What Is Rhum Agricole, and How to Use It in Cocktails


Whereas molasses can be shipped anywhere, sugarcane starts to degrade almost as soon as it’s harvested, so fresh cane rums are made close to the fields, and farmers often prioritize sustainability. This creates a departure from most sugarcane agriculture, which is often hard on the environment. Copalli, for example, wanted to avoid cutting down rain forest for farming, and instead converted old citrus arbors and other disused land into cane fields. And whereas commercial cane growers often burn their fields to make harvesting easier—which creates air pollution and other negative impacts—artisanal distillers including Copalli and Hawaii’s Kuleana Rum Works and Kō Hana Distillers do not. Many fresh cane rum producers also use organic methods.

Where did fresh sugarcane rum originate?

While the traditional homeland of fresh cane rum centers on Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean islands, nowadays it is made at distilleries throughout the region and farther afield. There are distillers putting their own spin on fresh cane rums in Australia, South Africa, Thailand, and beyond, as well as in areas of the US where sugarcane grows, like Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, California, and Hawaii.

Although historically rhum agricole did not rely on the labor of enslaved people—and one of the style’s most important progenitors, Homère Clément, was a Black man who founded his distillery in 1917—many modern distilleries are located in areas where sugarcane’s brutal history still echoes. When Renegade Rum was getting started a few years ago in Grenada, the company found that local farmers were apprehensive about growing sugarcane. “[It was for] a whole host of reasons including historical baggage and stigma, but essentially agriculture and sugarcane were neglected areas from a development perspective,” explains Jane Nurse, who heads up Renegade’s marketing and environment communications. There had been little investment into mechanization and modernization of sugarcane agriculture on the island, and farmers were wary of outside investors who made big promises but never delivered. In the end, the company founded the subsidiary CaneCo, hiring locals to cultivate different cane varietals and bringing the entire process, from field to bottle, in-house.

How is fresh sugarcane rum made?

Fresh sugarcane rum must be fermented and distilled within a day or two after cutting, so it’s only made where cane actually grows, at harvest times. Cane stalks are fed through a mill to extract the juice and separate it from the pulpy by-product, called bagasse, which is often then used as biofuel or compost. The sugarcane juice goes on to be fermented with wild or cultivated yeast, then distilled. For Martinique rhum agricole, a specific type of still called a Creole still must be used; producers who don’t follow Martinique’s official AOC can use pot, column, or other still types. After distillation, the unaged rum may be proofed down with water and then go straight to bottling, although most distilleries also fill barrels to mature. Maturation may be for just a few months, or up to a decade or longer.

What does fresh sugarcane rum taste like?

If you’re used to conventional dark rums, spiced rums, or Bacardí, the first taste of a fresh cane rum will surprise you. Often described as grassy—apt, since sugarcane is a type of grass—these rums have an herbaceous, earthy funk that encompasses a broad range of other notes, everything from pineapple to black pepper. And although they may smell sweet, there’s little to no residual sugar.

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