What Is Rhum Agricole? A Quick Overview Of The Earthy Spirit

Informational

Bottle of Rhum and Glasses with Handcuffs on Dark Background

Rhum Agricole is a rum style that originated in the French Caribbean islands and has since spread further afield. Unlike molasses-based rums, made from sugarcane byproducts, it is created by fermenting and distilling sugarcane juice.

Rum Agricole is a particularly potent rum. It has upfront grassy notes and sometimes funky fruit notes. You can drink aged or unaged varieties equally well.

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The History of Rhum Agricole

History of Rhum Agricole - Image by Rhumagricole.ch

History of Rhum Agricole - Image by Rhumagricole.ch

Birth of Rhum Agricole

The sugar cane industry in Martinique took up 57% of the island's arable land in 1870. Sugar prices have fallen due to a worldwide surplus and the increasing popularity of beet sugar in Europe.

The falling prices made mortgages unaffordable for many debt-ridden distilleries, forcing most of them to declare bankruptcy. The survivor had to figure out how to make other products from sugarcane. The obvious choice was to make rum directly from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses, thereby avoiding the sugar production process. 

Rhum agricole was created.

Production on a Large Scale

In the early 20th century, rhum agricole took off when it was used for rum rations for troops in Europe during World War I. As key markets were closed to cognac during that war, the French turned to rhum agricole to fill the void.

There were more than 150 rhum agricole producers in 1950, but there are now only 11 with AOC designation. While not all rhum agricole producers export to the United States, many fantastic rhums do, including Clement, Rhum J.M., La Favorite, Neisson, and St. James.

AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole

Rhum in Distillation Columns

When discussing Rhum Agricole, it is important to note how and where it is produced. Some distillates have protected or restricted designations (like Cognac, Tequila, Cachaca, or Bourbon), which means they must be produced and/or aged in specific countries or regions to be recognized by that distinction; Rhum Agricole is no exception.

The rhum agricole produced in Martinique have a Protected Designation of Origin and an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. It should be made in this Caribbean island and French overseas territory. Of course, just being from this region is not enough; to be recognized authentically as an AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole, it must also meet the following criteria:

  • Geography

To be called Rhum Agricole, rum must be made from sugarcane grown in one of Martinique's 23 municipalities.

  • Agriculture

To maintain low yields, sugar cane cultivation methods are clearly defined. This discourages aggressive fertilization practices that would otherwise increase yields but in an unsustainable manner.

  • Sugarcane Production

In addition, there are strict processing requirements. The cane juice must be extracted using only cold-pressing methods, with a Brix level of at least 14 and a pH greater than 4.7.

  • Fermentation

Fermentation can occur spontaneously or by pitching a concentrated yeast solution. However, it must be done in batches and open containers with a capacity of no more than 50K liters (or 13,208 gallons). Fermentation cannot last longer than 72 hours.

  • Distillation

According to AOC Martinique standards, rhum agricole must be distilled using continuous distillation columns with diameters ranging from 0.7 to 2 meters. The column must include at least 15 stripping plates (copper or stainless steel), 5 to 9 rectifying copper plates, and one water-cooled condenser for reflux.

Taste Profile

Rhum Agricole in shot glass

Most rums have only one note on the palate, like rum and cola. Many rums make you feel dizzy, especially the cheaper, mass-produced ones. The flavor of Rhum Agricole is centered on a fresh, complex taste. In fact, many critics regard it as the ultimate expression of rum. To put it simply, it's smooth but dynamic.

You can describe its flavor profile as herbal or vegetal. This flavor is derived from sugar cane, a tall, leafy plant. A subtle, grass-like scent is produced when fresh cuts of this plant are pressed. The fresh scent of grass is reminiscent of freshly cut lawns on hot summer days.

The sugar cane juice is boiled down in molasses-based rum, causing it to caramelize and emit butterscotch notes. These flavors emerge after aging in barrels for a few years.

Different Types Of Rhum Agricole

1. "Elevé Sous Bois" or Oak Aged

    "Elevé Sous Bois" refers to rhum aged for at least 12 months in oak barrels in the same production area where it was distilled.

    To be considered a rhum agricole, the congener level (the volatile components of the rhum excluding ethanol and methanol) must be greater than 250 mg per 100 mL of anhydrous alcohol (pure alcohol).

    2. Rhum Vieux or Old Rhum Agricole

      "Vieux" (or "Aged") rhum is rhum that has been aged in oak barrels in the same production area where it was distilled for at least 36 months. Congener levels must be greater than 325 mg per 100 mL of anhydrous alcohol.

      3. Rhum Agricole Blanc or Unaged Rhum Agricole

        Rhum Blanc has been resting for no more than 3 months after distillation. It is typically full-bodied, fiery, and bottled at 100 proof. It is clear with a strong grassy, peppery flavor profile that reflects its fresh cane origin.

        These distinctively flavored rum spirits are made with powdered sugar, meringue, and sweet cream. They are used primarily as mixers in tiki or exotic cocktails but blend well with fruit flavors.

        A man mixing a cocktail

        Rum agricole has taken a long time to earn its rightful place in the rum world because it is hard to mix with other ingredients. It can be hard to find ingredients that match up with this rum's intense flavor.

        When you're in doubt, go with a classic. Rhum Agricole complements fruity, multi-rum concoctions and more straightforward, old-fashioned cocktails.

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        Ti Punch

        Ti Punch

        The Ti' Punch is a classic Caribbean cocktail made with Rhum Agricole, lime peel, a touch of cane syrup, and ice cubes. It's called the Petit Punch because it's so easy to make, but don't let its simplicity fool you—this drink is delicious!

        Get the recipe here.

        Broken Corazon Club

        Broken Corazon Club

        The Broken Corazon Club—a blend of rum, fruit juices, and Fernet—is another option. To make this drink, combine pineapple juice, lime juice, Fernet, and grenadine with your Rhum Agricole. The result is a vibrant tropical mash-up of flavors.

        Get the recipe here.

        Pricky Pear

        Pricky Pear

        To make the Hearts & Mind cocktail, also known as the Prickly Pear, take some lemon juice, prickly pear puree, rich simple syrup, and Fernet. Combine them with Rhum Agricole and add sparkling wine. Shake well and strain into a flute glass.

        When made correctly, your drink will have a lovely scarlet hue and taste fruity and tangy. This drink is ideal for beginners, as you can taste the rum and get lighter tropical notes.

        Get the recipe here.

        Daiquiri D'ananas

        Daiquiri D'ananas

        Daiquiri D'ananas doesn't have a strong pineapple flavor. Still, the liqueur blends well with the grassy agricole and the nutty orgeat, adding a gentle tropical sweetness that balances the recipe perfectly.

        Get the recipe here.

        Cachaca Vs. Rhum Agricole

        Cachaça and agricole rhum are similar in many ways, but there are a few differences between the two. For instance, many artisanal cachaças are distilled in a pot still, while agricole is typically distilled in a column still.

        Industrial cachaça is made from sugarcane rather than molasses and uses massive column stills. It also must be distilled to a minimum of 54% ABV, whereas agricole is distilled to a minimum of 65-75% ABV and bottled to a minimum of 38% to 48% ABV, though the minimum in the United States is 40% ABV.

        Agricole in US Market

        Backlit Alcohol Bottles

        Spiribam Brand Ambassador Antoine Nixon said in an interview with Rumporter, "The explosion of Mezcal and other lesser-known agave spirits like Bacanora and Sotol has opened a lot of eyes to complex white or clear spirits. That complexity is the foundation upon which agricole rum is built. That drives people in the French Caribbean—that passion for rum."

        The Tiki renaissance has helped put the fun back into rum, which means consumers can trust it more now. When asked about what's holding agricole back in the US market, she noted distribution is one of the most significant barriers to Rhum Agricole growth in the United States.

        She explained, "Most spirit producers are small businesses, and because of bottle size laws in the United States, many are unable to overcome the financial barrier of committing to another bottle size."

        A report by Persistence Market Research indicates that the popularity of rhum agricole can be attributed to a pervasive trend among aficionados for fresh and 'pure.' Rhum agricole is becoming an appealing option for those seeking an authentic and rustic feel.

        What is Rhum Agricole - FAQs

        What is the difference between rum and rhum agricole?

        Rhum agricole is a type of rum that is typically found in French-speaking Caribbean countries. It differs from other types of rum because it is distilled directly from pressed sugar cane rather than fermented juice or cane byproducts such as molasses.

        What does rhum agricole taste like?

        Rum enthusiasts love rhum agricole for its distinctive flavor, which is often described as earthy, grassy, and herbal; some also have an overpowering fruitiness reminiscent of banana, pineapple, mango, and papaya.

        What makes a rum agricole?

        Rhum agricole is closest to its plantation origins than any other rum. In contrast to most rum, which is distilled from fermented molasses, it is made from freshly pressed sugar cane juice. The cane is cut and crushed, then sluiced directly into fermenters before going through a column still.

        How do you drink rhum agricole?

        Mix lime and sugar in a glass first, add rhum and swizzle; then add ice.

        Is rhum agricole available in the US?

        Several Martinique rhum agricoles are available in the United States, including Rhum J.M., Rhum Neisson, Saint James, and Rhum Clément. All of those rums have deep historical roots in production.

        Conclusion

        Rhum Agricole is starting to become popular in the United States, especially among those who love both rum and fine spirits. The recent increase in popularity is likely a result of consumers' desire to diversify their spirit portfolio.

        Rhum Agricole is not for everyone. However, those who are willing to give it a try will not be disappointed with this earthy, vegetal drink.

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