Drinks: The sometimes-intense, never-boring spirit about to pop up

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 4, 2019.
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THOUGH it has been produced since at least the 19th century, rhum agricole is a product that is still fairly new to the US, with the first bottlings imported from Martinique about 15 years ago. Since then, this complex, raw and, some say, more “authentic” vegetal-tasting style of rum has made inroads with spirited connoisseurs, thanks to cocktail culture and interest in all things tiki. Now, Davide Campari-Milano SPA is making moves to take it to the broader market.

Earlier this summer, the Italian spirits company announced plans to purchase the French company Rhumantilles SAS, which produces three rhum labels in Martinique at the La Mauny distillery. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, sales of super premium rum, which encompasses rhum agricole, went up 28.5% in 2018.

Rhum agricole is used in a variety of cocktails from tropical, multi-rum concoctions to old-fashioned variations, while some aged expressions are produced specifically to be served neat and sipped like whiskey. Most of us went a long time without rhum in our lives, but as Campari did with the Aperol Spritz — aggressively and expertly deploying a massive marketing machine to turn a bittersweet regional aperitif into a global summer phenomenon — we may soon not know what to do without it.

 

So exactly what is rhum agricole?

All rum is produced from sugar, but the majority of the world’s rum is made from sugar-cane molasses or evaporated sugar, processed from cane or beets, all of which travels relatively well and is cheap and easy to procure. Rum can be made anywhere in the world, be barrel-aged and contain additives such as colour, flavours or sugar. Rum is often said to have no rules.

Rhum agricole, meanwhile, is very specific: It can be produced only from the fresh-pressed juice of sugar cane, which must begin its fermentation process within a day or it will spoil like milk. Therefore, rhum must be produced as close to the source as possible and so maintains a distinct taste of its local agricultural provenance, or terroir, if you will. (The “h” is the French spelling of “rum” and “agricole”  means “agricultural”.)

As such, rhum agricole production is limited to only a few places in the world where sugar cane grows. Historically, this has meant the French West Indies, mainly Guadeloupe and Martinique, which pivoted to spirits production when Europe’s embrace of less-expensive beet sugar crashed their economies. You will also find it in other French Overseas Territories such as Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, though precious few of those bottles are yet seen in the US.

So-called New World (in this case, non-European colonial) rhum agricole distilleries range from Panama to Mexico and as far afield as Thailand and Australia. Stateside, there is Hawaii’s Ko Hana; St George, in Alameda, California, tried to make rhum for a while, but the process was not cost-effective. A few producers — such as Cardinal Spirits in Indiana, with its Tiki Rum — prefer to use a combination of sugar sources and production methods that come close in their flavour profiles.

To complicate things further, not all fresh sugar-cane spirits are considered rhum agricole in the market.

Brazilian cachaça, for instance, predates French rhum agricole by a few hundred years; although it follows the same process, producers such as Avuà would prefer to keep cachaça as its own designation, and that importers and retailers stock and label it as such. Meanwhile, Haitian clairin, such as Clairin Vaval, distinguishes itself from other rhums by using only wild yeasts for fermentation and pot stills for distillation. Think of it as tequila versus mezcal, or Scotch whisky versus Canadian whiskey versus bourbon: Different rules and production methods but related at their core.

 

Other rhum facts to know:

• Martinique rhum has its own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) quality designation like French wine and is produced under strict guidelines. It is produced only on Creole stills — single-column copper stills — not pot stills as with other fresh cane juice rhums, and it uses an industrial yeast.

• Aged rhums are often labelled like French brandy with non-specific age statements such as VS, VSOP and XO.

• Rum lovers like rhum agricole for its unique flavour, and for aromatics often described as earthy, vegetal, grassy and herbal; some also have an overlying fruitiness that resembles banana, pineapple, mango and papaya. Not only are these flavour profiles attributed to using fresh cane juice instead of molasses, they are also the result of a chemical reaction, esterification, which occurs during the fermentation process when carboxylic acid and alcohol are combined. Before distillation, rhum juice is left to ferment for up to 48 hours, which draws out these naturally occurring, ester-y funk notes.

• Unlike molasses or other sugar-based rums, no additional sweetening agents or colouring can be added to rhum agricole, AOC or otherwise. Therefore, rhum is dependably low in residual sugar, with perhaps only as much as 5mg per 750ml bottle.

 

With the acquisition of Rhumantilles’ Trois Rivières, La Mauny and Duquesne pending, Campari was not available for comment. According to a statement, targeted net sales among the three brands for 2018 were an estimated €24 million (RM110.79 million); France is to be the first targeted market. As mixology continues to evolve, and certain rums come to be viewed as premium products, it seems that a rhum revolution could break out stateside. Here are a few to try as more than just a dash in your mai tai. — Bloomberg

 

 

Martinique rhum agricole bottle buying guide

BECAUSE of rhum’s distinctive vegetal characteristics, untrained sippers might feel challenged, said Acadia Cutschell, a spirits consultant, rum/rhum educator and co-founder of Women Who Tiki. But she believes there truly is a rhum out there for every palate and recommends these AOC bottlings in order of funkiness from easily approachable to the more feral.

 

Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc

This ia a great place to start any rhum journey, with friendly tropical fruitiness, vanilla and subtle florals, perfect for cocktails. 50% alcohol by volume (ABV); US$38 (RM160.74)

 

HSE Rhum Agricole Blanc

Here is another entry-level rhum that one could use as a fine starting-off point or as a base for a number of cocktails that call for light rum. It is only slightly more herbaceous than the Neisson, with savoury, almost umami flavours of mushroom or olive, but with a hint of coconut and citrus. 40% ABV; US$25

 

La Favorite Ambré

This lightly golden spirit is a blend of rhums aged one to two years in ex-bourbon barrels. A less tropical offering, it tastes of orchard fruits (apple and pear), with cocoa, pepper and a balanced citrus peel finish. 50% ABV; US$40 per litre

 

Rhum Clément Cuvée Homère

The rhum is an homage to Homère Clément, who in 1887 purchased the Domaine de l’Acajou Estate where it is produced and for which the brand is named. It is a blend of what the distillery considers its best rhums, which are aged in either re-charred ex-bourbon casks or new French limousine oak. It was brought to the US as a rhum for whiskey drinkers — soft, caramelly and toffee-like. 44% ABV; US$105

 

Trois Riviéres Cuvée de l’Ocean

Possibly soon to be owned by Campari, it is made from sugar cane planted and harvested close to the Atlantic Ocean. The effect is indeed a little salty but with tangy pineapple, mango and peach notes, as well as some peppery qualities. 42% ABV; US$35

 

Duquesne Rhum Blanc

This is another brand that stands to be part of the Campari deal; it is one of the grassier, more farmyard-style offerings out there. However, it is also an extremely popular well rhum favoured for clean, non-sugary properties as a main base for drinks such as the classic Ti’ Punch or in tropical cocktails, such as Hurricane variations, that require more than one type of r(h)um. 50% ABV; US$33

 

Rhum JM Vieux Agricole VSOP

This bottling is meant to appeal to cognac or whiskey drinkers but there is a distinct je ne sais rhum character to it. It is matured a minimum of four years in re-charred ex-Buffalo Trace bourbon oak barrels. Expect a rich cocoa and brown sugar quality set off by citrus peel but also heavy sage, thyme and tarragon herbaceousness with a hint of that rubbery Band-Aid type smell — in a good way reminiscent of certain peaty whiskies. 45% ABV; US$50

If this bottle appeals, look out for vintage expressions from Rhum JM, including a 2006 bottling (meaning that all cane within was harvested and distilled in 2006) that sells from US$150.