Meet R(h)um’s One Percent

From the dank jungle of Martinique to the cool cellars of Cognac, a new wave of high-quality r(h)um is establishing both the depth of the category and its connection to place.

sugarcane at Rhum JM, Martinique

The very mention of “rum” conjures immediate imagery: serene tropical islands, bloody revolutions, multinational booze thugs, yacht-rock or even one’s favorite punch.  Its centuries-old history is unrivaled, dripping with storied lore—from pirates to Prohibition. While those timeless imaginings are deeply embedded in our nostalgic psyche, they are faint echoes of what the spirit category actually embodies today. In spite of monopolistic odds, a handful of producers from around the world have charted a course less traveled. These producers, like Rhum J.M., Samaroli and Navazos-Palazzi, are not only creating some of the finest examples of rum ever known, they’re reintroducing us to the spirit’s depth and connection to place.

Rum, as we know it, was actually born out of arbitrage—a tradition that dates back to the 17th century, when entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on the principal waste product of sugar manufacturing: molasses. By the beginning of the 1700s, sugarcane—originally brought to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus at the turn of the 16th century—had become the single economic-driver of the of the islands, not its gold, which had in fact initially lured the Europeans there.

To this day, 99 percent of the world’s rum is still made from molasses, most of it via mammoth industrial factories replete with hairnets and squeaky floors. The other one percent, commonly known as rhum agricole, or agricultural rum, is made from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice—the artisanal versions hailing from remote distilleries where open-top fermenters breathe in airborne microbes from the dank jungle air. The resulting rums reveal singular nuances of damp earth, funky herbaceousness and crisp vibrancy—reflective of their origins—that stand in glaring contrast to what we have come to know as Puerto Rican white rum.

Considering the 99:1 ratio, it’s no wonder that the average American doesn’t connect rum to tradition, skill or terroir. Yet, when rum is allowed to develop with native yeasts and organic materials, it is one of the most inherently site-expressive spirits on earth. Furthermore, rum adapts to the place and vessel in which it is aged, which can be anywhere from its country of origin to the other side of the Atlantic—an unconventional notion for many other distillate categories.

As it happens, there are probably more parallels between wine—and its distinctive specificity of place, i.e. that which distinguishes the Rhône Valley from, say, the Napa Valley—and rhum agricole, than any other spirit. On the island of Martinique the various regions render vastly disparate rums—from the arid western coast to the lush tropical rain forest at the base of Mount Pelée at the northern tip.  The air and earth smells different, and so do their respective rums.

Compared to other spirits, there are few rules that guide the production of rum, allowing it to step forward as a category for experimentation, which many have taken advantage of for causes both good and evil (see: coconut rum). The unyielding exception to this lawlessness, if you will, is rhum agricole from the island of Martinique, which is home to the only A.O.C. outside of France, and the sole unique appellation for rum.

The purest expressions of rum commercially available are found in the terroir-driven bottlings of appellation-grade rhum agricole. As it happens, there are probably more parallels between wine—and its distinctive specificity of place, i.e. that which distinguishes the Rhône Valley from, say, the Napa Valley—and rhum agricole, than any other spirit. Some of us have heard about the chalky soils of Cognac and the high-altitude mesoclimates of mezcal’s Oaxacan Sierra. On the island of Martinique, however, the various regions render vastly disparate rums—from the arid western coast to the lush tropical rain forest at the base of Mount Pelée at the northern tip.  The air and earth smells different, and so do their respective rums.

Thanks to rum’s relative non-regulation, it can be transferred from its country of origin to Europe for final aging—a rite of passage that has been practiced for centuries—adding another consideration to the notion of “place” and its expression in rum. Modern producers, from Kentucky to France, are striving to replicate what began as a happy accident hundreds of years ago: seafaring barrel-aging. As is turns out, the unpredictability of barometric pressure at sea, in combination with constant agitation and stimulation, dramatically augments the flavor of spirits, while simultaneously softening and integrating the alcohol.

A similar, while very different logic can be applied to long-term aging. The evaporation levels in the Caribbean are roughly nine percent, annually, compared to Cognac or Kentucky, which are some three percent. The heat and humidity accelerates the aging process, yielding more concentration and layers of complexity in the final spirit over a shorter period of time—resulting in a myriad of expressions from the dark, brooding quality of Jamaican-style rum to the dense, potent swagger of Guyanese Demerara.

By contrast, extended aging in a less hostile climate—such as Cognac, Jerez or Scotland—yields a quiet, gentle and forgiving spirit, that is reflective of its peaceful environment.  The subsequent rums can be elegant and floral—a result of both their new habitat and the woods and organic materials they’re being exposed to. These variations are the direct result of rum’s wild-west ethos—and they couldn’t have occurred as effectively with any other spirit.

Some of the most distinctive rums available today offer very disparate expressions. Among them, an appellation-grade rhum agricole from Martinique, a fruity, floral Spanish-style Caribbean rum aged in Scotland, a Caribbean molasses rum aged in Jerez, a classic dark and muggy Demerara aged in Guyana and a Jamaican-style rum finished in Cognac casks on French soil. Each of them captures the specificity of their journey—from pure, evocative reflections of their native terroir to rum’s incredible ability to reflect the characteristics of where it’s aged.

Rhum J.M. 15-Year Vintage 1994

Founded by the Crassous de Médeuil family in 1845, Rhum J.M. is located on the northernmost tip of Martinique in a lush, tropical rainforest at the base of Mount Pelée. Its unique microclimate, rich volcanic soils and the fact that Rhum J.M. strictly uses its own single-domaine sugarcane—which enables them to control every step of the production process—make it incredibly rare.  J.M. produces one of the only cask-strength barrel-aged rums in the world and their expressions are simply ethereal, with astounding depth, refinement and complexity.

The 1994 vintage delivered a perfect growing season to Martinique, with ideal harvest conditions and a generous, healthy crop.  The J.M. ‘94 shows exotic floral nuances of citrus blossom, tropical fruit, vanilla, banana, ginger and that glorious agricole funk.

Samaroli Caribbean Rum

Samaroli is one of the most remarkable stories in the world of spirits. Its namesake, Silvano Samaroli, began selecting and bottling the world’s greatest whiskies in 1968—he was the first foreigner to do this—bottling and selling them in his native Italy. Having worked with the greatest artisan distillers in Scotland—Bruichladdich, Glenlivet, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Talisker, Highland Park, Springbank and Bowmore, among them. Then, Samaroli applied his unrivaled acumen to rum, having since produced singular expressions from Fiji to the Caribbean, joining their limited production bottlings.

The Caribbean Rum ’03 is one of the rarest spirits available in the United States—produced from a spectacular Caribbean Spanish-style rum—which is typified by a fruity, brandy-like flavor profile—aged for seven years in the Scottish Highlands, where it was bottled. The rum’s cool climate élevage yields a finessed, high-toned spirit.

Navazos-Palazzi Cask Strength Rum 2013

Occasionally, people transcend the traditional confines of their respective industries—in terms of wine & spirits, without any doubt, two such men are Jesús Barquín and Nicolas Palazzi. Jesús is credited for helping revive sherry, with his highly sought-after Equipo Navazos wines. And Nicolas, has made a serious reputation for himself unearthing minuscule quantities of superlative handmade, artisanal Cognac and Armagnac, and resurrecting the ghost of Pineau des Charentes.  Both notorious treasure-seekers—Barquín for his singular butts of sherry, Palazzi for barrels of rare distillates from his native France—in 2012, they came together to trail blaze an entirely new frontier: single-cask Spanish brandy.  Then, in 2013, they continued to evolve by adding Spanish rum to the mix.  Barquín and Palazzi stumbled onto casks, which were later revealed to have contained rum that was distilled in the Caribbean, where it was aged on-site for five years. It was then shipped to Jerez, where it spent an additional decade resting in oloroso cask.

The Navazos Palazzi Cask Strength RON 2013 bottled at full proof—51 percent—is one of the most unique distillates to have been released in recent years. Yes, there are trademark characteristics of rum and sherry, but the essence of sugarcane, in combination with aging in the Caribbean and Jerez, yields one of the most distinctive, ethereal spirits to have been bottled.

El Dorado 21-Year Old Special Reserve

El Dorado embodies more than three centuries of distilling tradition in Guyana.  While Columbus first spied Guyana in 1498, around the time he introduced sugarcane to the Caribbean, it wasn’t until more than a century later that the Dutch developed its cultivation and subsequent distillation, in the mid-seventeenth century.  At one point in the 1700s, there were over three hundred distillers; but over time mergers culminated into the vast consolidation.  In 1998, the last remaining distillers were absorbed by Demerara Distillers Limited, which is now the sole rum producer in Guyana.

The 21-Year-Old Special Reserve—which is blended from aged stocks no less than 21-years-old, from the Enmore wooden Coffey still, the Versailles single wooden pot still and the Albion Savalle still—is rich and bold, revealing lush layers of toffee, coffee, tobacco and roasted nuts.

Plantation Rum Jamaica 2000

The highly regarded firm, Cognac Ferrand, bottles twelve distinctive sugar cane spirits from the most renowned rum regions in the Caribbean—Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Trinidad, among them. Distilled from fermented molasses and aged in whisky and bourbon barrels, the rums are handmade using centuries-old techniques and then finished in Cognac barrels in France. The full range is made by Ferrand’s cellar-master, under the supervision of Alexandre Gabriel, each one a unique expression of the country of origin, terroir and the hand of the maker.

The Plantation Jamaica 2000 Rum—a molasses-based, pot distilled rum, which undergoes an extended fermentation process, is initially aged in Jamaica with used whisky and bourbon barrels, is then finished in Ferrand Cognac casks at their facility in France—displays exotic notes of vanilla, spice, subtle anise, figs and coffee.

Wyatt Peabody is a wine advisor, archivist and journalist. He is a former contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, where he wrote about spirits, cocktails and food. His work has also appeared in Robb Report, Fortune, The Washington Post and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.