Basically, whatever you planted in Madeira was destined to thrive. Sugar cane and grapes were no exception.
A vibrant and successful sugar industry was quickly established in Madeira which thrived during the 15th & 16th centuries. However, following increased competition from the new world and a downturn in the global sugar industry, the 17th century saw a shift in land use from cane to grapes. By the beginning of the 18th century only one Engenho (sugar factory) was left - one that we will refer back to later as it provided a source for equipment now found in today's distilleries.
Aside from a small unfortified wine industry, the majority of Madeira's grapes are used to supply their world famous fortified 'Madeira wine'. It is for this that the island is now most well-known, with Madeira rum being far too commonly overlooked - happily the 15 people who read this article will soon know better!
[An interesting side effect from the early years of cultivating sugar cane, with its considerable water need, was the development of Madeira's vast network of levadas - 2,000kms of cliff edge irrigation channels that criss-cross the island and provide modern day visitors with absolutely spectacular hiking trails]
Tiny production and incredible expense.
Madeira is tiny. For context its population is less than Brighton (UK), Anchorage (Alaska) or Ostrava (Czech Republic)!!
800 sq kms of steep, volcanic, inaccessible terrain with currently, only
18 sq kms set to vines.
15 sq kms dedicated to bananas
1.72 sq kms (172ha) growing sugar cane!!
Farming in Madeira is very different to the vast intense mechanised farming methods used in much of the rest of the world. The steep slopes are terraced with awkward access up tiny steps and the farming done with centuries old manual techniques.
Across the island, thousands of farmers work tiny terraced small holdings with an average farmer working just 0.15ha (eg: 30m x 50m)!
The island's tiny cane produce is split between 1114 micro farmers.
[With similar sized average plots, also of 0.15ha, the larger banana crops are split over 10,000 farmers!]
Many of these farmers work their fields as a second job in their evenings and weekends.
This level of micro farming is clearly a very expensive approach. Added to which the manual tools & techniques used are labour intensive with (often elderly) farmers carrying bundles of cane weighing 60-90kg down steep steps from terraced fields. These factors, along with a booming demand for the cane, combine to an eye watering price of eur350 per tonne.
[Approx. 3 times that of Martinique and almost 10 times that in Brazil of around eur35 per tonne!!]
How much cane is grown and where does it go
Unlike molasses, that can be stored for years and processed into rum at any time, Madeira's Agricole rum industry comes to life just once a year. During the months of April & May, Madeira's sugar cane is harvested, transported to the 4 distilleries with facilities for crushing, crushed, fermented and distilled. It is very much a case of all hands on deck with farmers supporting each other and sharing the limited number of trucks.
A logistical minefield with distilleries planning for weeks, or even months ahead to ensure exacting daily deliveries of cane, and workforces split into 3 teams to maintain round-the-clock conveyor belt activity through the process of crushing, fermenting and distilling.
Predictably, with grape harvest hitting at about the same time, there is an annual struggle to find sufficient labour for this intense seasonal work.
The culmination of this frenzy of activity is a total output, across the island of 10-11 thousand tonnes of cane. With a theoretical annual output of a little under 1 million litres of rum. Sounds a lot until you compare Madeira island's total annual output to the annual output of some of the bigger individual rum brands...
Appleton - 10 million litres
Havana Club - 39 million litres
Bacardi - 173 million litres
And, for clarity, the 10-11k tonnes of cane ISN'T all turned into Madeira rum. Much goes into fruit liquors or the cane juice is reduced to syrup - key ingredient for the delicious local bolo de mel (cake) :-)
That which is fermented and distilled into rum, mostly ends up as unaged aguadente for Poncha*.
A very rough estimate is that just 10-20% of Madeira's rum production is being put down for aging. Although this is increasing year on year as the distilleries see a growing global market for their aged rums, with a knock-on impact on the volume of unaged Poncha rum available. Right now, there's a mild panic sweeping across the island as a Poncha shortage is starting to bite. And no new rum being distilled until April. Arghhhh!
*Poncha - Madeira's diminutive but absolutely delicious rum fruit punch. An absolute must try if you visit the island. Make sure it's made fresh for you!
An uncertain future
At 350eur per tonne (probably the world's most cane) - producing economical rum is no mean feat.
After crushing, fermentation and distillation that's a base price in the ballpark of 4.5 EUR per litre of rum - just for the cane! Then add in the yeast, the wood for the furnace, bottles, corks, labels, huge amounts of labour involved, maintenance of the stills, barrels, up to 7% per year angel's share, distribution etc etc ...
And, as farmers shy away from the huge physical burden of growing cane or sell their land to take advantage of the island's booming property market, sugar cane cost will keep rising! Significant government support for the industry clearly helps, but without doubt I would say - enjoy the bargain prices for delicious madeira rum while you can :-)
Visit the spectacular island of Madeira - swim in the natural pools, hike the levada trails, enjoy the hospitality of these warm friendly people, taste the ugly black scabbard fish, watch sunrise from the soaring volcanic peaks, but, most of all, taste their outstanding rums!
In part 2 (here) I'll provide reviews of my incredible visits to the engenhos (distilleries) and rum bars on Madeira.