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"Rhum Agricole" Defined

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Capn Jimbo
Rum Evangelisti and Compleat Idiot

Joined: 11 Dec 2006
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Location: Paradise: Fort Lauderdale of course...

PostPosted: Wed Mar 26, 2008 4:44 am    Post subject: "Rhum Agricole" Defined Reply with quote

Here's to the Queen! May she find her clothes!

Let's first define agricultural rum, aka rum agricole (Fr), with rum agricole AOC Martinique as a subset.

Luis Ayala:

The two major categories of rum are based on their production process: "Industrial Rum" and "Agricultural Rum". For the most part, agricultural rums (Fr. Rhum Agricole) are made in the French Indies and are made by fermenting the sugarcane juice. Industrial rums (Fr. Rum Industriell) with few exceptions are produced everywhere else and are made from molasses.

The French Indies included: Haiti (now thankfully independent), Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, Reunion and Martinique. Other agriculturals are made in Trinidad and Panama.

Dave Broom:

Rhum agricole - literally, "agricultural rum" - came about when France turned its back on the sugar produced from sugarcane in the Caribbean and instead began to use sugar made from the European sugar beet. The subsequent decline in sugar production resulted in less molasses being available to make spirits, so rum distillers (in the French Indies) began to use freshly crushed cane juice instead.

Cane-juice rum is also made in the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Haiti and Brazil (cachaca). Rhum Agricole is distilled in single-column stills... the fact that this is a single-column distillation means that the strength at which the spirit is collected is low... under the laws of (AOC) it must be between sixty-five and seventy-five percent ABV. The result is a congener-heavy spirit with an ester level of about 350 - 450.

The advantage of the appellation system in Martinique is that each of the island's nine distilleries operates an identical process, though each utilizes little tweaks to its rhum, as the French spell it, for its own particular fingerprint. The length of fermentation and the strength of the vesou will each have a role to play, as does the physical makeup of the still. A small, squat column will produce a heavy (low-strength) spirit; a tall one will produce a higher-strength (lighter) one.

The Simon distillery, for example, uses three different types of stills: two "Creoles", one "Savalle" and one "Barbet".

In Haiti, Barbancourt operates a double distillation system and ages exclusively in French Limosin oak barrels. Made in the French style, Barbancourt uses vesou (wash) extracted from crops harvested not just from its own plantation but from 200 other growers. The rum is first distilled in a column still and then finished in a pot (and collected at ninety percent ABV). The spirit is then barreled at very low strength (fifty percent ABV), a technique that necessitates long maturation.

They don't only produce rum; they make rum with a finesse that is almost unsurpassed in the world.

The use of the term "agricultural rum" (Fr. rhum agricole) emerged roughly in the mid 1800's, as promoted by the French. It is not unfair to call this an act of snobbery and/or protectionism, particularly when the French preferred to attach the pejorative of "industrial rum" (Fr. rhum industriell) to all other molasses based rums (as opposed to something less infuriating, like rhum traditionnel). The French referred to all rums made from cane juice in the French Indies as "rhum agricole".

For those who don't consider the term "rhum industrial" an intentional pejorative, the more astute may note that not a single one of the hundreds of molasses based rums proudly displays "fine industrial rum" on their label, lol.

It was only after 1996 - in an act of further protectionism and in an attempt to reinvent Martinique as a "terroir", or unique territory (like the French regions Gascony or Cognac) - that an oppressively huge list of mandated production regulations was created allowing only the most minor tweaks. The French designated these rums - using almost identical techniques, from specified species of cane, using only one genus of yeast, etc., etc., etc. - Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Martinique.

As all wine enthusiasts know, "terroir" is defined as the influence of environmental factors (such as climate, microclimate, atmosphere, subsoil, soil variety and topography) on the grape and wine of a particular locale. While terroir’s effect on wine is pretty much accepted, its effect on rum is largely rejected. What the French are attempting to sell is the notion that the conditions in Martinique are so unique, so identifiable and so influential that "rhum agricole" from anywhere else constitutes a fraud. It is a near marketing triumph that France and Martinique have almost coopted the term "rhum agricole" to mean "Rhum Agricole" to mean "Rhum Agricole, AOC Martinique".

Au contraire! It does not, never did and never will.

The nutty notion of "terroir" has been hotly dismissed by many rum experts:

According to Malcolm Atherton, manager of West Indies Spirits the origin of the sugar cane is “less important than a lot of other factors... . The biggest factor is what sort of still is used—a pot still or a column still—and at what point the rum comes off the column still."

Richard Seale of Foursquare is a purist and a man respected for his blunt honesty. He is reported to note that the sugar cane’s place of origin cannot be compared to that of the barley grown for single-malt Scotch or grapes cultivated for Cognac because the cane undergoes industrial processing before it sees a rum distillery. “If the cane was grown for rum, we would see a bigger influence,” he says.

Now it is true that in the French Indies, cane IS grown for the production of cane juice rum. Luis Ayala notes that agricultural rums “are more influenced by terroir than their industrial counterparts. The influence of terroir is most noticeable in rums with the least amount of human/mechanical intervention.” (rum from cane juice rather than highly processed molasses). Ronteix of St. James Distillery in Martinique agrees: “Agricultural rums are not far from Armagnac. When tasting it you can feel the raw material and its fruity are very near the sugar cane.” He goes on to say that his rums of Martinique do display such "terroir".

As do all other agricultural rums from the rest of the French Indies and other locales producing rum from cane juice.

Bottom line:

The experts agree that the influence of "terroir", if any, is minor, regional and related to the production of rum from cane juice. Any localization to Martinique is presumptuous. A real expert can taste a grape and identify its "terroir", something nigh to impossible regarding a piece of sugarcane. To further stricture production via inane regulation of even the most miniscule factors in no real way enhances any possible influence of terroir. Rather, it simply tends to homogenize the process, leaving little room for individuation short of relatively limited tweaking. Have no doubt, the AOC endeavor is exactly that - an endeavor to exclude other producers of agricultural rum, to create an "exclusive" market, and to coopt the term "rhum agricole" for their own. Pooh!

The positive - at least for Martinique - is that their French AOC label, affixed in the designated size and position specified by the national committe, commands prices far beyond its quality or worth. Agricultural rum has had 150 years to capture the world market for rum and has failed to do so, accounting for less than 4% of rum sales. There's an old marketing maxim: if you can't sell it, go out of business or raise your prices.

The downside of the AOC is that despite incredible regulation and restriction to the invented "terroir" of Martinique, improved consistency, quality and reviews have not been realized (See a Comparison of Agricoles, this section). The relatively free and unregulated producers of fine molasses based products - take Appleton Extra for example - are at least as consistent if not moreso. Whether you bought a bottle this year, last year or next, variations will be relatively minor and the general quality well maintained. And that is saying something. OTOH, rums of the AOC are anything but consistent from year to year. They are not consistent by their invented "terroir" of Martinique, nor within the companies of Martinique and neither within the product line of each company. Even bottlings vary.

One important exception is Barbancourt in Haiti, where agricultural rum from cane juice is virtually handmade using time consuming techniques and free of the oppression of the AOC. The result: exquisite, world class, affordable rhum agricoles of relatively great consistency and uniformly top ratings and reviews. Holy terroir Batman!

Bottom bottom line:

1. agricultural rum (Fr. rhum agricole) refers to rums made from sugarcane juice, made mostly in the French Indies but also Panama, Trinidad and Brazil.
2. this term was created in the mid 1800's and has been in popular use since then.
3. "rhum agricole" does NOT specify rums from only Martinique.
4. "rhum agricole AOC Martinique" is a term of French law and DOES refer specifically to most rums from Martinique. Usage requires strict adherence to extensive regulations and is limited to only rums distilled from in this fashion in Martinique.
5. "Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique" is a subset of "rhum agricole" or agricultural rum, not the reverse.

As so well said by Mr. Ed Hamilton: when you buy a very expensive AOC product you may end up with something heavenly, or just a very expensive souvenir. Considering the price, well...

In closing, forgive me but "La reine ne porte aucun vêtements!"

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