5 Sugar Cane Drinks from Around the World

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By definition, all rum must be distilled from sugar cane—but not all sugar cane spirits are rum.

And that’s just fine.

The five sugar cane spirits covered here, spanning the globe from Mexico to Japan, were selected for their remarkable ability to express how and where they are made.

Cane is a particularly malleable medium, explains Ben Jones, North American director of Spiribam. “The flavor comes from the hand of the maker,” he says, meaning the effect of how the stalks are processed, fermented and distilled. The best cane spirits “form their own complexity and character.”

Nuances start with the cane itself, whether that means fresh-pressed juice, dehydrated piloncillo or umami-rich, caramelized “black” sugar. For others, it’s about how that cane reflects mineral-rich soil or flourishes in the presence of wild yeast as it ferments. Some are shaped through distillation techniques or given additional character, thanks to resting time in ceramic vessels or casks made from indigenous wood.

Not surprisingly, the finished results are distinctive and diverse, whether fruity, funky, savory or briny.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Drink: The World Cup made with Cachaça from Brazil
Photo by EE Berger | Food Styling by Ross Zedinak | Prop Styling by Stephanie Potts
The World Cup Cocktail

This drink scores big with muddled citrus paired with  the floral, grassy flavor of Brazialian cachaça.



Compared to Caribbean rums, cachaça is “older, wilder,” says Nate Whitehouse, cofounder of Avuá Cachaça, “dating back to the 1500s.” Like many other cane spirits (such as clairin or rhum agricole), Brazil’s cachaça starts with fresh-pressed cane juice, and is usually fermented with wild yeast. But from there, it’s distinguished by the use of pot stills (which give a rich, robust character) and the wide range of indigenous woods used in the aging process. “Brazil happens to have one of the most biodiverse forests in the world,” Whitehouse explains. So, while white cachaça can display floral and tropical flavors like lime zest, ripe banana or lychee, barrel-aged bottlings also shine. Instead of the vanilla tones imparted by oak, cachaça instead can reflect the cinnamon and nutmeg aromas of amburana, or the anise and floral fragrance of bálsamo wood (both barrels are made from locally grown wood).

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Pinapple cocktail makde with Mexican Charanda
Photo by EE Berger | Food Styling by Ross Zedinak | Prop Styling by Stephanie Potts
Piñamor Cocktail

This tropical crowd-pleaser is made with Mexican Charanda, showing off one of many profiles this unique spirit can take on.


Michoacán, Mexico

The lush microclimate of Michoacán, along Mexico’s southwest coast, is known best for producing mezcal—but you’ll also find Charanda, an aguardiente made from sugar cane.

“It’s a Denomination of Origin (DO) rum that’s protected [by Mexican law] and can only be made in this small area,” explains William Scanlan of Heavy Métl Premium Imports, which imports Uruapan Charanda.

Sugar cane isn’t native to Mexico: “The Spanish, when they came through, planted sugar cane across the country,” Scanlan notes, sowing the cane in the region’s red volcanic soil (the word charanda means “red-colored soil” in Purépecha language), which gives distinct minerality.

While the DO specifies where Charanda is made, there’s wide latitude about how it’s produced. It might be made from fresh juice, molasses or piloncillo (cane juice boiled and reduced to almost syrup), and in any type of still. As a result, flavor can vary widely—from tropical to fruity or smoky.

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port au prince and apircots and cream cocktail
Photo by EE Berger | Food Styling by Ross Zedinak | Prop Styling by Stephanie Potts
Port Au Prince Cocktail

This riff on Planter’s Punch combines tropical flavors with Haitian clarin, exemplifying the region’s diverse terroir.



A traditional spirit made in Haiti, clairin starts with fresh-pressed cane. It’s often harvested by hand and fermented using natural or indigenous yeast and then pot-distilled once. (Of note, clairin is usually distilled to a lower alcohol level than rum, generally not exceeding 30% abv.) The finished distillate is usually unaged, so there’s nothing to obscure the flavor of the cane.

“Haiti has a natural, polycultural agriculture,” explains Herbert Barbancourt-Linge Jr., who manages operations at Distillerie du Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Cane grows wild and organically, often with many other plants in the same field. “You can actually taste the flavor of the cane and the entire field it came from,” he adds.

That flavor can vary—whether vegetal, fruity, savory or briny—leading some to draw comparisons to mezcal. That variety of aromas and flavors is due to the diversity of Haiti’s terroir, Linge says, “from the mountain tops to the plains and beach sides where cane is grown.”

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port au prince and apircots and cream cocktail
Photo by EE Berger | Food Styling by Ross Zedinak | Prop Styling by Stephanie Potts
Apricots and Cream Cocktail

The combination of coffee-infused shochu and honey cream give this drink a unique espresso martini-esque flare.

Kokuto Shochu & Okinawa Rum


Japan’s Okinawa Island is home to multiple sugar cane distillates made with fresh-pressed juice (or kokuto), created by cooking cane into deep-flavored “black sugar.”

Japan’s native shochu can be made with a variety of base materials, including kokuto, which is valued for its “deep and mineral-rich” flavor, explains Stephen Lyman, Japan-based ambassador for Honkaku Spirits and author of The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks. The kokuto is fermented with rice koji and pot-distilled once, then usually aged in enamel or ceramic-lined vessels. The result is a light-bodied spirit that often shows delicate fruit notes, such as lychee or stone fruit, alongside kokuto’s “depth of flavor and umami.”

By comparison, Okinawa rum tends to be more robust and bottled at higher proof. While most start with sugar cane juice, are pot-distilled twice and bottled without barrel aging, the rules aren’t absolute. For example, Cor Cor makes both a cane juice-based rum and a molasses-based rum (“They express so differently,” Lyman observes), while Teeda ages its rum in oak for a minimum of three years, to salted maple effect.

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Drink: Kill Devil made with Rhum Agricole from Martinique
Photo by EE Berger | Food Styling by Ross Zedinak | Prop Styling by Stephanie Potts
Kill Devil Cocktail

The funky flavors of rhum agricole are brought aflame in this caramelized concoction.

Rhum Agricole


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—although agricole-style rum is made in multiple places around the world, particularly those with French ancestry (such as Guadeloupe and Mauritius).

Made from pure sugar cane juice (no molasses here), rhum is best-known for its wild, “funky” pungency, which can read like overripe banana, though it can tend toward a more grassy, vegetal profile. Oak-aged versions, which layer on vanilla and spice, can read like banana bread or caramelized bananas Foster.

“Rhum agricole means ‘country rum, farmer’s rum,’” explains Ben Jones, North American managing director of Spiribam, which imports Rhum J.M., among other brands. “It’s made directly from sugar cane juice in the field, away from the factories,” in contrast to rum industriel. The result of that fresh juice and wild yeast: “more vibrance and brilliance to the flavors,” Jones says.

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Published on September 9, 2022