"Excuse me bartender, there's an 'h' in my rum."
Rum, in the United States at least, is generally understood to be a practically neutral distillation of sugar or sugar by-products (such as molasses), almost indistinguishable from vodka save for a bit of sweetness due to residual or added sugar.* Occasionally this clear spirit is turned into a brown spirit with the addition of caramel coloring and a little spice (or spice flavor) and advertised as being really good with Coke.
Rhum agricole, on the other hand, is…different. Almost exclusively a product of the French Caribbean, it is made—by strictly enforced legal definition—from a single distillation of fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and nothing else (well, yeast, but that can’t be helped). The finished product may contain no additives whatsoever, including coloring and/or flavoring (with the exception of those that are obtained naturally through aging in oak barrels, which is optional). This attention to detail—and lack of adulteration—allows the spirit to retain a character more than a little reminiscent of its raw material. Good examples are fantastically complex, with a depth of flavor that can be quite shocking to palates geared for, say, Bacardi. Many of the the flavors/sensations are decidedly “agricultural.” It is not uncommon to hear rhum agricole described as funky, grassy, earthy, vegetal, pungent, etc. with notes of overripe/underripe fruit, burned toast, green leaves, dirt, and black olives.
No one, at least currently, is making rhum agricole on training wheels. There are, however, some brands (and bottlings within brands) that are more of an acquired taste than others. If you are completely new to spirits that use “funky”** as a descriptor, we suggest that you consider holding off on agricole for a bit and start acclimating your mind and palate with something like Jamaican rum, for instance. Smith & Cross and overproof (and notorious) Wray and Nephew are both fine examples of Jamaican rum and damn good places to start. While certainly not beginner’s rum, they are both slightly less aggressive in the funk category and are thus decent entrance ramps (gateway rums?) to full-blown agricole. When you’re properly acclimated, reach for a nice bottle of barrel-aged Rhum J.M. Gold or Clement V.S.O.P.—both exceptional examples of agricole but just a little easier on the nerves than say, Neisson Blanc (unaged) or, by god, St. George.***
What the f*ck is an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée?
(excuse my French)
If you are producing your rhum agricole in one of the 23 (at time of writing) authorized municipalities within Martinique—part of the French West Indies—then you may qualify for an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) from the French government. As with Roquefort cheese, Beaujolais wine, and Poulet de Bresse—the AOC certifies to the consumer that a given agriculture product has been determined to possess particularly desirable qualities of terroir when produced in a given geographical location and under a certain set of qualitative and procedural guidelines. Similar systems exist in Italy (DOC & DOCG), the European Union (PDO), and the United States (AVA).
Here are just a few as those guidelines as they apply to AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole:
Cultivation of no more than 120 metric tons/ hectare sugarcane (though in practice, most producers in Martinique cultivate closer to 72 mt/ha).
Distillate must be derived from fresh-pressed sugarcane juice with a minimum sugar content of 14° Brix and a minimum acidity of 4.7 PH.
Hot extraction of juice is prohibited (as it would damage the delicate bouquet of the cane juice).
Multiple distillations are prohibited.
“Blanc” rhum must be colorless and laid still for no less than three months (no more than three months if rested in oak).
“Élevé sous bois” rhum must be aged for at least 12 (uninterrupted) months in oak barrels.
“Vieux” rhum must be aged for at least 3 (uninterrupted) years in oak barrels with a capacity not exceeding 650 liters.
The agricole being produced by Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall at High Wire Distilling (Charleston, SC) is unrestrained and peculiar (certainly not a “gateway rum”). The aged version we tasted was no doubt affected by its time in barrel—most notably on the nose which was redolent of caramel hard candy and orange peel spiked with clove (a bitchin’ cocktail garnish, btw)—but I think “softened” would be a stretch. The palate was biting and immediate, with a pronounced almost acetone**** intensity that quickly bloomed into notes of sour cherry, green apple peel, and ripe fried plantain. The vegetal pungency was nearly unaltered (a good thing in my book but a bit disorienting given the inviting nose and amberish hue). It was immediately apparent—and this was confirmed by Scott—that the wood was purposely restrained, coloring the spirit just a touch darker than straw and adding the most unobtrusive hint of (welcome but fleeting) baking spice.
The unaged “blanc” (from their very first batch and poured from the very last bottle in house) had a nose that was rich and sweet and full of overripe tropical fruit. The palate, even at 120-proof, was shockingly smooth (maybe even more so than the barrel-aged version?) with hints of green banana, lime pith, and (faintly) butter pecan ice cream. Even at such a high proof the balance and harmony of flavors made it a pleasure to sip neat, no one thing dominating the palate (not even the alcohol). The last few years in stainless steel and/or glass really let this spirit come into its own (Scott discusses its awkward adolescence in the video). This was, I think, my favorite nip of the visit (though the Sorghum Whiskey is really something).
The agricole being produced at High Wire, and at St. George for that matter—the only other domestic producer at time of writing—is quite distinct from any Caribbean agricole you are likely to encounter, which is as good an argument as any for the reality of terroir in spirits. With nothing more than cane juice and Champagne yeast (and maybe a short nap in a barrel) Scott and Ann are making something truly unique which—despite it’s funny name and Frenchy provenance—tastes a hell of a lot like America to me.
Support the troops.
* As opposed to the only perceived sweetness of vodka—a trick that alcohol plays on the brain; more on that another time.
** “Hogo”—a corruption of the French “haut goût” or “high taste”—is the (somewhat arcane but now totally en vogue again) term used to describe this particular and difficult-to-pin-down “funkiness” common in cane-based distillates of a certain quality and provenance. It was originally used to describe the deliberately-cultivated muskiness of game birds hung to age before consumption (that same je ne sais quoi can still be found, thankfully to a lesser extent I imagine, in a nice dry-aged steak). Soon enough the term was called into service as a descriptor for the not terribly dissimilar but more sulfuric and vegetal pungency of the cane spirit coming then out of Java and the West Indies. Again, it’s hard to properly describe but once you’ve had enough Jamaican rum, rhum agricole, cachaça, and (especially) arrack you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
*** Despite my deep and long-nurtured affection for rhum agricole, I still—when making a Ti’ Punch for instance—must offset my St. George with a little (or a lot) of nearly any other brand. It is mesmerizing stuff, just intense to the point of tears.
**** Considered a flaw in high doses (or if allowed to dominate), small hints are perfectly acceptable and, occasionally, even inviting. This was an example of the latter.