Savanna, a distillery on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion (it’s east of Madagascar) was founded in 1870 as part of the drive by France to diversify sugar production after the loss of Saint Domingue (Haiti) and Ile de France (Mauritius) in the early 1800s. Distilleries had already appeared on Réunion by 1815 when Charles Desbassayns built the most sophisticated sugar cane mill of the island in the region of Chaudron, but records suggest primitive versions were in existence there for at least a hundred years before that. Rum production began to take on greater importance as a diversification measure after 1865, when the sugar crisis precipitated by the discovery of the beetroot sugar-making process required other sources of income to be exploited. The sugar crisis also had the effect of requiring consolidations and closures of the various estates – in 1830 there were 189 sugar factories, by 1914 they were reduced to around twenty and now there are only three.
Originally located in Saint Paul on the west of the island, what was later Savanna was then called “Parc à Jacques” or “Bout de l’étang” and was one of the first settlements there. At the beginning of the 19th century, Olive Lemarchand bought the property, which was then called the Sugar Estate of Savanna. In 1876, the Society of the Domain of Savanna was formed and the records of a functional distillery begin around this time, with molasses being the principal source of the spirit.
Under various owners the sugar factory and its associated distillery continued operations until the post WWII years. The man most associated with Savanna in its current iteration was an enterprising islander named Émile Hugot (1904-1993), an engineer. He trained as a chemist in sugar factories on the French mainland at Artres and Bucy-le-Long before returning to Réunion in May 1928 where his priority was the provision of energy to the sugar factories. He became the Managing Dirctor of the Adam de Villiers Sugar Company at La Mare in 1932 (this was a factory to the west of the current Savanna location) before the Second World War interrupted his work and he mobilized. In the post-war years he restructured the sugar-based economy of the island and merged the factories and properties of La Mare, Savanna and Grand-Bois and the properties of La Convenance and l’Eperon) to form the Bourbon Sugar Company in 1948, to which he added the assets of Stella in 1952.
Savanna remained as a separate distillery under this umbrella, and although there were some rhums issued as “Rhum Bourbon” by the parent company (dates unknown) the operation as a whole eschewed what are now known as “own brand” or “estate” rums and shipped off most of its rums as bulk, to be used in the making of blends. In 1992 the distillery – as noted, it was originally established in Savanna in Saint Paul de la Réunion — was transferred to the Bois-Rouge site in the north-east of the island, near to the sugar refinery of the same name, with the ageing cellars following suit in 1995 and expanded further in 1999. It is completely integrated from the cane fields to the final bottling all taking place on site and, somewhat uniquely, makes both agricoles and molasses based rums as well as continuing to export bulk rum. The distillery runs with a continuous still which was constructed and put into operation around 1964.
Changing market conditions and expansion into other areas of the Bourbon Sugar Company – most importantly international shipping and retailing – overshadowed the historic sugar-based backbone of the company, and gradually it divested itself of these holdings, and by 2001 it had sold Savanna to Groupe Quartier Français (which already controlled Rivière du Mât). GCF was a Reunion based company headquartered in the north of the island which dealt primarily in sugar and rum. But in 2010 GQF itself was acquired by Tereos, a global French-based conglomerate which had its origins in the 19th century, and deals to this day in sugar, beets and its derivatives, distilleries and cereals. (GQF was dissolved in 2013 and no longer exists). This is the situation today.
The Distillery of Savanna distills and aging a complete range of rum: light rum, traditional rum, agricultural rum, and various aged rums. It is the first European distillery to be ISO 9002 certified. The French Association for Quality Assurance awarded it ISO 9001 (2000 version) in July 2003. Although from the outset Savanna produced rums for bulk sales, with 80% of its production exported to metropolitan France and the European Union, in 2003 the company developed its own range of rums, some agricoles, some not – this was the beginning of a renaissance within the company as it developed its own brands: older ones like the “Varangue” were retired and a whole new menu was created:
- “Creol,” (agricole rhums from juice, with or without finishes),
- “Intense” (molasses based, aged and unaged, at all strengths),
- “Lontan” (grand arôme / high ester, from molasses),
- “Metis” (blend of molasses and cane juice rums),
- The limited series of 10 YO Maison Blanche blends (1998, 2000, 2002, 2005 et al)
- “Millenium” – a premium 15 YO blend issued in 2015
- Cyril of DuRhum has reviewed three Savanna rums (in French), well worth a read and interviewed some of the principals of the company in 2015 (also in French).
- Nico Rumlover of Coeur de Chauffe also took a look at some juice from here (again, in French) as part of a series of posts on high ester rums, including Jamaicans. More of his history is here.
(Note: because the company has been active for so long, this list is the best I could come up with and I may have missed a few…but as always, it’s a good starting point, and is good as of 2017. I updated as I found new ones and had the time).
- Vieux Rhum Bourbon 49% ABV (year unknown – may not be Savanna)
- Rhum Bourbon Blanc 49% ABV (year unknown – may not be Savanna)
- Rhumerie de la Reunion “Varangue” Rhum Grand Arôme (~1997-2000, unaged) 40%
- Cap Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 43%
- Cap Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 7 YO 43%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2004-2014 9YO Port Finish 46%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2002-2011 8YO Port Finish 46%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2007-2014 7YO Port Finish 46%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2000-2008 7YO 64.5%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel Blanc 40%
- Savanna Intense Rhum Traditionnel 1999-2015 15 YO Port Finish 46%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2001-2008 6YO 63.2%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2002-2011 8YO 57.8%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2003-2015 11 YO 59.7%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2003-2011 8 YO 46%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2004-2011 8YO 57.4%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2004-2016 12YO 64.2%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Grand Arôme Vieux 2007-2016 7YO 60.4%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Traditonnel Grand Arôme Blanc 57% (60th anniversary)
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Traditionnel Vieux 2001-2009 7YO 46%
- Savanna Lontan Rhum Traditionnel Grand Arôme Blanc 40%
- Savanna Millenium Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 1999-2014 15 YO 43%
- Savanna Rhum Vieux de la Reunion 15 YO 43% (issued 2003)
- Savanna Millesime 1998 Cuvee Maison Blanche 1998-2008 10 YO 43%
- Savanna Millesime 2002 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2002-2012 10 YO 43%
- Savanna Millesime 2005 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2005-2015 10 YO 43%
- Savanna Millesime 2006 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2006-2016 10 YO 43%
- Savanna Millesime 2008 Cuvee Maison Blanche 2008-2018 10 YO 43%
- Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Blanc 45%
- Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Vieux 2002-2010 7 YO 46% Muscatel Finish
- Savanna Créol Rhum Agricole Vieux 2002-2012 10 YO 46% Porto Finish
- Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 3 YO 43%
- Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 5 YO 43%
- Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel 7 YO 43%
- Savanna Rhum Vieux Traditionnel Cuvée Spéciale 5 YO 43%
- Savanna HERR (High Ester Rhum of Reunion) 2006-2016 10YO 63.8%
- Savanna Rhum Traditionnel Métis 40%
Wild Island Edition 2020
- Savanna Traditionnel 2003-2019 16 YO Armagnac Finish 52.7%
- Savanna Grand Agricole 2012-2018 6 YO Calvados Finish 57.6%
- Savanna Grand Arome 2005-1018 13 YO 56.4%
- Savanna Grand Arome 2003-2018 15 YO 66.5%