Staring out to the blue Caribbean from atop one of Martinique’s rolling green hills, the landscape ahead waves and dances. This land is covered with lush, sweet sugar cane reeds, 8 to 10 feet tall, which catch the strong trade winds and give a sense that the entire island is moving, almost breathing.
There is an unparalleled connection with what is in a bottle of Rhum Agricole and the land from which it comes. Open a bottle and you’ll immediately be greeted with an enticing sweetness punctuated with citrus notes along with ocean brine and a curious smokiness. These powerful scents are the same that fill the breeze wrapping around the island. This island is sugar cane.
As more consumers are finally giving the rum category the attention that it has long deserved, Rhum Agricole is starting to become part of that landscape of discovery as well. Although less than 1% of all rum produced is Agricole style, it is quickly becoming a favorite of bartenders and consumers.
Island of Flowers
The northern most of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, Martinique was first charted by Christopher Columbus in 1502. Its name most likely evolved over time from Madinina, "Island of Flowers,” as Columbus named it. The Spanish did not have much use for the island and soon the French arrived to take possession. The 492 sq mile island is still a department of France, and as such, part of the EU. Today, tourism, rum, and bananas make up most of the island’s economy.
As sugar cane took hold in its new home throughout the Caribbean in the 16th century, sugar refineries dotted the landscape to feed the world’s growing sweet-tooth. A by-product of the sugar refining process is molasses, which in itself was a valuable commodity. Still full of sugar, molasses made for a rich sweetener, but is also an extremely dense source of protein, magnesium, calcium, and Vitamins A and B. This provided useful in an area where most of the land was dedicated to sugar cane and few other edible crops. Of course, this molasses could also be fermented then distilled into rum, another valuable commodity. So along side sugar refineries, stood rum stills. Literally thousands of them.
In the mid to late 19th century, as world powers shifted, sugar cane became more widely planted, and as other sources of sugar were discovered - particularly sugar beets in Europe - refineries and distilleries began to shutter throughout the Caribbean. Still seeking to make money off an island covered in sugar cane, Martinique began distilling rum directly from fresh pressed sugar cane juice and skipped the step of refining sugar. The Agrciole style was born.
Today, the term Agricole is a protected trade term and strictly governed under French AOC law, as Martinique is still very much a part of France. Very specific laws dictate yield per hectare, harvest dates, time from harvest to fermentation, distillation technique, aging, and ABV levels. Discover more about Agricole AOC laws HERE
Here are a few key AOC laws for Rhum Agricole (taken from above site)
Currently, only the territories of the following 23 municipalities of Martinique are allowed for the cultivation of sugarcane intended for the production of AOC Martinique rum:
Cultivation yields are limited to 120 metric tons of sugarcane per hectare. In other places sugarcane yields can easily exceed 150 mt/ha and current Martinique average yields are close to 72 mt/ha.
Such a limit was introduced to avoid unsustainable agricultural practicies such as massive fertilizer use. Specifications also limits the use of irrigation technology by prohibiting more than four months of irrigation per year.
Rhum agricole wort should only be made of fresh sugarcane juice obtained by grinding and pressing of sugar cane. No addition of syrup or molasses is allowed.
Juice quality is controlled with a minimum sugar content (Brix > 14 ° Bx) and a minimum pH (pH > 4.7). These criteria limit juice concentration and acidity to reasonable values to avoid fermentation and thus ethanol production troubles (such as production of methanol or other undesirable compounds).
According to A.O.C. specifications, fermentation must be discontinuous and conducted in open tanks whose capacity does not exceed 500 hectolitres (13'208 US gallons).
Fermentation (from pitching to distillation) has to be made under 72 hours and temperature has to remain below 38,5 °C (101°F). Fermented solution minimal concentration is 3,5% abv (7 US proof).
Distillation for rhum agricole production has to be made through distillation columns and by continuous distillation processing of fermented wort. The distillation coumns must have the following caracteristics :
Heated by hot vapor injection ;
From 5 to 9 rectifying copper plates ;
At least 15 copper or stainless steel stripping plates ;
Stripping plates diameter between 0,7 and 2 meters ;
Reflux through one or more chauffe-vins or copper water condensers.
Rectification of the spirit (second distillation aimed at reaching higher alcohol concentrations) is forbidden.
"Rhum agricole Martinique" rums must be of one of the three following designations :
Rhum "blanc" Martinique (white rum): colorless rum which have been laid still for at least three months and not more than three months if rum has been stocked in oak barrels.
Rhum Martinique "élevé sous bois" (cask aged rum) : Rum has been aged in oak barrels within the production area and for at least 12 uninterrupted months. Rum must also contain at least 250 grams per 100 litre of pure alcohol of volatile elements other than ethanols and methyl at the end of the aging period of time. This minimum concentration guarantees the cask aged rhum agricole's bouquet.
Rhum Martinique "vieux" (extra aged rum) : Rum has been aged in oak casks within the production area and for at least 3 uninterrupted years. Capacity of barrels must be under 650 litres. Rum must also contain at least 325 grams per 100 litre of pure alcohol of volatile elements other than ethanols and methyl at the end of the three years. This minimum concentration superior to the one imposed to cask aged rum guarantees a richer bouquet for the extra aged rhum agricole. .