Ten years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find more than a single expression of rhum agricole blanc on store shelves, even in major cities. Today that number is often upwards of five. Though hardly a boom, it’s a significant shift for a spirit that remains shrouded in mystery for many Americans.
Though it is a sugar cane spirit like any rum, rhum agricole is considered, as its name suggests, an agricultural rather than industrial product, distilled from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, as opposed to fermented molasses. Though it can be produced anywhere that sugar cane grows, agricole rhums made on the French Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante—the focus of our recent tasting—are protected by an appellation d’origine contrôlée and other geographical indication regulations, separating the category from clairin or any other sugar cane juice distillate. (Rhum with an “h” is simply the French spelling of rum.) “Because these are regulated, they do have terroir,” explains rum expert Paul McGee, of the requirements that dictate the use of on-island cane, specific varieties and a single distillation, to name just a few factors that impact the flavor of the spirit.
Unlike molasses-derived rum, which can ferment for up to several weeks, rhum agricole blanc typically goes from living sugar cane stalk to finished product within a matter of days, creating what some experts believe to be a purer expression of the raw material. In its unaged expressions, rhum agricole is often described as “grassy” and “vegetal,” not unlike the green notes commonly found in blanco tequila and mezcal. “It’s the mezcal of rum,” declared Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki, at our recent tasting of 10 rhum agricoles, noting the similarities between the spirits’ shared ability to capture terroir.
Indeed, mezcal’s rising star is no doubt a factor in the dovetailing popularity of rhum agricole, a spirit that likewise shines in unaged expressions. But confusion still exists stateside over how best to enjoy rhum agricole. Many expressions landing on U.S. shelves are bottled at 40 percent ABV—a number that matches many other popular “white” rums. But whereas those molasses rums are built for mixing, agricole rhum shines neat (or in the simple ur-cocktail the Ti’ Punch) where the higher proof can allow the complexity of the spirit to shine through. It also more closely resembles the way it would be enjoyed on its native islands: no lower than 50 percent ABV, and rarely aged. For this reason, the judges at our recent tasting (Mustipher, McGee, Nightmoves bar director Orlando Franklin McCray and Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi) gravitated toward the higher-proof bottlings as exemplary of the spirit’s often wild and idiosyncratic flavor profile.
Here, our five favorite rhum agricole blancs for under $50.
Saint James Imperial Blanc
Of the many 40 percent ABV expressions, which on the whole tended to disappoint on the palate, the judges found Saint James to be a pleasant entry-level agricole. The bottling, from one of the largest and oldest distilleries in Martinique, offers “a great nose” according to McGee, and a certain fruitiness. Though it lacks the texture and complexity of some of the higher-proof examples, it would make a great agricole Daiquiri.
- Price: $25
- ABV: 40%
Clément Canne Bleue
Though Clément no longer distills at its historic Le François facility, which houses the company’s aging warehouses and visitors center, the original stills, which were moved to Simon distillery in 1989, are still used to make Clément’s rhum. Landing at 50 percent ABV, the Canne Bleue, produced from a single variety of “blue cane,” displayed more texture and body than most of the other lower-proof expressions. The tasters found it to be a “tame” and “clean” example of the category.
- Price: $38
- ABV: 50%
Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc
Helmed by Gregory Vernant Neisson, the namesake distillery is among the smallest on Martinique and relies solely on cane grown at its own 40-hectare property. Neisson, who McGee describes as “one of the finest rum distillers in the world,” takes a scholarly approach to cane cultivation, focusing exclusively on three nonhybrid varieties for his line of rhums, and favoring a longer 72-hour fermentation (compared to the 24 to 48 hours typical of most other rhums on the island). The result is a more flavorful product, which McCray described as “refined, but still has the wildness of agricole.”
- Price: $43
- ABV: 50%
La Favorite Coeur de Canne
One of the last two family-run distilleries on Martinique, La Favorite has been making rhum since 1909 (though the distillery itself has existed since 1842). Its Coeur de Canne is made from cane cut entirely by hand, a process that ensures the stalks will not dry out before they reach the distillery. The rhum is soft and creamy with layers of flavor—coriander, cumin, tropical fruit—that build with each trip back to the glass. As Baiocchi noted, “It makes the case for rhum agricole blanc as a sipping spirit.”
- Price: $40
- ABV: 50%
Père Labat 59°
Distilling on the island of Marie-Galante, Père Labat has been producing rhum since the turn of the 20th century at the island’s oldest distillery (and on one of the Caribbean’s oldest stills). Contrary to what you might expect for such a high proof, there was nothing about this bottling (coming in at 59 percent ABV) that was harsh or fiery. In fact, as Mustipher noted, the higher proof simply helped with preservation of flavor, making this one of the judges’ favorites in the tasting. The brand’s 40 percent ABV expression was likewise a favorite, with McCray labeling it “accessible, while still hitting the benchmark flavors of agricole.”
- Price: $40
- ABV: 59%