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Notable

An Obsessive Quest to Capture the Terroir of Rum

March 10, 2022

Story: Jake Emen

photo: Teddy Frederick

Notable

An Obsessive Quest to Capture the Terroir of Rum

March 10, 2022

Story: Jake Emen

photo: Teddy Frederick

Mark Reynier, an unmatched innovator in Scotch whisky, is taking unprecedented steps to understand how soil, topography and cane variety affect the flavor of agricole rum.

Mark Reynier is laughing with giddy excitement as he sniffs a line of dozens of rum samples. “Isn’t this fun?!” he exclaims to nobody in particular. One sample smells to him like fruit salad; another evokes cedarwood and cigar box; another still offers toffee and butterscotch. Each bears an esoteric lab label recording its particular plot of land and cane variety, as well as how it was distilled and matured. “Where else could you do this in the world?” he asks. The answer: nowhere.

The tasting is a showcase of Reynier’s latest project, Renegade Rum, a Grenadian rum distillery with an unparalleled focus on terroir. It’s a concept that Reynier first toyed with at Bruichladdich Distillery, then deployed in full at Waterford Whisky, where he distilled the barley of individual farms separately, isolating and exploring the variable of terroir. He’s now unleashing that same ethos upon agricole rum. “This project started with a very simple question: How could you make a rum as profound as a single malt?” says Reynier. “We wanted to create a distillery that could extract the flavors of Grenada field by field, terroir by terroir.”

Those fields had to be seeded from scratch, leading to the creation of the distillery’s offshoot agricultural business, CaneCo. The company cobbled together leased land across the island, resulting in a pool of 12 farms split into roughly 40 terroir-specific plots, further divided into about 150 fields. A total of more than 240 acres is currently being harvested, with a goal of doubling that figure in the years ahead. The cane from each field is distilled and casked separately, creating scores of individual components that become part of Reynier’s painter’s palette, with which he can render a truly singular rum. “We’re not just making one rum, we’re making 150 little mini rums,” says Reynier. “When assembled together in clever proportions, we can create a fascinating matrix of flavors.”

Renegade Rum
A selection of heritage varieties of sugar cane.

This stands in stark contrast to the majority of rum produced elsewhere, where the commoditization of sugar cane has forced the industry toward ever-larger economies of scale with little attention paid to variety and flavor differentiation. “On Grenada, we needed to change the concept completely from a commodity to a high-value piece of art,” says Duncan Butler, an agronomist serving as general manager of CaneCo.

For Butler, who built a career in large-scale sugar cane operations, it was a shift to drill down to the minute differences in narrow swaths of land. “I have to admit, if you asked me seven years ago, I wasn’t so sure about the terroir,” says Butler. “Now I’m a convert.”

The terroir across the island, and even amid a single farm, is strikingly diverse. “Beyond the soil varieties, it’s the pyroclastic flows, the alluvial and colluvial flows, and you end up with extraordinary juxtapositions of soil in a very narrow space,” says Reynier, describing the island’s volcanic activity, as well as its various soil deposits from surface and rainwater, and their interaction with a given area’s topography. “And that’s what makes it so interesting to grow cane here: You have very vivid and easy-to-spot terroir.”

Renegade Rum

Six types of sugar cane are currently being grown. Each represents a rarely cultivated heritage variety obtained from the West Indies Central Sugar Cane Breeding Station on Barbados. The varieties were chosen for their perceived suitability to the island as well as having been unadulterated over the past half-century. Already, life in the field has proved different from life in the lab, and two of Reynier’s six varieties will soon be eliminated. “All of the modern varieties have been eviscerated,” says Reynier, noting the industry’s quest for maximizing yield at the expense of all other factors. 

Adding another variable to his flavor mixing board is Reynier’s use of both column and pot distillation, as well as different barrels for maturation, including new American oak and used bourbon barrels, plus new French oak and used wine casks. “We can play with column and pot variables, we can play with terroir variables, we can play with the sugar cane varieties, we can play with wood types and maturation,” says Reynier. It provides him with a sweeping assortment of individual distillates at his disposal to blend together in pursuit of specific flavors.

Renegade Rum’s first release was the limited-edition Pre Cask, a collection of five unaged offerings unveiled last year and representative of four farms, including Old and New Bacolet, Pearls and Dunfermline, and a mix of either pot or column distillation. This summer, a pair of one-year-old releases highlighting the Pearls and Bacolet farms will also hit the market. In spring of 2024, the distillery plans to debut its flagship assemblage, blending those myriad microrums into a cohesive whole.

“This shares an identity with Waterford, but I think this project is even more groundbreaking,” says Reynier. “Waterford is a ‘pinnacle;’ this is a game changer.”

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Tagged: notable, rum, terroir

Jake Emen is a freelance travel, food, and drinks journalist. He's been published in outlets including AFAR, Barron's, Bourbon+, Departures, Food & Wine, GQ, Imbibe, Maxim, Roads & Kingdoms, USA Today, Vice, Whisky Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and a wide range of others. He's a longtime spirits judge, and has visited more than 100 distilleries across 25 countries and six continents. Follow his latest adventures @ManTalkFood