Rhum Agricole

Rhum Agricole: Quality Guaranteed

20 July, 2022

When it comes to the production of rhum agricole, terroir is key to quality. Oli dodd meets those at the forefront of this lesser-known spirits category.

It is a category that does require a bit of explaining. If you just leave someone with a bottle and walk off, they’re not going to necessarily understand it, so you have to take the time to make a connection,” says Peter Holland, founder of The Floating Rum Shack and long-time advocate of rhum agricole.

Produced in the French Caribbean, and curiously the Portuguese island of Madeira too, rhum agricole is a stylistic departure from its molasses-based cousins – and while generally popular in French-speaking markets, elsewhere it’s typically been fringe.

That needle appears to be moving. In early 2022, Spiribam – the Parisbased owner of the Martinique agricole brands Rhum J.M and Rhum Clément, with offices already in the US – expanded its central operations to the UK with a view to cracking the market.

“The biggest thing when it comes to agricole at the moment is that it’s all about education, it’s getting the consumers to understand that the ‘h’ in ‘rhum’ is not a mistype,” says Ashera Goonewardene, formerly a bartender, she was crowned the UK champion in Rhum Clément’s annual Ti’Punch Cup cocktail competition in 2017 and joined the Spiribam UK team as London account manager earlier this year.

“When people think of rum, they think sweet, they think rum and Coke, but I ask people to go into agricole with an open mind and once they taste it they understand why it’s so special. 

“There’s so much terroir hidden within each island that produces some form of sugar cane rum. To explain that, to give them the back story and explain why it tastes the way it does, people start opening their palates, they start opening up the way they think about rum.”

Adam Gonna has become an expert in introducing unfamiliar drinkers to the stuff. In 2015, he decided to transform his London tiki bar, The Beachcomber, into the House of Agricole Rhum and has introduced thousands of Londoners to the spirit since.

“It’s usually about explaining that it’s a fresh product and that the flavours that exist inside of it are because of the freshness of the product compared to molasses rums,” he says. 

“The comparison that I usually make is it’s like the difference between tequila and mezcal. With agave and sugar cane both being fresh products, that’s why you get those grassy and earthy tones.” 

CLASSIC SERVES

Recipes for agricole’s classic serve the Ti’Punch vary, but tend to include white rhum agricole, sugar and lime zest. Ice is optional, but not traditional, and often the bartender will simply provide the guest with the ingredients as chacun prépare sa propre mort, meaning each prepares their own death. 

“The Ti’Punch, while amazing, is not the simplest serve to introduce people to,” says Gonna. “I like to do twists on classics, taking something that someone already knows and using agricole. We make an Agroni, a twist on a Negroni using an aged agricole. There’s huge variety, and breadth, every brand is different. So many flavours exist so you can virtually do any cocktail in the world using rhum agricole.

“But it is a complex product and anything that is more complex is going to be harder to work with. It just takes a bit more from the bartender or the person drinking the product. But with agricole, because of the production rules and the nature of the product, you can always be guaranteed a highquality product.”

The Martinique AOC places strict rules on the production of agricole. It can only be made using fresh, crushed sugar cane juice without the addition of syrup or molasses. The juice is directly fed into fermenters so that fermentation can begin immediately.

Distillation must be continuous through distillation columns, without rectification, to between 65% and 75% abv. The distillate is transferred to vats for three months to three years. 

Nothing is added, nothing is altered, the result is the pure distilled expression of the sugar cane juice.

“When you taste rhum agricole, you taste the terroir of Martinique straight away. We are close to the raw material, to the sugar cane flavours,” says Audrey Bruisson, global marketing director at Spiribam.

“Even with the aged rhums, because of the rules of the AOC, we cannot add any colouring, we cannot add any sugar. What you see, in terms of colour and what you taste, is just the natural effect of the wood on the raw material. 

“During the lockdowns, we found that people wanted to taste our products. People were at home, unable to travel and the rhum category particularly makes you travel when you are tasting it.”

On Guadeloupe, François Longueteau cellar master and marketing manager of Rhum Longueteau, considers this expression of terroir to be at the heart of production.

“There’s a similarity between the manufacture of wine and the manufacture of white agricole rhum – the ground,” he says.

“I consider sugar cane to be a fruit. The impact of the ground on the sugar cane is so important. Near the ocean you find aromatics of salt, when you have a parcel with lots of humidity, you find more of a sugar character in the home, the impact of terroir is really important, very similar to winemaking.”

The spirit’s ability to express its terroir creates variety as pronounced as the environments of its island homes.

“The south east of Martinique grows more bananas, guavas, pineapples and coconuts, so there you might find a fruitier, crisper finish on the agricoles, further up north, you get those muskier, heavier tones because of the yeast that falls from the plants in the rainforest,” explains Goonewardene. 

“Not everyone can go on a holiday to the Caribbean so the moment that you can connect with somewhere that’s so far away, that’s special. When you go to the island, the smell of pure cut cane, that’s what you smell in the bottle. The moment anyone’s synapses connect with something that has an emotional attachment, and then to be able to consume it later at home, that’s pure memory.”

Rhum agricole should be the rum style for the type of interested, modern drinker that has made mezcal mainstream and natural wine a phenomenon. The connection that the spirit has to the land and to its raw ingredients, without any masking production techniques, lends an authenticity and idiosyncrasy that begs to be explored. As Holland says: “Once you’re down the rabbit hole of agricole rhum, it’s very difficult to get back out again.”





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