There I was in my white lab coat, examining the 40 different vials and trying to determine which combinations to mix to get the best outcome. I was making perfume at the Tijon Parfumerie and Boutique on the French side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin.
The other half—Sint Maarten—is the Dutch side, and the two together form the smallest landmass in the whole world to be shared by two different countries (France and the Netherlands).
The Parfumerie is a study in sensory overload: a cologne colony. More than 300 individual oils are available for making one’s own personal perfume. As an amateur “nose”—someone who uses oils to create new fragrances—I learned to combine top notes, middle notes, and base notes to fashion an “accord” that will constitute a pleasing perfume.
A whole series of intricate steps must be followed in the search for perfection. I chose three bottles from a series of 12 pre-mixed oils; then, using beakers and droppers, I combined nine other oils—Beach, Cashmere, Grass, April Rain, Vanilla Oak, Sunflower, Amber Musk, Aqua Spa and Rose—into those bottles to create three individual bottles of perfume. Once I determined which of the final prospects I liked the best, I added a number of other chemical properties to complete the process.
The final step was to put my beautiful bottle into a classy cloth carrying case. And, of course, it all ended with a champagne toast because, remember, I was in French territory. Voila! I was a perfume-maker. And every time I use the perfume, I remember St. Martin.
But will I remember Sint Maarten? Of course, thanks to the Amsterdam Cheese and Liquor Store, a very fine representative of all things Netherlands, where the number of cheeses almost rivals the variety of fragrances on the other side of the island. Souvenirs range from Dutch shoe keyrings to windmill earrings; Dutch cookies and candies to soft clog slippers; tulip candleholders to Delft Christmas ornaments and wooden shoes, large and small, in every iteration. And we haven’t even gotten to the cheese, yet—50 varieties imported from the Netherlands—as well as every kind of cheese-related item, from slicers and skewers to cutting boards and serving dishes.
Owner Etienne Rogers is happy to share his knowledge about which cheeses and crackers complement the local rums. In addition to cheddar and Camembert, he sells coconut, pepper, pumpkin, truffle, jalapeno, cumin, and asparagus—to name a few. But Rogers heartily defends the Gouda. He says that people come in and say they don’t like Gouda. His response: “You don’t like American Gouda; Dutch Gouda you will love.”
Despite the French and Dutch cultures, the island itself is Caribbean, so on we went to the family-owned Topper’s Rum Distillery, where there are as many different flavors of rum as there are fragrances and wooden shoes. And then there’s the rum cake! But before we got to that, there was a lot to learn about the craft itself.
Topper’s has been winning medals in international rum-tasting competitions for years—quite a testament to a liquor whose origins began in Melanie Daboul’s own kitchen. She went from serving family and friends to making more than 100 flavors of rum in a few short years. And a tour of the factory takes you on a rum adventure spanning more than 20 different samples that range from the recognizable to the exotic, from basic coconut and spiced to white chocolate raspberry and banana vanilla cinnamon. And, of course, there’s also the bacon maple syrup and buttered popcorn varieties.
You can drink as much or as little as you want with no judgment. Eventually, I stopped taking notes, so just know that the 17 rums I tasted were really, really good.
For diversion in between tastes, there are always the T-shirts: “Girls Just Want to Have Rum,” “All for Rum, Rum for All,” “I’m on a rum diet—I’ve already lost three days.”
This is a very hands-on operation from brewing to bottling. Nothing is automated. And did I mention the rum cake?
Two chemists—John at the Parfumerie, a cultural product of the French side of the island, and Melanie at the rum factory, a very Caribbean creation—invent hundreds of products from scratch. Hundreds more products are directly imported from the Netherlands. This island abounds in every kind of culture.