With the renaissance of interest in rum and rhum agricole, there’s a greater need than ever for education, lest both bartenders and customers be surprised by unexpected tastes in rhum agricole-based cocktails. While both spirits share a common history, the same plant source and other production elements, rhum agricole is a very distinctive product representing only 3% of all rums. It wasn’t until I heard the passion of Benjamin Mélin-Jones, who represents JM Rhum and Clément, several years ago at a Tales of the Cocktail seminar that I decided to delve into this wondrous spirit to a greater degree.
Rhum agricole is produced in the Caribbean French West Indies islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Barts. In contrast to industrial rums made from molasses, rhum agricole is made from freshly-pressed harvests of sugar cane. The sugar cane on Martinique is the blue cane variety of the Saccharum officinarum species, which originated in New Guinea and found its way to the Ganges in India and China thousands of years ago as it continued its journey inexorably westward.
This tropical plant was brought to the New World by Columbus on his second journey to Hispaniola in 1493. The blue cane grows in the ideal volcanic soils in the shadow of the still-active volcano of Mt. Pelée on tropical Martinique. It has a 17% sugar content when it is harvested, and has more floral and herbaceous notes than other varieties.
The time between rigorous harvesting and pressing the cane is critical because the longer the lag time, the more oxidized the cane flavors become. The other major concern is the greater likelihood of infection by wild non-saccharomyces yeast strains producing off flavors.
Martinique was not always known for its rums, as it, in fact, lagged technically behind the English colonies of the Caribbean. While the first rum was recorded by Père Labat in 1694, it was made from molasses because sugar cane was grown exclusively for sugar production. It was not until the worldwide collapse of sugar prices due to the oversupply of sugar beet production in the 1870s that sugar cane was used for rhum agricole production. It was the First World War that gave further impetus to the production of the fine spirit of Martinique, as much of France’s production of spirits had been interrupted.
The sugar cane fields are close to the production facilities to enable speedy repeated grinding of fresh juice to extract all possible sugars. The sugar cane is manually harvested if the fields are on slopes, or mechanically harvested in flat areas. Because the sugars are concentrated in the base of the cane, the work is particularly arduous. Growers use controlled fires to burn off the sharp leaves of canes and to rid them of snakes and other pests, making it easier for harvesters. However, there can be a negative impact as the heat dries out the cane and reduces potential extraction.
Once pressed, the remaining fibers, called bagasse, are used to fuel the boilers powering the distillery’s operations. The unfermented juice, or versou, is then fermented using a repitching process to insure continuity of the yeast strains. The resultant vin has an alcohol content of 3% to 6%, which is then distilled to 70% ABV using a continuous single-column copper still, such as in armagnac but without rectification. The rhums are then usually watered to 40% to 55% ABV when bottled.
Rhum agricole that is aged 1 to 6 months and referred to as ”blonde” is typically used to make ti’ punch cocktails, a simple but delicious combination of the blonde rhum with lime juice and cane syrup. Vieux rhums are aged in French oak barrels, particularly those from Limousin. The rhums with 3 to 10 years or more of aging take on not only the golden hue of cognac but also its fiery and spicy yet velvety smoothness. Coloring agents are not permitted.
Rhum agricole from Martinique has the unique distinction of being labeled, only as recently as 1996, as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) with strict rules and regulations governing all production elements. There are only seven stills that are fumante (smoking or still in operation) producing 83% of all the rum of Martinique as rhum agricole. Almost 80% of rhum agricole is exported to France but sales particularly to the higher tier restaurants and bars of this country have taken off. Why? They reflect the trend towards more artisanal, flavorful and distinctive spirits. Bartenders should familiarize themselves with theses spirits so they can adjust classic cocktails and differentiate their own concoctions by including rhum agricole, whether in a Mai Tai or a Daiquiri or even a Sidecar.