A few hundred years ago, while sugar traders from Britain and the American colonies were distilling their molasses into fiery rum, a very different tradition was unfolding on the French islands in the Caribbean. The French produced their own sugar in Europe, and so had no need to refine it and generate molasses in the colonies. Rather than distilling a byproduct of production, they were free to distill pure sugar cane juice -- and they began making rhum agricole.
It made for a vastly different spirit. "There are a lot of parallels with wine," explains Mark Stoddard, proprietor and barman at Boulder's Bitter Bar. "Sugarcane is uniquely tied to terroir, and on Martinique where most rhum agricole is made, there's a long history of volcanic eruption, which makes good soil for sugar cane roots."
That terroir gives the spirit a level of depth that you don't see often with traditional rums, particularly in the white rums like Bacardi, that are distilled in a manner meant to remove flavor. "Those are like sugar beet vodka," Stoddard says.
Rhum agricole's closest comparison is Cachaca, a Brazilian sugar cane spirit that comes in a variety of qualities, from mass-produced swill to high-end, complex versions, like Leblon, the Brazilian benchmark, or locally owned Boca Loca. In contrast with Cachaca, rhum agricole is carefully controlled. Over the years, quality standards in Martinique continued to develop, and in the mid-1990s, rhum agricole gained its own AOC, giving the handful of producers on the island a list of guidelines -- including distilling specs and aging requirements -- that would ensure their products would continue to be top-notch.
Despite its rich history though, rhum agricole has really only been gracing the shelves of bars in this country for the last five or so years. And as a result, it's virtually an unknown. "It's a totally underappreciated spirit," Stoddard says. Adam Hodak, who spearheads the bar programs at Osteria Marco, Lou's Food Bar, Green Russell and Russell's Smokehouse, echoes that sentiment: "It's unique, and not everyone knows about it. It's a good place to take someone if they ask for rum. That's the fun part about drinking."
Tequila-lovers might also want to experiment with the spirit. Rhum agricoles are a little more tropical in fruit flavor than molasses-based rums, but they're also more vegetal -- which is particularly delightful for someone who has deep appreciation for agave spirits from Mexico. "It's really clean," says Hodak. "It carries vegetal flavors and really packs a punch.
"It has a grassy green note," Stoddard adds. "It's like standing in a field of sugar cane."
And Joshua Smith, who has hands in the bar programs at TAG and Williams & Graham, both of which stock rhum agricole, says he gets "chocolate and vanilla notes" in addition to a "pure sugar smell." Because of that, he frequently pairs it with spices and fruits, two things he says enhance the chocolate. He recently mixed up a combination of Rhum Agricole, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Carpano Antica vermouth, pineapple juice, egg white and maple-ginger bitters. "The spice and ginger play with the chocolate notes," he says. "And tropical fruit works because I think of things like a chocolate-covered orange."
Stoddard uses the spirit in more traditional rum drinks, giving them depth and complexity that they wouldn't get with most rums. He cites swizzles and a true daiquiri as being exemplary for highlighting the intricacies of the drink. "It's great for mixing into cocktails," he explains. "You've already got something with a lot of flavor. It's a little like tequila with a vegetal note. And it changes a lot depending on where it's from, so that gives you different inspiration as to what you're going to mix it with."
Hodak, who carries several rhum agricoles between his restaurants, says age has a major impact on what he'll do with the spirit in a cocktail. Older expressions never get citrus, for instance. "I think you can ruin a heavily aged spirit with acid," he says, noting that he'd put an older rhum agricole into a spirits-based cocktail. The younger versions, though, call for "anything tropical," like "pineapple juice, because it has such high acid and high sugar. "I use it as a base and cut in a little lime or lemon as a sweetener."
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The best place in town to get a tasting education on Rhum Agricole, though? The Rum Room at Cafe Brazil, where several selections from six different distilleries are on the menu all the time. The Tequila Lover's flight pits three of them against each other -- and throws in D'Aristi, a molasses-based rum made in Mexico.
Or have it poured into a cocktail at Williams & Graham, Green Russell, TAG or Boulder's Bitter Bar.