Recent studying for my WSET Level 3 certification has significantly broadened my knowledge of spirits in the world. But without a doubt, the single country that gives me the most trouble in my studying is France. Their strange and often esoteric rules around labeling requirements make my head spin, and can vastly over-complicate something as simple as rum. After having cursed them out once more for not having a consistent definition for how many years a VS spirit is aged, I decided to see if all of that effort was worthwhile, specifically with this VSOP Martinique AOC rhum agricole.
Jean-Baptiste Labat was a Dominican friar born in Paris who traveled to Martinique as a missionary, arriving 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 ever since 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, creating a nearly 1,000 acre sugar producing plantation 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 alcohol content than usual will allow more flavorful rum to be produced in the end.)
After fermentation, the liquid is distilled in a column still on-site, 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 VSOP expression, the rum is first aged for three years in new American oak barrels. It is then extracted and re-barreled in a combination of previously used American bourbon barrels and French oak barrels for an additional year, bringing the total aging time to the legally mandated 4 year mark to be labeled as a VSOP.
This 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, round 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, just barely able to see inside the bottle, and it’s all capped off with a plastic and cork stopper.
The label is large… and normally I’d complain about that. Really, the only thing on the label is an illustrated image of the distillery and the Rhum JM trademark in big red letters, the rest of the legally required details printed on a smaller label below the first. And normally I’d be annoyed that 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.
It’s a good package for what is trying to be sold here, and I’m not mad having it on my shelf. It won’t be the star of your collection, but I’d put this just above Smith & Cross when it comes to displaying rums on my personal bar.
This smells like a delicious mix between a rum and a bourbon, taking the best components from each.
What I get first is the aromas of the raw materials: toffee and caramel from the sugar cane juice, and some distinctly tropical fruit notes of coconut, mango, lemon, lime, apricots, and orange. There’s also a bit of the vanilla from the barrel aging process in there, which adds something you usually don’t see with a rum, making for an interesting combination.
Taking a sip, those fruits are the first thing I get, specifically the coconut, mango, banana, and apricot. That’s followed by just a hint of pineapple as well as some good caramel and vanilla notes. It’s a sweet yet complex flavor profile that ends with a rather short finish, a bit of banana being the only note that holds on very long after the other flavors have dissipated.
Normally, in a fruity whiskey, the fruit flavors are what drop out of the running as soon as ice is added. But in a rum, those fruit flavors are much more solidly punched in and able to withstand that shock. The fruit all comes from the spirit itself and from the distillation process, instead of from anything added by the maturation (which is more likely to get scrubbed from the roster with some ice).
The result is that not much really changes in this case in terms of the profile — the only thing that does change is that it’s a little less intense of a flavor profile thanks to the added dilution. It’s still fruity and light, with possibly even a touch more of the pineapple on the finish than before.
Fizz (Dark and Stormy)
This definitely doesn’t live up to the “dark” part of this cocktail, but there’s a good flavor here. The fruit in the spirit balances very nicely with the bitter ginger beer, which makes for a light and delicious flavor overall. But there isn’t much complexity, unfortunately, compared to the darker rums.
There’s nothing wrong with this cocktail, exactly… it just isn’t matching up to its full potential. This is a waste of a great spirit, if I’m being honest.
The worst thing about all the bits and pieces of French wine and spirits requirements aren’t that they are arbitrary and nonsensical — it’s that the French are actually right. The requirements perfectly fit what they are trying to make, and enhance the flavor and experience of what you are getting.
In this case, what we have here is an absolutely delicious sipping rum that I will forever keep on my shelf and enjoy. The flavors in here are amazing, and well worth the extra headache to understand all the nuances of what the terms mean and why they apply. It really is the Champagne of rums.
Just don’t put it into a cocktail. It’s fine, but really that’s like using Tattinger for a mimosa.
|Rhum JM Rum Vieux VSOP
Produced By: Rhum JMProduction Location: Martinique, France
Classification: Agricole Rum
Special Type: Martinique AOC
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $59.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
So good that we can’t even be annoyed by this most heavily regulated and legally restrictive category of rum — it’s worth every requirement if this is the result.