I’m a huge fan of Martinique rum agricole. It’s definitely a niche appellation of rum, but I’ve yet to find a bottle I’d describe as anything other than absolutely amazing. I started down this path with Rhum JM’s less expensive version (the VSOP), which has become a bottle I keep perpetually stocked on my shelf. So when approaching our 400th review, I knew I wanted to use this opportunity to answer the question: if the VSOP is what you get after four years, what happens after fifteen?
Jean-Baptiste Labat was a Dominican friar born in Paris, who traveled to Martinique as a missionary in 1694. Over the next few decades, he would have an outsized impact on the development of the French Caribbean, helping with the proliferation of sugar production and settling on his own sugar-producing estate in the northern end of Martinique. That plantation was purchased in 1790 by Antoine Leroux-Préville and then further sold in 1845 to a local sugar businessman named Jean-Marie Martin.
Martin had recognized the quality of the sugar produced at this plantation and decided that they should switch from trying to mass produce raw sugar and instead focus on producing sugar cane for use in French agricultural rum. He built a distillery on the plantation and to this day, his initials (JM) have been branded on every barrel of rum produced at that location.
The operation would expand in 1914 when Gustave Crassous de Médeuil, owner of the neighboring plantation, purchased JM’s plot and added it to their own. This created a sugar producing plantation of nearly 1,000 acres that feeds the small distillery.
While the plantation remains owned by the family of Crassous de Médeuil, the trademark for Rhum J.M. was sold in 2002 to Group Bernard Hayot, a Martinique-based trade group who markets and sells the brand of rum worldwide.
- Learn More: What Is Rhum Agricole?
This is technically a Rhum Agricole Martinique AOC, which has probably the most restrictive requirements of any rum spirit in the Caribbean.
As a rhum agricole, this spirit is required to start from freshly pressed sugar cane juice — not the usual backstrap molasses that you see with most cheap Caribbean rums. All of the sugar cane for their products is produced on-site, including the land originally cultivated by Jean-Baptiste Labat. And because of the added requirements of being a Martinique AOC labeled spirit, all of the sugar cane juice must be cultivated in a single growing season.
Once cultivated and crushed into a juice, the sugar is added to some water and fermented for no more than five days to an alcohol content of 7.5% ABV. (The idea here is that the lower-than-usual alcohol content will allow more flavorful rum to be produced in the end.)
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled on-site in a column still, resulting in a spirit of between 65% and 75% ABV in alcohol content. That newly made spirit is proofed down with volcanic mineral water from the nearby volcano and placed into barrels to age.
For this vintage expression, the rum is aged in re-charred American bourbon barrels (previously used barrels that are refurbished with a new layer of char on the inside) where it sits for a period of fifteen years. The resulting spirit is bottled at cask strength, and 100% of the spirit in the bottle comes from the year listed on the label (2003 in this instance).
Something that sets this bottle apart from the rest of the line is the package it comes in. This is the top of the line for Rhum JM and they really want to highlight that fact, shipping the bottles in a wood and cardboard case. It really does look quite striking, and sets the tone for what you’re about to enjoy.
The bottle itself looks like a traditional, antique spirits bottle — specifically, something you’d expect from a Scottish distillery. And I’m totally here for it. Most rum on the market these days is intended to be fun and quirky, but this ancient and storied expression of a very specific kind of rum has earned the right to be a little more stoic.
The base is a big, fat cylinder that rounds quickly at the shoulder to a medium length neck with a small bulge in the middle for better handling. The glass is dark and almost opaque with a deep green color — I’m just barely able to see inside the bottle — and it’s all capped off with a plastic and cork stopper.
On the standard edition bottles, the label is paper with the “Rhum JM” name in big red letters, but here the label is actually made out of saddle leather. The important facts are all stamped into that leather, including the typical illustration of the old distillery. It’s a nice touch that once again sets this bottle apart and conveys the time and attention that went into this product.
As for the size, the label is large… and normally I’d complain about that, since such a huge label would prevent you from seeing the spirit inside the bottle. But the dark green glass used here already means there really isn’t much to see.
This definitely looks like a bottle you’d want to show off.
There’s a rich and heavy fruit aroma coming off the glass here, almost like a very sweet fruitcake — I’m getting some raisins, apricots, deep brown sugar, plums, figs, and a touch of vanilla for good measure. As the liquid settles, there’s a bit of the herbaceous raw sugar cane that peeks through, but it is significantly buried under everything else. It’s less of a tropical assortment than we saw in the VSOP and more of the traditional rancio profile.
As mentioned earlier, they bottle this release at barrel proof. While that’s an generally a interesting thing to experience, I feel like taking this neat might not be the ideal preparation because of that. There’s an almost immediate significant alcohol burn on the palate that can be a bit unpleasant, but with repeated trips to the glass it does calm down.
From there, the flavors really kick into high gear and the charred oak makes a huge splash with a deep and rich dark chocolate and toffee note right up front, which might be a bit overpowering for some. As it mellows out, you can see more of the tropical fruit that is typical of a French rum — some mango, pineapple, a splash of orange citrus, and the banana specifically lingers long into the finish.
When taken neat, the alcohol content and the rich oak flavor was a bit overpowering. It covered up the other components and didn’t really give them any room to breathe. Luckily, that’s something that the addition of a bit of ice helps, toning down the darker characteristics — and in this case, I think it works nicely.
I’m still getting that dark and rich component from the oak, but it isn’t quite as loud as before. Instead, the fruit flavors get more of the spotlight, with the pineapple and banana specifically coming through strong. To be fair, it doesn’t have quite the same level of flavor saturation as before — it’s a little more towards the watery end of the spectrum at this point.
Fizz (Dark and Stormy)
I realize that it probably seems like sacrilege to make a rum of this caliber into a cocktail, but that’s the review rules here at Thirty-One Whiskey. And to be honest, I’m so glad I made this drink.
What I really appreciate here is that the darker and richer components from the barrel aging process are adding not only a good balance with the ginger beer, but really putting the “dark” into this Dark and Stormy. It’s hitting a lot of the same notes that I would expect from a dark rum, but bringing along more of the fruity components than usual on the finish (especially with the banana clearly shining through at the end). This is a much better example of a good tropical cocktail than usual, and I’m a fan.
I appreciate the time and attention that went into this bottle. This is something that was sitting in a barrel while I was still in high school, and I’m absolutely happy to pay for that little bit of nostalgia.
That said, I actually think I prefer the VSOP expression here. There’s absolutely a depth and a richness to this rum — but that makes it surprisingly difficult to sip neat while also seeming like a waste on the rocks. You could certainly start using it as a bourbon substitute and get some funky and interesting old fashioned cocktails out of it, but that’s a very niche application.
In the end, I feel like I got my money’s worth out of this bottle… but at this price point, I’m not sure it’s something I could necessarily recommend to others. This is a very particular flavor profile for a rum, something you should probably try before you buy if possible.
|Rhum JM 15 Year Old Vintage 2003|
Produced By: Rhum JMProduction Location: Martinique, France
Classification: Agricole Rum
Special Type: Martinique AOC
Aging: Tres Vieux
Proof: 41.8% ABV
Price: $259.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A deep, rich, and fruity French Caribbean rum, but the flavor profile (or price tag) might not appeal to everyone.