You already know rum, but do you know rhum? That little “h” makes a big difference: unlike most rums, which are made from molasses, rhum agricole is made from pure sugarcane juice.
Though it has a typical rum sweetness, rhum often has a distinctive grassy or wild “funky” note, which can read like banana or tropical fruit.
The sunny Caribbean island of Martinique is widely regarded as the spiritual home of rhum agricole. The island even obtained an AOC for it in 1996: Just like brandy from France’s Cognac region is the only true Cognac, AOC rhum agricole is produced from sugarcane grown in one of 23 designated municipalities on Martinique.
However, Martinique has more than a little competition these days. Damoiseau is made in nearby Guadeloupe, and The Arcane, a new line-up debuting in the U.S. in late 2018, hails from Mauritius, in Northwestern Africa. Other exciting finds this month include the pungent, grassy Paranubes—a sugarcane spirit made in Oaxaca, Mexico, a region better known for mezcal than rum—and the honeyed Lowcountry Agricole from Charleston, made with juice pressed from South Carolina cane.
Some rum-lovers will argue that the purity of unaged or minimally aged rhum agricole is the pinnacle of the expression. Those bottlings certainly showcase what makes rhum different from molasses-made versions: It’s that untamed grassy, floral and vegetal pungency.
Yet, when rhum agricole spends some time in oak, that’s when they really start to blossom. Add mellow layers of vanilla and spice, and that quirky banana funk transforms into banana bread or caramelized bananas Foster. Of course, it’s possible to overdo the oak, yet when used judiciously, aged rhums can be among the most enticing, with complex layers of creamy honey and brown sugar—an ideal sipper for contemplating future getaways, maybe even to a sun-soaked locale where the sugarcane grows high.
Lowcountry Agricole (High Wire Distilling, Charleston, SC); $80, 92 points. This complex, intriguing rum is made 100% from South Carolina sugarcane, then barrel rested for 10 months. The end result is a golden-yellow hue and pungent aroma of banana bread. A long swath of palate-coating waxy honey leads the way, finishing long on touches of agave nectar, banana, nutmeg and cardamom. abv: 44%
HSE Rhum Blanc Agricole (Martinique; Baron Francois, New York, NY); $26/1L, 90 points. Clear in the glass, look for a grassy, slightly funky scent and a silky palate that echoes that grassy, almost floral note. The finish is gentle but long, exiting with ginger and cinnamon sparks and a mouthwatering hint of banana. Best Buy. abv: 40%
Rhum J.M. 100 Blanc (Martinique; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $35, 88 points. As expected from a 100-proof spirit, alcohol heat overwhelms from the first sip to the peppery finish. Get beyond that, and the reward is a bright, honeyed scent and bold palate that shows lychee and rosewater, with bouncy bubblegum and rubber. Best Buy. abv: 50%
Paranubes Rum (Mexico; Montañero Mezcal, Ophir, CA); $40/1L, 87 points. An agricole rhum from Oaxaca, the region better known for mezcal, this is an exciting proposition. The liquid is clear in the glass, with a pungent, funky scent and bold notes of banana and cinnamon on the palate, finishing fiery, though with a pleasing, fleeting grassy exhale. Labeled as aguardiente de caña—cane firewater—this unaged bottling is a bit punishing as is, but the prospect of a mellower barrel-aged version down the line is enticing. Best Buy. abv: 54%
Rhum J.M VSOP (Martinique; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $50, 94 points. For those who like rum with a bit of sweetness to it, this honey-hued sipper offers vanilla bean and brown sugar on the nose and palate, drying to a hot cinnamon finish smoothed by decadent hints of cocoa, espresso and hazelnut. abv: 43%
The Arcane Delicatissime Grand Gold Rum (Mauritius; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $33, 93 points. Palate-coating vanilla and coconut set the stage for layers of orange peel, coffee, and spice. This rum lands lightly, with a smooth hint of dark chocolate. Ideal as a dessert pairing. Launching in the U.S. in late 2018. Best Buy. abv: 41%
The Arcane Extraroma Grand Amber Rum (Mauritius; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $43, 93 points. The bold, offers smacks of banana taffy and circus peanuts. That taffy-like note is echoed on the palate, which finishes long and sweet, with waves of coconut, banana, almond and marshmallow, winding into a lip-smacking, spiced finish. Sip or mix into tropical cocktails. Launching in the U.S. in late 2018. abv: 40%
Damoiseau VSOP (Guadeloupe, Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $45, 92 points. Burnished gold in the glass, this rhum offers a vanilla-forward aroma and light, smooth palate, with concentrated creamy honey and a long baking spice finish accented by a whiff of Scotch-like and lemon peel. Barrel-aged for a minimum of four years. abv: 42%
Clément XO (Martinique; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $55, 92 points. Honey and orange peel aromas lead the nose. The drying palate shows vanilla, leather and chamomile tea, finishing with a burst of spice and orange peel, plus a hint of banana on the final exhale. Aged a minimum of six years, in virgin oak and ex-Bourbon barrels. abv: 42%
Rhum J.M X.O (Martinique; Spiribam, Wakefield, RI); $75, 92 points. This tawny orange rhum offers a mild, slightly oaky aroma. The palate opens with distinct sweetness, blossoming into brown butter and banana, then drying to clove and cinnamon sparks to close out the sip. Aged six years. abv: 43%
HSE Rhum Agricole VSOP Reserve Speciale (Martinique; Baron Francois, New York, NY); $47,91 points. This amber liquid has a luxuriously rich, concentrated brown sugar scent. Meanwhile, the palate shows dark layers of toffee, espresso and vanilla, finishing with a flicker of orange peel and clove. According to the producer, this rhum undergoes a “very long aging process in Bourbon oak casks.” Unsurprisingly, it drinks like a long-aged Bourbon. abv: 45%
HSE Rhum Agricole Extra Vieux Grand Reserve (Martinique; Baron Francois, New York, NY); $83, 91 points. Deep vanilla, toffee and espresso aromas lead the nose. The drying palate evokes chocolate-covered oranges, melding dark chocolate with a rounded finish that has pops of vanilla, orange and spice. abv: 43%