The Rise of Rhum Agricole

When it comes to drinking Caribbean rum, nine times out of ten, what’s in your glass will be a spirit that uses molasses as its raw material.  Molasses, being a byproduct of the sugar refining process, was surplus to requirements until the mid-17th century when someone in Barbados discovered you could ferment and distill it to produce a certain type of booze.  Originally dubbed Kill Devil, the product in question is now universally (almost) referred to as rum. 

Agricole rum is slightly different.  Rather than using molasses, these spirits use harvested sugarcane that’s been crushed, pressed, and fermented akin to how a winemaker might treat their grapes.

The use of sugarcane juice, rather than molasses, produces a spirit that’s much more grassy, earthy, and herbal in its essence, often with a healthy dose of tropical fruit.  The spirit produced is also one with the ability demonstrate a sense of place through use of specific cane varieties farmed at different altitudes with different soils and microclimates. 

Martinique is an island in the Caribbean famed for its production of Agricole style Rhum.  Spelt with an ‘H’ to reflect the island’s French heritage and like the protected designated areas of Cognac, Champagne and Comté cheese, rhum from Martinique has its own AOC status.  This means that the rhum from the island must follow some of the strictest quality control regulations in the whole of the category.  The result is a spirit produced to some of the highest standards imaginable at every single price point leading to quality in the glass at every sip. 

The history of sugarcane in Martinique is long and fascinating.  The French established a colony on the island in the 1640s in the decade prior to the first recorded mention of the term “rum” in Barbados.  Sugarcane soon arrived and, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, became big business very quickly.  Much of it was smuggled out of the country and traded with rum producers based out of New England.  At the time, there was an edict that French colonies could only trade with other French colonies, making rum a tricky commodity to tackle with the French preferring homegrown brandy as their spirit of choice. 

Moving into the 19th Century, the embargo was dropped, and Martinique rum (still made from molasses) flourished.  Taxation on the importation of colonial spirits into France was also dropped.  Rum from Martinique became the ration of choice for French soldiers fighting in the Crimean War (1853-56).  By the late 1860s, that pesky louse phylloxera was well on the way to destroying Europe’s entire wine and brandy industries.  Without brandy to turn to, the Brits started drinking a lot more Scotch whisky and the French leapt upon Martinique Rum.

Something was happening in the background however which would drastically alter the destiny of sugarcane spirits on the island.  It began with a man named Napoleon Bonepart who became Emperor of France in 1804, a nation already locked in a bitter fight with the British for naval supremacy.  This culminated in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which decimated the French fleet. 

French merchant ships making their way back from the Caribbean became a lucrative target for plundering raids, particularly the ones that carried sugar, the most valuable product of the day.  Understandably, this was a trend Napoleon was not pleased with and he took the decision to change tact, encouraging the cultivation of sugar beets, which could be grown in Europe and, therefore, carried significantly less risk.

The result was a dramatic decline in the value of sugar made from sugarcane over the course of a century when the abolition of slavery made its production justly more expensive.  Martinique was the first of the French colonies where the decree came into force and by the 1870s, sugar production in the Caribbean was in swift decline.   With the amount of molasses available on Martinique, the number of producers using it for spirit production began to fall.

That being said, at the beginning of the 20th century, a hub for molasses rum production had emerged in the busy port town of Saint Pierre.  A commercial capital, dubbed the “Paris of the Caribbean”, the town was home to most of the island’s sugar refineries.  In the more rural sectors of the island, Agricole rhum was produced for mostly local consumption.

On 5th May 1902, Mount Pelée, the volcano directly to the northeast of Saint Pierre, erupted.  The blast devastated the entire city killing some 30,000 of its occupants and leaving the sugar industry on the island in tatters.  In the aftermath of the tragedy, Martinicans, with much less molasses rum to consume, turned their attentions to rhum Agricole.  At first the trend was slow to take hold, in 1930, the split was still 50/50 in terms of consumption between the two styles.  Today, however, there’s just one distillery left on the island producing molasses-based rums with Agricole now very much the face of the industry. 

Our Range 

Clément Rhum Agricole Blancthe perfect introduction to Martinique rhum, in my opinion, one of the most bang-for-buck bottles on the entire shelf.  It does everything you’d expect from a Rhum Agricole.  It’s not the most powerful or concentrated but it stands up fantastically in a variety of cocktails.  For someone hunting for a Cachaça to use in Caipirinhas, I might cheekily point them in this direction (sorry Brazil). 

Clément V.S.O.P. This rhum has been aged for four years in ex-bourbon barrels.  It’s the best of the Martinique rhums for a whisk(e)y fan looking to branch out.  Time in barrel has given this rhum a lovely added richness with notes of vanilla and spice on the nose.  The earthy, grassy flavours are still, however, very much in abundance on the palate. 

Rhum J.M Terroir Volcaniqueone of three brand new products to hit the shelves from Martinique, I’ve been keen to get some Rhum J.M in for a while.  This rhum is packed with tropical fruit, particularly passionfruit, which is a really interesting characteristic.  It’s a Rhum Vieux which means it’s been aged for a minimum of three years, so along with all the tropical fruit, there’s some lovely oaky notes as well. 

Rhum J.M Atelier Épices Créoles it’s important to mention to anyone who’s translated the name of this rhum that this is not a spiced rum. The Spices that the name refer to are derived from a maturation process which involves time spent in virgin oak casks followed by a period where different blending components have been rested in a variety of different cask types.  This includes French oak, ex-Cognac casks and ex-bourbon. 

Rhum J.M X.O.this is the oldest expression of rhum from Martinique that we carry.  Technically the rhum must be a minimum of six years old, however there are older elements involved in the blend to add further complexity.  Once again, the liquid spent most of its maturation period in a combination of virgin and ex-bourbon casks before switching to a variety of different cask finishes for the remaining years.  The X.O. is the flagship of the J.M range, it’s damn delicious!