What Is Rhum Agricole?

This photo is the moment I was introduced to rhum agricole: poured liberally over a delicious rhum baba in a restaurant on the Rue St. Germain in Paris, France. And with the waiter leaving the bottle on the table for me to add more to my liking, to boot. I’ve been to Paris a number of times, and experience many memorable meals, but this stands out. It was this experience that made me interested in learning more about what exactly differentiates this rum from all others.


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It might go without saying, but rhum agricole (or rum agricole, either works) is a product that is only manufactured on the French territories in the Caribbean. And naturally, leave it to the French to make rum complicated. (I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, though — we’ll take a look at the mess that is calvados at some point in the future.)

Raw Materials

As we discussed when talking about generic rum, these spirits are produced in the Caribbean and came of age at a time when that region was the primary producer of sugar in the world. However, whereas most rum is made from the nearly useless waste product from the end of the sugar production process, the French had to be very, well, French and demand that their special rum be made from sugar cane juice — basically just crushed and pressed sugar cane (literally the first thing that is extracted). Which means that this rhum isn’t a by-product of sugar production — this is the product of sugar production.

I joke about it, but there’s actually a solid historical reason for this. When French rum distillation really started to take off, it was around 1811 — which coincides with when mainland France switched primarily from Caribbean sugar cane to locally sourced beets for their source of raw sugar. The reason wasn’t just the lower shipping costs, but also the lower risk — this was the height of Napoleonic France, and getting anything out of the British controlled Caribbean (mortal enemy of France) was a costly and risky endeavor. With no ability to refine and export their sugar, the French colonies started directly turning their sugar cane into the much more stable and exportable rum, which kept the local sugar farms in business. France wanted to encourage this practice and created the “rhum agricole” designation as a result — “agricole” literally means “agricultural”, as in farm.

France gets even more specific with the Martinique AOC requirements. in this special designation of rhum agricole, all of the sugar cane must come from the island of Martinique, and must be harvested between January 1st and August 31st of a single growing season.

Fermentation

Once the sugary liquid has been created, modern distillers will commonly use specific strains of cultured yeast to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that they can then distill.

There aren’t really a lot of tricks here — the French process doesn’t seem to prize the same funky esterification that you see in a Jamaican rum for example. That’s not to say that things like bacterial growth and the use of dunder and muck is impossible — just that it isn’t as common as it is with other varieties.

Again, the Martinique AOC is a bit special. Normally, you might expect as high as a 10% ABV alcohol content from fermentation, but for this specific label you only get a maximum of five days for the fermentation to take place, and it can’t exceed 7.5% ABV. The idea behind restricting the alcohol content is typically to allow for other flavors besides alcohol to come through in the final spirit, resulting in a more characterful and flavorful experience.

Distillation

For the general rhum agricole production, distillation doesn’t have a whole lot of requirements. It can be either a pot or a column still, and you can run it through as many times as you like as long as you never exceed the European Union maximum distillation strength of 96% ABV. (Any higher and it’s technically “neutral spirit” like vodka.)

You may have guessed that Martinique AOC production would once again have some specific requirements, and again you would be right. In this case, the law requires a distillation strength between 65% ABV and 75% ABV, roughly in line with other spirits like Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados. Typically you’ll see a column still used, and if so there’s a hard maximum of 20 plates in the still (again, similar to the 17 plate maximum for Armagnac and 28 plate maximum for Clavados Domfrontais). And just like the harvest process, this can only take place between January 2nd and September 5th.


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Maturation and Post Production

The last step here is really where I start to get annoyed with France. Because every damn spirit has its own definition for age statements, and almost none of them line up.

In the case of rhum agricole, there’s two paths that you can take. In all of these cases, though, the minimum bottling strength is 37.5% ABV as per EU law, and up to 20 grams per litre of sugar can be added to improve the texture.

For a Blanc rum, the spirit rests in an oak container for about 6 weeks to mellow out. The rum is still colorless when it leaves the barrel (or is made so) and then bottled.

Older rums are called “vieux” or “old” rums, and can be called a number of things depending on how long they have been aging. Here’s a handy chart of what means what:

3 YearsVieux
VO
4 YearsVSOP
Vieux Reserve Speciale
Vieux Cuvee Speciale
Tres Vieux
6 YearsExtra Vieux
Vieux Grande Reserve
Hors D’Age
Vintage

I’ll note here, and for future articles, that the only point of sanity in all of French age statements seems to be that VSOP always means a minimum of four years in a barrel.

Eventually, we’ll talk about calvados here on the site… and you can be as confused as I am about the different naming conventions. But, for now, we’ll leave it here at rhum agricole. It’s a spirit that originates in the Napoleonic age, designed to help French farmers in the Caribbean stay afloat by making delicious rum. I highly suggest you give it a try, and you can find all of our reviews of it right here!


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