Defining Rhum Agricole
Written by Luis Ayala, Founder of Rum Central, Got Rum? magazine & The Rum University; Originally published in Got Rum? magazine (November 2016)
If you walk into the average North American or European bar and ask a dozen patrons what a “Rhum Agricole” is, then you are likely to receive just as many different answers.
I have heard all of these:
- I don’t know;
- Just another fancy name for rum;
- Refers to any rum made in the French West Indies;
- A form of rum or aguardiente like the Brazilian Cachaca, but made in the French West Indies;
- Refers to any rum made in Martinique;
- Rum made anywhere, but only from sugarcane juice, not molasses or crystalized sugar;
- Rum made exclusively from hand-cut sugarcane;
- Rum distilled using only small pot stills;
- Rum that is naturally fermented (no yeast is added to the cane juice by the producer);
- Or a rum that tastes more like whisky than traditional rum.
The diversity in answers is due, in great part, to the particular focus that each Rhum Agricole producer gives to its brand to make their product stand out among the competition; so what really makes this spirit unique?
What Makes an Authentic Rhum Agricole?
When discussing Rhum Agricole, it is important to differentiate between where and how it is made.
Some distillates have protected or restricted denominations (think Cognac, Tequila, Cachaca, or Bourbon) meaning they must be produced and/or aged in certain countries or regions to be recognized by that distinction— this is also the case with Rhum Agricole.
There is a Protected Designation of Origin— or in French, an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)— for this style of spirit. It must be made in Martinique, an island and French overseas region located in the Caribbean. Of course, it’s not enough that it comes from this locale alone; in order to be recognized authentically as an AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole, the rhum must meet the following criteria:
Rhum Agricole must be made from sugarcane cultivated in one of the 23 approved municipalities in Martinique.
Sugarcane cultivation methods are clearly defined to keep yields low. This discourages aggressive fertilization practices that would otherwise increase yields, but unsustainably.
There are also strict processing requirements. The cane juice— which must be extracted using cold-pressing methods only— must have a Brix level above 14 and a pH above 4.7.
Fermentation can be spontaneous or achieved through pitching a concentrated yeast solution; however, it must be conducted in batches (discontinuous) and carried out in open containers (without CO2 capture) in a capacity no larger than 50K liters (or 13,208 gallons). Fermentation also cannot exceed 72 hours.
To make Rhum Agricole according to AOC Martinique standards, it must be distilled using continuous distillation columns with a diameter of between 0.7 and 2 meters (or 27 and 78 inches). The column in question must have:
- No fewer than 15 stripping plates (copper or stainless steel);
- Between 5 and 9 rectifying copper plates;
- And at least one water-cooled condenser for reflux.
Rhum Agricole produced according to the above definition is then assigned an additional classification dependent on how it is aged:
- “Blanc” (or “White”) refers to rhum that has been “resting” for no more than 3 months since its distillation;
- “Elevé Sous Bois” means “Oak Aged,” and refers to rhum aged in oak barrels in the same production area where it was distilled for at least 12 uninterrupted months. The congener level of this style (referring to the volatile components in the rhum, excluding ethanol and methanol) must be higher than 250 mg per 100 mL of anhydrous alcohol (pure alcohol).
- “Vieux” (or “Aged”) refers to rhum aged in oak barrels in the same production area where it was distilled for at least 36 uninterrupted months. The congener level (again, referring to the volatile components in the rhum, excluding ethanol and methanol) must be higher than 325 mg per 100 mL of anhydrous alcohol.
Next time someone comes up to you in a bar and asks for a definition of Rhum Agricole, you should be able to give them an earful! As a bonus, there’s a cocktail recipe you can suggest that utilizes Rhum Agricole as its signature ingredient:
The Ti’ Punch, an abbreviation for Petit Ponch or “small punch,” is a very popular cocktail in the French West Indies where it is made using the locally-produced Rhum Agricole. Although many variations of the drink exist, there is a basic recipe you can start with before adding other fresh fruits or syrups.
- 2 oz Rhum Agricole, Blanc (White) or Vieux (Aged)
- 1 splash of sugarcane syrup
- 1 lime wedge
- Lime peel (about one-fourth of the outer skin of the lime)
Add the Rhum Agricole to a rocks glass and add a splash of the sugarcane syrup. Squeeze and add the lime wedge, stir gently, then add ice. Garnish with the lime peel. Enjoy!
Interested in advancing your knowledge of distilling and the spirits industry? Check out Moonshine University’s upcoming courses to learn from the best in the business.
Written by Luis Ayala, Founder of Rum Central, Got Rum? magazine & The Rum University; Originally published in Got Rum? magazine (November 2016).