A history going back several centuries !
A lot of research has been carried out, making it possible to plot the different stages of sugarcane as a crop on Reunion Island, but very little has been specifically devoted to the adventure of rum production on the island. However, travellers’ tales, monographs and official documents show alcohol being produced from the early days of settlement of the island, such production actually preceding that of sugar!
« The history of an island, its population and manufacture of a product »
"Since the 17th-century, the island of Reunion has been the theatre of the remarkable and grandiose history of sugarcane, as well as the elixir that the people of Bourboun island extracted from it: RUM! This ‘honey dew’ has, since its origin, inspired poets, musicians, artists and passing travellers. From the fangourin (named after the sugar-mill) of the island's early inhabitants to the thousand flavours of the rum produced by small-scale distillers, Reunion has inherited an ancestral know-how that the Saga du Rhum Museum has succeeded in capturing."
Discover the history of rum on Reunion island...
A few key dates...
1665 Permanent settlement of Bourbon islandThe East India Company Company, which had been administering the Island since its early settlement, decided to abandon sugarcane to the benefit of coffee. This hampered local manufacture of alcohol, which thus became limited to small-scale production. The inhabitants, disposing of insufficient quantities of brandy, started to produce sugarcane wine, referred to as ‘fangourin’, after the device used to crush sugarcane.
1704 The first recorded still on the islandThe first recorded still on the island was used for the production of ‘arack’, an alcohol obtained by distilling fermented sugarcane juice. With a higher degree of alcohol than ‘fangourin’, ‘arack’ had a poor reputation and many travellers recorded its harmful effects on the inhabitants' health.
1815 Creation of the first modern distillery by Charles Panon-Desbassayns and the beginning of sugar productionSugarcane became an export crop and benefitted from a real boom. Sugar production, which used up the majority of the sugarcane produced on the island and also produced a large quantity of non-crystallising syrup, forced the distilleries to use a by-product of sugarcane production for rum manufacture: molasses. This was the beginning on the Island of the period of ‘traditional sugar-production rum’.
1818 Beginnings of rum productionSales of ‘arack’ and rum increased to the extent that this drew the attention of the island’s administrators. In 1818, they created the ‘Ferme des Guildives’, a society enjoying the exclusive right to manufacture and sell rums and wholesale and retail ‘arack’, and to bring them into the island. The system, very restricting for producers and giving rise to moonshine distilleries, ceased in 1831. The priviliges which had been granted were transferred to ‘La Société des Guildives’, which existed until 1846. The tenant farming system, which had proved incapable of combatting fraud, also came to an end.
1845 Creation of the Isautier companySet up in 1945, the Isautier Distillery is the oldest on the island and has been run by the Isautier Family for six generations. At the start of the 1970s, it was one of the first distilleries to experimanet with producing matured rum and today is proud to be selling a rum of exceptionally high quality that is 33 years of age. The company has also been a pioneer in the field of flavoured rums, which today represent the main development in the field.
1848 abolition of slavery in ReunionSix months after the issue of the decree abolishing slavery by the government of the French Republic, the Commissioner for the Republic, Joseph Napoléon Sébastien Sarda signed the decree for abolition, to take effect on 20th of December 1848. Close to 62,000 slaves were freed. Today, 20th December is celebrated as a holiday on Reunion Island. It is referred to as the ‘Fêt Kaf’ (based on ‘Cafres’, the word used for former African slaves), or Freedom day.
1870 Creation of the Savanna DistilleryRemains of the very first Savanna distillery, set up in 1870 on the estate of Savanna in Saint-Paul, have been found. In 1992, the distillery was transferred very close to the sugar processing plant and the electrical power station of Bois-Rouge in Saint-André. Since 2013, it has been owned by the Réunionnaise du Rhum group.
1886 creation of the Rivière du Mât distillerySet up in 1886 in the hamlet of Rivière du Mât, the distillery was transferred to the industrial zone of Beaufonds in Saint-Benoît in 1984. A subsidiary of the La Martiniquaise group since 2012, it was created through a fusion of the distilleries of Beaufonds and the Gol.
1914 – 1918 First World WarThe First World War had a direct influence on local production. To compensate for the drop in indigenous production affected by the areas of fighting, the French government requisitioned the total national production. Rum then began to be used for a number of health and hygiene purposes. It was also included in the rations handed out to the French soldiers fighting at the front (referred to as ‘les Poilus’: the unshaved), enabling them to fight against the cold in the trenches and making up for the lack of drinking water. The soldiers became used to drinking it, as grog or added to coffee to fight against winter infections.
1921 Regulations concerning the designation ‘rum’For the first time, the designation ‘rum’ became regulated: “The term rum or ‘tafia’ is reserved for brandies exclusively produced through alcoholic fermentation and distillation, using either molasses or syrups resulting from the manufacture of sugarcane, or the juice of sugarcane.’
1922 Law concerning quotas for rumFollowing the First World War, unsold stocks of rum were sold on the French market at very low prices. French wine producers, who were only just recovering from their vines being attacked by phylloxera, reacted against this unfair competition. The French government therefore imposed taxes to regulate export of rums from the colonies to mainland France. Referred to as ‘contingentement’ or quotas, these regulations are still applicable today and the volume, as well as the distribution, of these quotas are regularly revised.
1939 – 1945 Second World WarReunion was isolated as a result of the embargo and rums from overseas could no longer be sent to France. Even though not concerned by the fighting, the island suffered from a virtually total lack of supplies. However, the war had no effect on production and local consumption increased. At the end of the war, the Governor of the island estimated that 70% of the sugarcane had been uprooted and replaced by the food crops necessary to feed the population.
1946 Reunion becomes a French departmentIn 1946, the colony became a French overseas department. However, this departmentalisation, with promises of development for Reunion, was actually a very gradual process for an island steeped in poverty following the Second World War. The early 1960s saw the beginnings of new progress, notably thanks to political changes that brought far-reaching modifications to the Reunionnese society.
1972 creation of G.I.E. Rhums RéunionIn 1972, the rum producers on the island decided to group together to form an Economic Interest Group, setting up a collective brand of rum: the famous ‘Rhum Charrette’ saw the day. In 1988, the rum was conditioned in a small 20cl flat plastic bottle, referred to as ‘Pile Plate’ (flat battery, due to its rectangular shape). In 2006, the degree of alcohol in the ‘Pile Plate’ (Rhum Charrette) was reduced to 40% (instead of 49% as before), in order to fight against problems of alcoholism.
1992 Reunion a ‘European Outermost Region’The economic development of the island accelerated in 1983, when the department of Reunion became a French region through the national policy of decentralisation. The status of Reunion as a European Outermost Region as from 1999 has been a major asset for the island: the subsidies granted have stimulated economic development. The stabilisation of the proportion of agricultural land set aside for sugarcane, as well as irrigation and the development of new strains of sugarcane have made it possible to increase yields and to improve sugar and rum production on the island.
1988 Definition of traditional sugar-production rum and agricultural rum
“The term ‘traditional rum’, followed by the designation of its origin, is reserved for brandies exclusively manufactured by fermenting molasses or syrups resulting from the manufacture of sugarcane or sugarcane juice, carried out inside the geographic area (…)”
“The term ‘agricultural rum’, followed by the designation of its origin, is reserved for brandies exclusively manufactured by fermenting the alcohol of sugarcane juice, carried out inside the geographic area.”
2008 inauguration of the Saga du Rhum museumThe Saga du Rhum museum is the fruit of a collaboration between three distilleries on Reunion island – Savanna, Isautier and Rivière du Mât – brought together around a common purpose, that of promoting a local product: rum. The project, initiated by the late Danière Le Normand, through the prism of rum, throws light on the local traditions and heritage of Reunion. As a tourist and cultural establishment wih an educational focus, it is today an essential landmark in the south of Reunion Island.
2018 The Saga du Rhum celebrates its 10th anniversary!To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the museum welcomed the ‘Secrets du Rhum’ (Secrets of Rum) exhibition, an exceptional event that was accompanied by the publication of a magnificent book of the same name. The cultural engineering agency Meta-Morphosis participated in the organisation of the exhibition in collaboration with Emilie Carpaye, a researcher in the field of a ethnology working for the Saga du Rhum. The double challenge consists first of all in focusing on Reunionnese know-how through an association between the fields of art and research, but also throwing new light on the history of local rum, for the first time ever in Reunion!