Spirit Guide: What to Know About Rhum Agricole

Welcome to "Spirit Guide," in which Wayne Curtis demystifies the ever-shifting spirits landscape one bottle at a time. Up first: funky, terroir-driven rhum agricole.

Some years ago, Gregory Vernant Neisson was showing me through his family’s rum distillery, the smallest of about a half-dozen on the French island of Martinique. We came upon a miniature tank farm—16 gleaming stainless steel vats, each holding rum made from sugar harvested on a different parcel of land.

“This is from Carbet,” he said, pointing to one tank. “And that’s different from the rum made of cane from the Saint-Pierre fields.” The sugar cane from higher elevation volcanic soils, he explained, produced rum a bit more subtle than the more boisterous lower elevation sandy soils. These tanks were the company’s palette, from which they blended their Niesson rum.

I’ll admit that this caught me up short. Prior to that visit, I’d always dismissed “terroir” in spirits as just pure marketing, telling consumers what they wanted to hear. Distilling is, after all, an industrial process, with materials typically sourced through commodity markets.

Martinique forced me to rethink this.

Rhum agricole is rum that’s most closely tied to agriculture (hence the name). It’s made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice, in contrast to most rum, which is distilled from fermented molasses. The cane is cut and crushed and the juice sluiced directly into fermenters, after which it heads to column stills.

Agricole rum is commonly made in the French West Indies, in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante, where the style arose over a century ago, when cheaper beet sugar posed a threat to the island sugar cane industry; sugar producers responded by figuring out a way to use all the sugar in making rum.

These idiosyncratic rums have long lingered just over the horizon in the American market, in a sort of perpetual pre-dawn twilight. The sunrise may be finally dawning. While agricole rum has long been appreciated by the geekier aficionados for being a purer expression of rum and sugar cane, the category’s fan base is expanding, partially thanks to its compatibility with the modern thirst for products that are intensely local, deeply connected to where they are made and crafted on a human scale. (All the rum produced on Martinique in a month, I’d wager, is less than that produced on Puerto Rico in a day.)

Agricole rum is often described as “grassy” or “vegetal.” Both are apt. Sugar cane is, essentially, a freakishly tall grass, and when freshly pressed it has the faint aroma of a lawn being cut on a warm summer’s day. These big herbaceous explode from the bottle like a genie that’s been penned up too long. By contrast, in molasses-based rum, caramelizing occurs when the sugar cane juice is boiled down, yielding butterscotch notes. These flavors only occur in agricole rum after it’s been barrel-aged for a few years: The notes of field and sun associated with un-aged white agricole are displaced by the vanilla and oak, and by the time it’s been aged eight or ten years, you might find it hard to distinguish between an aged agricole and an aged molasses-based rum.

Part of the reason agricole rum has remained in the shadows may be the difficulty in mixing with it. Simplicity requires simplicity, which is why, in Martinique, bars and restaurants almost exclusively serve it in Ti’ Punch, short for “petit punch.” A bit of white rum is mixed with some dime-sized disks of lime peel, a dollop of cane syrup and an ice cube or two. Everyone mixes up their punch as they see fit. “It’s a kind of ceremony,” Neisson matriarch, Claudette, once explained to me, “like the Japanese with their tea ceremony.”

Nice imagery, but that suggests a certain quiet grace. When I sip an agricole rum, I think of something louder and a bit more brash. It’s a garage band in an auto-tune world—it may not be to everyone’s taste, but with its strong connection to land and people, it’s as if it were invented for today.

The Foundation

Damoiseau Blanc
White agricole rums are essentially rhum agricole unmasked. There’s been little, if any, tampering with oak, and little tempering with time. These have a brawny, big, robust aroma and taste—like sugar cane in a muscle shirt. Unlike so many other spirits, you can tell at the first sniff this is a product of agriculture. Distilled on Guadeloupe, Damoiseau Blanc is one of the biggest in the bunch. The aroma is filled with notes of fresh straw and green banana; on the palate, it has an almost savory bacon fat-like fullness before evaporating into a pleasantly dirty finish with just a hint of wintergreen. It makes a Ti’ Punch with considerable authority—doctor it slightly with a little cane syrup and a hint of lime peel. And ice; at a stalwart 55 percent ABV, you’ll need it for dilution. 55 percent ABV | $30 [Buy]

The Bridge

Neisson Reserve Speciale
Martinique’s family-owned Neisson distillery makes tons of white agricole in the stern, square-shouldered bottle you see set out at bars all over the island. It’s used in considerable quantity in making Ti’ PunchBut Neisson also sets aside a smaller amount in barrels (mostly used bourbon and cognac barrels, alongside some new French oak) for aging. After time in barrel (four years for the special reserve; six for the XO), batches are blended, and then they go into wooden vats of between 2,000 and 10,000 liters to mellow and merge.

The result is a precisely balanced rum that shows notes of fresh cane, oak and a little maple syrup and smoke, with both a soft entry and finish. It’s a product that is capable of converting fans of molasses-based rum (or even bourbon), and an ample demonstration that agricole can be friendly, accessible and familiar. 42 percent ABV | $70 1L [Buy]

The Hometown Hero

High Wire Lowcountry Agricole
Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling are among the very few distillers producing a true agricole in the United States. (St. George Spirits in California has carried out limited runs as well, but recent droughts have made California sugar hard to come by and put production on hold.)

High Wire sources sugar from several small South Carolina farms, where plots of cane have traditionally been planted for sugar cane syrup for in-home use. Northern cane typically must be harvested earlier than West Indian cane, owing to threats of frost, and the sugar varieties grown here are more hearty. This all results in a somewhat different flavor profile—less herbaceous, but with delicate, almost fleeting baking spice notes.

Blackwell rushes the juice to the distillery to get it fermenting within 24 hours, then ages it in used bourbon barrels for up to two years. The result wouldn’t be confused with a classic Caribbean agricole (there’s an odd hint of graininess), yet it’s a pleasing addition to the agricole inventory. 44 percent ABV | $80

The Sophisticate

Rhum J.M X.O
Set in a small vale on the slopes of tall volcano, the J.M distillery suggests Brigadoon. The facility is located on a sugar plantation that dates to 1790 (the larger Clement rum distillery took it over about a dozen years ago but has pretty much left it alone) and there’s plenty of continuity and tradition coming out of the pair of towering, battered copper stills they employ. Nazaire Canatous, the head distiller, has been working here since 1972, when he was 17 years old. (His father, the previous head distiller, was hired by the distillery in 1930.)

The X.O (not an age statement) is aged in used bourbon barrels, with casks periodically emptied and re-blended by year (called “ouillage”) to reduce barrel headspace and create consistency. Expect massive mid-palate flavors, including apples and dried orange peel, with tannins asserting themselves in the long, dry finish. 45 percent ABV | $75 [Buy]