The juice story of cane juice rums

27 July, 2023

Matt Pietrek explores the intricate and fascinating world of molasses-alternative rums.

Around the globe, from the remote island of Madeira in the eastern Atlantic to Australia’s Gold Coast, rum made from cane juice is coming centre stage. If your experience with rum so far is limited to big-name brands, your first experience with cane juice rums such as Martinique’s rhum agricole may be polarising. Cane juice spirits are often described as earthy and grassy; nirvana for some and a challenge for others. However, a broad look at where the sugarcane spirit category is headed shows the centre of gravity slowly shifting from molasses towards cane juice as the optimal source material.

Brands making cane juice spirits understandably focus on their terroir. Crushed cane juice is minimally processed before it becomes rum, allowing soil and climate differences to come to the fore, much like with unaged agave spirits. However, there’s more than just terroir driving both new and long-established rum makers to partially or fully choose cane juice over molasses as their source material.

A brief primer on sugarcane, molasses and rum types

Rum’s bedrock requirement is that it begins as sugarcane, the tall grass that grows best in warm climates near the equator. A spirit distilled from another type of sugar, eg from sugar beets, can’t be called rum.

For centuries, the primary motivation for growing sugarcane was the crystals that could be extracted from cane juice. Passing the harvested cane stalks through cylindrical rollers yields a slightly sweet liquid, cane juice. Heating the cane juice boils off most of the water content, making sucrose crystals form. The thick, brown liquid left behind after straining out the crystals is molasses, which contains a fair amount of non-crystallisable sugar. Early on, molasses was considered a waste byproduct of sugar production and was often discarded. However, someone circa the mid-1500s discovered that molasses could be fermented into a ‘cane wine’ that can be distilled into rum.

It’s also possible to make rum directly from cane juice and bypass the intermediate boiling/straining steps. However, the extractable sugar in cane juice was long considered more valuable than rum. Thus, nearly all rum was made from molasses for hundreds of years.

The industrial revolution of the 1800s changed the equation. Table sugar became plentiful thanks to agricultural economies of scale and a new process to make sugar crystals from beets that grow in non-tropical climates. Sugar prices plummeted worldwide, causing Caribbean sugar estates to face bankruptcy as they couldn’t sell their sugar for more than it cost to produce.

In Martinique, small estates well removed from the large sugar factories gave up on sugar production and distilled all their cane juice into rum. This rum was known as rhum d’habitant, as it was only consumed by the native islanders – very little was exported. This rum was also called rhum agricole, ie agricultural rum. The term is commonly used today, but as we’ll see later, there’s vigorous debate about what should be allowed to be called rhum agricole or agricole rum.

Why cane juice rum is on the rise

Cognac experts wax rhapsodic about the spirit’s terroir. A vineyard’s environmental fingerprint – soil composition, seasonal temperature variations, and groundwater – all influence the flavour of the juice pressed from the grapes. The juice is minimally processed along the way to becoming cognac, so the vineyard’s terroir remains in the finished product.

Cane juice rum has a nearly identical story. The sugarcane varieties and climatic conditions of the cane field influence the flavour of the juice. Sugarcane starts decomposing quickly after harvesting, causing unpleasant flavours in rum if fermentation doesn’t start within a few hours of cutting. It’s why cane juice rums are always made near sugarcane fields. When you taste cane juice rum, you experience the terroir of the sugarcane fields near the distillery.

Heating and processing cane juice to make sugar and molasses substantially diminishes terroir. Rum distilled from molasses tastes much less grassy and earthy than rum made from cane juice. A Puerto Rican or Barbadian rum may use molasses made from Indonesian sugarcane and transported across the seas using fossil fuels. While molasses rums can have terroir from a local yeast strain or ageing conditions, cane juice rums have a larger canvas to express terroir.

Rum supply chain economics

Once upon a time, molasses was cheap and readily available. Those days are gone. Today, molasses is the biggest expense for rum makers, and reliably acquiring it is a struggle. There’s increased competition for molasses from the biofuel and cattle farming industries. Climate change has reduced sugarcane crop yields, and today’s highly efficient sugar factories leave less sugar behind in the molasses.

Faced with a threat to their survival, many rum makers are bringing their source material supply chain in-house to ensure its availability, consistency and price. One approach some distilleries take is to restart sugarcane agriculture on lands previously abandoned as unprofitable.

However, this still leaves sugar on the table, so to speak. An acre of sugarcane can make five times more rum than the same acre converted into sugar crystals and molasses, with rum made from the molasses. It’s simple economics: when rum is more valuable than sugar, why not use all the sugarcane’s fermentable sugar to make rum?

Buoyed by an upswing in rum prices, new distilleries are taking this lesson to heart. Likewise, old-guard distilleries are learning new tricks, distilling cane juice rum alongside their mainstream molasses rums.

Energy & ecology

Distilleries use enormous amounts of energy to generate steam for the stills and power the pumps. Often that energy comes from fossil fuels. However, distilleries that process sugarcane have a nearly free fuel source: the sugarcane itself. The fibrous pulp that remains after milling sugarcane is called bagasse and can be burned in a furnace to transform water into steam.

In modern systems, burning bagasse creates both steam and electricity. The steam drives a turbine to make electricity before passing into the stills. In some Central American countries, a surplus of electricity feeds into the local power grid. Eco-aware distilleries scrub the furnace emissions to near-zero environmental impact. Every part of the sugarcane stalk is used—the juice becomes rum, the bagasse generates energy, and the distillation waste (‘vinasse’) becomes cane field fertiliser.

Cane juice rum around the globe

While the rhum agricole of Martinique and Guadeloupe are the most widely known cane juice rums, you’ll find cane juice spirits made around the globe. As you might expect, Oceania, the birthplace of sugarcane, hosts several cane juice rum distilleries, including Hawaii’s Kō Hana Distillers and Kuleana. A bit further afield, Australia’s Husk, Thailand’s Chalong Bay, Japan’s Cor Cor, and India’s Camikara are also making a name for their cane juice spirits.

It’s surprising to most that the world’s bestselling cane juice spirit is almost entirely consumed in a single country.

Brazil makes a billion-plus litres of cachaça each year, more than all the rum made globally. Only a small fraction is exported. While some people think of cachaça as Brazilian rum, it has a denomination of origin defining the many production and technical requirements to be sold as cachaça.

While rhum agricole and cachaça have somewhat similar flavours, not all cane juice distilleries try to replicate the flavour profile of rum agricole. In the Dominican Republic, Alcoholes Finos Dominicanos distils a very light rum similar to molasses rums of the same strength. The distillery is partially owned by Ron Barcelo and supplies rums to several Dominican Republic rum brands.

In Grenada, Mark Reynier built the Renegade distillery to make ultimate terroir-focused rum. Famous for his prior involvement with Bruichladdich and Irish whiskey brand Waterford, Reynier is obsessed with understanding what affects terroir. To that end, each field’s harvest remains separate from all other harvests all the way through fermentation, distillation and bottling. Renegade’s Pre-Cask Single Form Origin gives drinkers every imaginable detail about the rum in their glass, from the cane field’s elevation to a recording of the field’s ambient noise.

Belize’s Copal Tree makes pot and column-distilled cane juice rum in the rainforest. Founder Todd Robinson’s vision was environmentally sustainable businesses that gave back to the community. Ecotourism, coffee and chocolate are also in the Copal Tree portfolio, along with Copalli cane juice rum.

Barbados is a hotbed of locally sourced sugarcane today; all four rum distilleries mill sugarcane to make rum. Plantation Rum’s West Indies Rum Distillery buys sugarcane grown by the local sugarcane breeding station.

Likewise, Foursquare Rum Distillery has a separate fermentation area for its cane juice rums. Similar operations are underway at Jamaica’s Worthy Park and St Lucia Distillers. In most cases, these cane juice rums will be blended with the distillery’s molasses rums.

Cane juice rums can get wild and funky. Haitian clairin, aka kleren, is indigenous to Haiti and closer to high congener Jamaican rum than rhum agricole. Wild yeast fermentation is the norm for clairin, and it’s usually distilled once to around 55% abv with rustic pot stills. Significant amounts of clairin are distilled sans government oversight, leading to its reputation as ‘Haitian moonshine’.

Once challenging to find outside Haiti, independent bottlers such as Velier have positioned clairin as the next new thing for those looking off the beaten path. Elsewhere in Haiti, Rhum Barbancourt distills its cane juice to 93% abv, creating a lighter distillate with just a touch of grassiness.

Although overshadowed by its agave spirits, Mexico has a long history with sugarcane spirits. Mexican charanda even has a denomination of origin laying out the requirements to use the name. Brands such as Uruapan, El Tarasco and Paranubes emphasise long fermentations and low-strength distillation to make a spirit described as somewhere between rhum agricole and clairin.

Even the US makes cane juice rum. San Juan Artisan’s Pepe Alvarez planted sugarcane in 2011 to help revive Puerto Rico’s once-thriving rum industry. He distils Ron Pepón Agrícola in pot stills purchased from Trinidad’s defunct 10 Cane Distillery. Sugarcane is big business in the American south, so distilleries such as Louisiana’s Oxbow, Porchjam and Roulaison include cane juice rums in their portfolios.

Agricole – what’s in a name?

Rhum agricole from the French departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Réunion are so famous worldwide that rhum agricole has become nearly synonymous with cane juice rum. However, there’s contention about whether agricole should be used as a catch-all for cane juice rum.

Some cane juice rum makers avoid labelling their rum as agricole to respect the tradition of French cane juice rums. Other producers specifically choose to say agricole rum or agricole-style rum since it quickly conveys that it originated from cane juice.

Who’s right? It depends on where you ask.

All French rum-making overseas territories have strict requirements for how rhum agricole must be made, from where the sugarcane grows to the number of plates allowed in the column stills. Martinique’s appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is a denomination of origin and the most famous of France’s rum regulations.

However, French regulations have no legal standing outside of France. In theory, any rum sold outside of France can be called rhum agricole regardless of how it was made. However, there’s a twist. The European Union (EU) has regulations that all 27 EU member states abide by. The EU regulations state that anything called agricole rum must be made in the French overseas territories or Madeira and follow certain technical requirements of the French regulations. Thus, agricole is a protected term throughout EU countries. Post Brexit, the UK also abides by the EU’s spirit drink definitions.

Outside of Europe, it is the wild west. Most other countries outside of the EU do not protect the agricole terminology. For example, the US has Standards of Identity for spirit categories like bourbon, Scotch whisky and tequila. The Standard of Identity for rum is simply that it comes from sugarcane and is distilled to less than 95% abv. There’s no recognition of any country’s rum geographical indications nor requirements for using descriptive terms such as agricole.

Rum and cane spirits have been made for nearly 500 years. Those first few centuries, tarred by colonialism, slavery and other injustices, helped form the negative associations some have for rum. However, rum is a diverse and adaptable spirit that has frequently changed with the times, often outside the consumer’s view. The rum industry has transformed significantly in recent decades, including a renewed connection to its agricultural roots and a focus on sustainability. The result is that today’s consumers are discovering just how well-made and diverse the rum category can be.

Matt Pietrek is an independent rum educator, author, historian, consultant. He is the author of the RumWonk website and the book Modern Caribbean Rum.

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