No, this one didn’t slip through spellcheck, so don’t be alarmed by the frequent appearance of an ‘h’ in the word “rum.” If you encounter a bottle of “rhum,” you’ll most likely be headed for a drinking experience unlike that of the three-letter version.
The convergence of the worldwide craft cocktail movement, the tiki bar renaissance and drinkers’ general gravitation toward food and beverages with authentic provenance has created the perfect moment for people to get to know rhum agricole.
Rhum agricole—essentially “agricultural rum”—is the French-speaking Caribbean’s most significant contribution to the global spirits realm. Native to islands including Martinique, Haiti and the Guadeloupe archipelago, rhum agricole’s key distinction from the rum-making traditions of the Spanish, British and Dutch islands and other parts of the world is that it’s distilled from pure cane juice (similar to the way Brazilian cachaça is made, but that’s a story for another day). Other rums use molasses, a by-product of the sugar refining process.
The style emerged mostly out of economic necessity. Demand for French-island-produced molasses had taken a nosedive in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially when the French realized they could cost-effectively make a sweetener from sugar beets back in Europe. So, instead of processing the abundant cane into a product that the market really didn’t want, they started distilling the crop’s raw juice into rhum.
Martinique is the most famous for it and even boasts an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, like the Champagne region has for its sparkling wine) for its particular variety of rhum agricole. Products that bear the “AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole” label must be distilled in one of only about two dozen specific towns across the island and adhere to stringent local production guidelines.
Regardless of where in the world it’s produced, the spirit is not likely to be confused with other types of rum. The spirit is known for its pronounced grassy, vegetal aromas and flavors, contrasting greatly with the brown sugary, baking spice notes of other rums. Sugar cane is technically a grass; since it’s made from the cane’s unprocessed juice, the distillate retains much of the plant’s original character.
Whenever I drink it, I could swear that I’m nosing corn husks, even though corn is nowhere to be found.
“Bartenders love that raw, rich funk and the general public is starting to appreciate the terroir of all spirits in general,” observes Kiowa Bryan, national director of brand advocacy of Spiribam, a joint venture among multiple rhum agricole producers, including Martinique’s Rhum Clement and Rhum J.M and Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau.
The current tiki boom certainly has helped, she says, especially since the proper recipes for some of the most iconic tiki cocktails use rhum agricole. It’s paired with Jamaican rum in the Mai Tai and it’s the dominant spirit in the Three Dots and a Dash—which also happens to be the name of Chicago’s popular tiki hideaway. “I find that bartenders in tiki bars nowadays are adding agricole to everything,” Bryan says, “especially high-proof agricole, as it adds a different level of flavor, a different level of funk.”
Down in the French Caribbean, most locals are likely to be drinking it in a concoction called Ti’Punch (derived from ‘petit ponch,’ ‘small punch’ in French), a simple cocktail that combines the spirit with a bit of lime, a half teaspoon of sugar or cane syrup and no ice.
Ti’Punch is often the gateway drink for curious bar-goers at Portland, Ore.’s Rum Club. The bar also offers rhum agricole tasting flights; aged varieties are particularly good sippers. Rum Club stocks some that are as old as about 15 years, but bar manager Mike Treffehn says he personally prefers the ones that are a bit younger. “At that point, you just get so much of the barrel,” he notes. “I much prefer the two years and under for an agricole expression because you get the balance, the temper of the barrel, but still getting that really bright, grassy agricole funk.”
For a flight of your own, try these:
Rhum Clemént Premiere Canne (40% ABV): It’s best to start with a white rhum to get the fully, grassy experience. This one from Martinique spends about nine months mellowing in stainless steel vats.
Rhum J.M E.S.B. Gold (50% ABV): For a bit of vanilla that doesn’t overshadow the funk, J.M’s Gold gets its color and a bit of flavor from the 12 months it spends in re-charred bourbon barrels.
Rhum Damoiseau V.S.O.P. (42% ABV) There’s a bit more wood and peppery spice and fruity notes in this Guadeloupe-made one, thanks to its four-year repose in ex-bourbon barrels.
St. George California Agricole: Yes, there are agricoles being produced outside of the French Caribbean. Alameda, Calif.’s St. George offers an unaged blanc (43% ABV), as well as a Reserve (40% ABV) that rests for four years in French oak.