There are two main overarching styles of rum – those made from molasses, and those made from sugarcane juice. While sugarcane juice can be used to make sugar as well as rum, Molasses is a by-product of sugar production. It is a thick, black, concentrated liquid that gives rum notes of brown sugar and vanilla, and the majority of rums are made with this raw material.
Sugarcane juice rums are less well-known in countries like the UK whose traditions with rum go back to the islands of Barbados and Jamaica, where molasses-based rums were king. In France on the other hand they are all about the sugarcane, as the French colonies of Martinique and Reunion were where sugarcane ruled. In this article we will take a deep dive into this exciting area of the r(h)um world.
How do you make Agricole?
When the sugarcane is cut it has to be processed, ideally within 48 hours, if it is to be turned into juice-based rums. This is to preserve the freshness and vibrant flavours of the sugarcane. The longer canes are left before pressing and fermenting, the more chance there is of oxidation and off-flavours developing as bacteria and yeast start to work on the sugars.
Once the juice is pressed it is fermented using natural, proprietary or standard yeasts. This produces a ‘wort’ of around 5-8% for distillation, which most often happens in a traditional column still. Once distilled, the resulting rum is either bottled young with plenty of fresh, grassy flavours or aged for a number of years to develop more secondary and tertiary notes of linseed oil, sesame and nuts. The main regions that produce these styles of rhum or rum are; Martinique, Reunion, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Madeira, Cape Verde and French Guiana, where they still have plenty of access to local sugar cane. Rhum is the French translation of the word rum and is often used for the rum produced in the French style.
Where does Agricole come from?
Many people categorize all sugarcane-based rhums/rums as Agricole rums, but this is incorrect. Rhums can only be classified as Agricole if they from the French islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, French Guiana and also Madeira. The others may have their own names – e.g. Haitian Clairins, Grogue of Cape Verde and so on – but they are not Agricole.
The Island of Martinique goes one step further than ‘just’ being Agricole and has its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This means that it is a protected product under French and EU law. The AOC sets certain rules around the production of the rums, from the field to the distillery, which assures the customer that they can expect certain characteristics and qualities from the products.
The laws surrounding the AOC were created based on the country itself and the historical methods of production which were consistently used to make rum. Originally rhum in Martinique was made from molasses, but when the British prevented sugar from getting to France during the Anglo-French war, France turned to sugar beet. With no need to produce sugar there was no molasses, but Martinque did still have the sugar cane – so rhum agricole was produced.
In order to be able to write Rhum de la Martinique on the label, producers have to adhere to a vast set of rules, including: what type of sugarcane is grown, how and where; when the sugarcane can be harvested; how long the fermentation lasts for; when and how distillation can take place (on column stills); and, how long it should be aged. Martinique uses similar minimum age designations as they do in Cognac: if you see VS it will have a minimum age of 3 years, VSOP 4 years and XO 6 years. No additions to the final rhum are allowed, bar spirit caramel for colour.
The result of these stringent rules is that consumers know exactly what to expect from their rhum. Many other rum-producing countries have no laws protecting their rums but many are starting to understand the importance of these Geographical Indications (GIs) and are fighting to get them instated.
In the other French Islands you will find similarities. Guadeloupe, for example, makes rums in a very similar way to Martinique and has a GI rather than an AOC – although they do also make some molasses based rums. In French Guiana, meanwhile, where there were once more than 20 different distilleries there is now just one, which produces rums from a sugarcane plantation two miles away from the distillery. Reunion makes both sugarcane- and molasses-based rums in the three remaining distilleries on the Island.
Rhums that aren’t Agricole – but are still delicious!
Cape Verde has its own version of a sugarcane juice spirit: Grogue. This is their national drink and the basis of the local ponche – a mix of rum, lime and molasses. Traditionally these are, like those in Haiti, very artisanal and of variable quality! The Cape Verde government is working on a classification of ‘Grogue Official’, which will encompass only the best of the island’s producers, who will follow certain rules around production.
There are over 500 Clairin distilleries in Haiti; most of these are tiny and production and consumption is very localized. The liquid is steeped in the country’s history and is used in voodoo ceremonies and every social occasion. Sugarcane is mostly organically grown alongside other crops and is hand harvested and transported to the various distilleries, normally by ox or donkey. Fermentation is natural and tends to be quite long, and the distilleries are very basic – normally using a simple pot or column still. These rums, bottled off the still and rarely aged, are as pure as you can get and for me are similar in style to those produced by artisan Mezcal producers in Mexico.
How to drink sugarcane rum
The countries above are just a handful of those producing sugarcane-juice-based rums, but we are seeing more and more coming on to the market, from South Africa to Vietnam and plenty in between. The whites are delicious drunk as a ti’ punch: ice and a squeeze of lime. Add a dash with your molasses based rum to a daiquiri to add a funky fresh character. The aged styles, meanwhile, can be used in cocktails but equally sipped as a fantastic digestif.
- St James 15-year-old – full of flavour with a hint of sweet Indian spices, caraway and rich orchard fruits.
- Depaz Vieux Plantation – with plenty of ripe fruits, nutmeg, cinnamon and sweet vanilla with a lick of linseed oil.
- Savana 2012 – I always find notes of blueberry on the rums from this distillery and this one is no exception, with the oak giving it plenty of spice.
- Clairin Sajous – for those of you who know me this is my favourite rum in the world, no other description needed!
- Barbosa Amado & Vicente – this wonderful Grogue is fresh and flavourful with a grassy, green melon note.
- O Reizinho, That Boutique-y Rum Company – grassy, green bananas and that classic fresh sugarcane juice aroma.
Guadeloupe and Marie Galante
- Damoiseau 2009 Vieux Agricole – linseed oil, pine resin, dried fruits and green banana.
- Rhum Rhum PMG – bright fruit, green mango, honeydew melon and fresh herbs.