If you’re a regular spirits or cocktail consumer, then you’ve probably seen the term “rhum agricole” in print at some point, whether it’s on a menu or a recipe on a cocktail blog. The term is one you’re increasingly likely to encounter in the wild, in fact, but that doesn’t stop many American drinkers—even those who are geeks about brown spirits such as bourbon or scotch—from having a relative lack of conception of just what “agricole” implies. If rum as a whole tends to be our most misunderstood spirit, then rhum agricole is even more arcane to the average consumer, and likely to cause confusion. So let’s indulge in a quick refresher.
Rhum agricole primarily differs from the majority of rum in the American marketplace by being distilled from a slightly different product. Whereas the vast majority of rum produced throughout the Caribbean and Central America, in countries such as Barbados, Panama, Nicaragua or Cuba is fermented and distilled from molasses—the by-product of sugar production—rhum agricole is instead produced with pure sugar cane juice, the base product that eventually becomes BOTH sugar and molasses. In other words, it’s basically rum that results from an earlier state of sugar cane production, and this impacts the eventual flavor of rhum agricole. Compared with rums made from molasses, typical agricole offerings retain more of the terroir of where they come from and the plant-like flavors of the sugar cane itself—they are grassier, more herbaceous, and are often described as significantly more “funky,” with notes that remind one of the land from which they are derived.
Rhum agricole, as a style, is traditionally associated with the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and the best-known rhum agricoles in the world hail from Martinique. Of these, the island’s Rhum Clément is arguably the best known producer of agricole in the world, so it serves as an obvious starting point for exploring the style. Today, we have three sought-after Rhum Clément bottles to sample: Clément Canne Bleue, V.S.O.P. Rhum and the 10 Year Grand Reserve. Let’s see how they differ from some of the other classic Caribbean rums.
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Rhum Clément’s flagship white rum is the green-labeled Premiere Canne, but they also produce this stronger, more expensive blue label variant, which also distinguishes itself by zeroing in even more on the concept of sugar cane terroir, being made with a single sugar cane varietal (blue sugar cane). At 50% ABV, this is a bracing white rum that is clearly meant for cocktail uses, especially the classic ‘Ti Punch, essentially the French-speaking Caribbean’s version of the ubiquitous daiquiri.
On the nose, Canne Bleue is like few things I’ve ever smelled before. You certainly wouldn’t be mistaking this for standard, molasses-based rum, as its funky, mustier profile is a dead giveaway that something here is quite different. Light notes of grass and hints of what are reminiscent of cucumber are found on the edges, while the backbone is dominated by strong earthy/funky notes. On the palate, it has an earthiness that is not unlike mushrooms, supported by minty herbal notes, moderate levels of pineapple sweetness and dry herb/spice notes of bay leaf and pepper. The finish is still fairly dry, when all is said and done. For a white rum, this is extremely complex and unusual, but most drinkers likely would find cocktail applications for it, rather than drinking it neat—you can be certain that the distinctive varietal characteristics of Canne Bleue would be quite easy to spot shining through in a ‘Ti Punch or daiquiri.
This rhum started what would be a trend in this tasting, establishing a high point for the “funky/earthy” characteristics of the brand, which are increasingly smoothed away by extended barrel aging in the V.S.O.P. and Grand Reserve. For this reason, rhum agricole is unique among classic “base spirits” in the sense that many of the agricole purists think of the unaged white rhum as being the most “pure” and desirable of the expressions, rather than the well-aged products. If you’re chasing after that rhum terroir, it peaks before any wood aging happens. Conversely, as the rhums age, they take on more characteristics that are identifiable with rum made from molasses, or even American wood-aged spirits such as bourbon.
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Whereas the unaged, 100-proof Canne Bleue is meant to be a potent, funky cocktail mixer, the considerably more reserved Clément V.S.O.P. is a much gentler creature. This rhum has been aged “a minimum of four years” in a combination of French Limousin oak and re-charred American bourbon barrels, and combined with the lower proof this serves to mellow out the product and tamp down its rough edges. The result is a middle-ground profile between the wildness of the unaged rhum and the richness of the 10 Year Grand Reserve, which has both cocktail and neat drinking applications.
On the nose, the V.S.O.P. is notable for its toasty nuttiness, presenting clear notes of almond, banana and light oakiness. There are hints of caramel here, but it’s not nearly as focused on that dimension of caramelized sugar as many aged molasses rums in the same relative age bracket. Rather, it retains some of the funk and undercurrent of mushroom earthiness on the palate, which is met with pleasant fruit notes of red berries, nutmeg spice and something that reminds me quite a bit of holiday wassail. Much of the sting of the proof and vegetal notes has been removed in the course of the four years of aging, leaving a product that is more easily identifiable as Caribbean rum, but simultaneously less distinctive.
All in all, the V.S.O.P. forms a perfect bridge between styles. It drinks very easily neat, and is “complex enough” to get by, while still retaining some of its agricole characteristics. It seems like something that would function equally well in a classic rum cocktail or in a glass with ice for an uncomplicated neat pour. You might criticize it by calling it a “jack of all, master of none” kind of rhum, but it would also be a perfect entry point into rhum agricole for most drinkers.
ABV: 44% (88 proof)
As the name would no doubt imply, Clément Grand Reserve is aged for a minimum of 10 years, which is a long time indeed for any agricole, which are better known for unaged or short-aged rhums. The trend begun by the Canne Bleue ends here—these three rhums are progressively less funk and earth-forward as they continue to age, offering up a clear illustration of how barrels are capable of slowly transforming spirits over time. In the case of the 10 Year, by the time we reach Grand Reserve, we’re left with something that has far fewer classic “agricole” characteristics, but some very delicious new flavors in their place.
Unsurprisingly, the Grand Reserve offers up much more deeply caramelized impressions, and is significantly more oak forward as well, taking on a profile that is not unlike an American single malt whiskey. Brown sugar richness and a decent amount of residual sugar make this a more decadent dram, as does the silkier texture. Flavors morph from brown sugar, vanilla and dessert banana into darker fruit, with notes of stewed prunes and plum, along with black cherry. Neat drinking seems like the obvious application, and although agricole purists might cite it as not being “funky enough,” it makes for a very pleasant dram all on its own.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.