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Rhum Agricole is a specific category of rhum made from cane juice principally in the French territories of the Caribbean. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum produced today is rhum made from molasses. The other 1 percent is Rhum Agricole.
The regulations around Rhum agricole
Martinique is the only geographic region in the world to have an AOC (protected appellation) in the rum industry.
Similar to the AOC for champagne or armagnac, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for Martinique Rhum Agricole is a standard of production, ageing and labelling. The AOC Rhums of Martinique are made strictly from 12 varieties of fresh-pressed sugarcane juice from four regions, and according to law, fermentation must begin within 24 hours of harvest.
Both the words “Martinique” and “Rhum Agricole” must be written on the label.
The categories are as follows:
* Rhum Blanc Martinique (8 weeks ageing, no requirement for oak, if in a cask no more than 3 months);
* Rhum Martinique Elevé sous bois (at least twelve months oak ageing);
* Rhum Martinique Ambré (at least 18 months oak-ageing);
* Rhum Martinique Vieux (at least 3 years ageing, in small 650 liter oak casks) + within the Rhum Martinique Vieux, the categories are : VO, VSOP and XO apply, respectively 3, 4 and 6 years of oak ageing.
The geography of Rhum agricole
Rhum Agricole is made principally in the French territories of the Caribbean that is Martinique and Guadeloupe as well as French Guyana and the Island of Reunion. The only non French territory which is allowed to state the wording on its label is Madeira. Mauritius in the southwest Indian Ocean also produces this category but they are not allowed to state it on their label. In Haiti, some rums made of cane juice may be considered as Rhums Agricoles by some experts but they are not allowed to state it on their labels.
How is Rhum agricole made?
The ingredients aka the base material of Rhum agricole
Rhum agricole is made from vin de canne, or sugarcane wine, or in other words, fermented freshly made sugar cane juice.
The fermentation of Rhum agricole
There is enough sugar content in the juice to not need extra step of conversion.
Ferments tend to be short, giving a wash of 4,5 to 9 % abv.
The distillation of Rhum agricole
The spirit is distilled to about 70 percent alcohol, a lesser degree than most molasses-based rums, allowing the rhum to retain more of the original flavor of the full cane juice.The distillation process is very similar to the distillation of Armagnac’s. This is because of Homère Clément who grew up on the island and studied in France in the 1870s. When he returned to Martinique, he tried to copy the distillation’s techniques used in the region he liked the alcohol from. Still today, the rhum is distilled in a Créole single-column copper still, shaped after the classic Armagnac still.
The styles of Rhum agricole
The lighter rhums agricole are rested for up to six months before being bottled as rhum blanc. They’re often used in the popular cocktail known as petit punch (‘ti punch) mixed with lime and cane syrup.
Other more mature rhums have been aged in oak barrels for years (French and American oak).
Two ageing styles:
* ambre/ paille : min 18 month in casks
* vieux : minimum of three years in casks. Some of these exceptional spirits are bottled as vintages.
The use of cane juice and the method of distillation give a significantly specific style of spirit. Rhum Agricole is pungent and vegetal when young, with aromas of cane, green lac, apple, grass, unripe banana, anise and violet, slightly oily texture.
The world is not missing panoramic books about rum!
I’ve been using information from the EU, as weel as the Certified Specialist of Spirits Workbook by the Society of Wine Educators, as well as Wikipedia.
I’ve been lucky to have Pascal Kählin renown Rum expert and also behind the wonderful JB Labat in Zürich to have a look at the text. Thanks to him some terrible mistakes have been corrected. Should you find others, first, I’d love hearing from you and second they are just mine. A propos, Pascal Kählin just published a new book that is available in English, German and French. Here are the references: Rhum Ron Rum by Pascal Kählin more info here.
I’ve also been using this article from 2012 in the LA Times