Rhum Agricole 101

by Marine Bettler

Rhum Agricole is without a doubt the most confidential niche of the rum category. Despite being available in the USA for almost 10 years, this type of rum is still under the radar. So first of all, what is it exactly? The opposite of industrial rum distilled from molasses (by-product of the sugar production), rhum agricole begins with the finest selection of sugarcane, which is then pressed to extract the finest and most aromatic fresh sugarcane juice. This distinction is essential. As the sugarcane hasn’t been cooked down to produce sugar, all the aromas and flavors of the cane are still present in the rhum which allows the terroir to express itself in the spirit.

From a historic point of view, how did that happen? Originally, rhum agricole is from the French West Indies, more particularly from the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (overseas states of France, like Hawaii for the US). Martinique has long had the reputation of having the best terroir for sugarcane cultivation. But in the 1800’s, both introduction of sugar beets and the increasing availability of cheap South American sugar lead to a major economic crisis in Martinique, at that time driven by sugar commerce. Homère Clément, a very popular member of the Martiniquean community, bought Domaine de l’Acajou in 1887. He made the necessary investments and transformed one of the island's most prestigious sugar plantations into a producer of world-class Rhum Agricole. Inspired by great brandies while studying in his early years in Paris, Homère had the idea of pressing estate grown sugarcane to extract the aromatic and flavorful juice to then distill it. That’s how rhum agricole was born.

Since 1996, more than 100 years after Homère Clement began his adventure, rhum from Martinique are labeled “AOC Rhum Agricole Martinique.” The main criterias are geographical (everything has to be made on site), cultivation patterns (only 12 varietals of sugarcane authorized), production techniques (level of sugar, fermentation, column distilled, etc.) and designations.

So far, rhum agricole was mainly consumed in the islands and in France. The first reason is cultural as Martinique and Guadeloupe are part of France. The second reason is money. In order to protect the fragile economy of its islands, the French government decided to lower the taxes on the agricole rhums which make them approximately 20% cheaper. For example, you can easily find a liter of rhum agricole 50% ABV for 12€ ($15) while a bottle of Bacardi 70cl is 15€ ($19).

Martinique is without a doubt the most famous island when we speak about agricole. Seven distilleries are still active in Martinique. The brands available in the US are La Favorite, Neisson, Duquesne, Clement, JM and Depaz. But two islands up north, there is the archipelago of Guadeloupe (pronounce gwa-de-loop) that includes three rhum producing islands. The main island has the shape of the butterfly. The left wing (West), Basse-Terre, hosts the Volcano -La Soufrière, one of the most active of the region- and is young and hilly. The right wing (East), Grande-Terre, is dry, almost arid and flat. The third and last rhum producing island is Marie-Galante, a tiny island a few miles south. Those islands counted 55 distilleries in 1939 and no more than 9 nowadays.

Making generalities, rhums from Guadeloupe are different from their cousins from Martinique. As they are not regulated by the AOC (but by an IGP - Indication Geographical Protected), the sugarcanes are “wilder.” Nobody knows exactly how many types of sugarcanes are in Guadeloupe. So the Guadeloupean rhums are more varied, less vegetal or grassy, smoother, more delicate. And of course, as we’re speaking agricole we’re talking about terroir. For example, the earth in Grande-Terre is very dry, so the sugarcanes are very high concentrated in sugar that make these rhums more licorous with a very powerful nose.

The only agricole from Guadeloupe available in the US is Damoiseau (pronounce da-mwa-zo). The story began at the end of XIXth century, when Mister Rimbaud came from Martinique and created the Bellevue Distillery in the village of Le Moule, on the Atlantic Coast. Roger Damoiseau bought the distillery in 1942, decided to make some rhum agricole and founded the brand Damoiseau Rhum. It’s now his grandson, Hervé Damoiseau, who is running the family business. Year after year, the family turns the old tiny distillery into a producer of world-class rhum. They have 50% of market share in Guadeloupe, are the third largest rhum brand in France and have been available in the US since October 2013.

Travelling around the world, you could find rhum agricole all over the Caribbean like in Haiti, Trinidad, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Jamaica. Reunion Island and Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, also produce some while Brasil makes its own too (this is Cachaça).

Rhum Agricole is the choice style of rum for those who appreciate a terroir-driven spirit. The white rhums are very flavourful, smooth but not sweet. Easy to mix, they will turn your classic rum based cocktails from ordinary to extraordinary. The aged ones will please whiskey aficionados. Rum based cocktails are delicious, and they also fare well in whiskey based recipes. Try a rhum agricole old fashioned and you’ll be convinced. The traditional cocktail of Martinique and Guadeloupe is the Ti-Punch (meaning little punch). Made by the glass, it’s an easily constructed drink with white or aged rhum, raw sugar or pure sugarcane syrup and a piece of lime. The traditional method to prepare the cocktail is to squeeze and twist the lime disc, to add the sugar and then the rhum, and gently swizzle it with a swizzle stick. You can add an ice cube if you want. It’s a short drink that people drink all day long in the islands. Like an expresso in Italy, it’s a pick me up drink.

Cheers!

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