We want the funk
Terroir-rich rhum agricole is the new secret handshake of the spirits world.
Rum is the original alcohol busine ss. It is a curr ency that fuelled the American Revolution. It’s possible you’ve dismissed the rum category as mere caramelised captains, sad saps at the v ery bottom of the (bourbon) barr el. If so, perhaps it’s time for something a little closer to the e arth, a product that tastes like it came from nature.
This is the kind of rum that originated in the 19th centur y on the island of Mar tinique, a French-Caribbean colony. By the late 20th century, the so-called ‘agricultural’ rhum with the forthright moniker rhum agricole became the be stselling variety in France. Today, it feels like the US is finally joining the party, and for agricole lovers, that’s a good and bad thing.
In the wake of SGD134* single-village mezcal and SGD47* Cru Beaujolais, rhum agricole seems destined for the same outcome. Drinkers are a quickly evolving species, finding enlightenment in dignified beverages. Celebrating the provenance of food is no longer countercultural; it’s archetypal. This ideology has also crept into wine and spirits, and the shift in preference calls for a beverage that has a story to share about its beginnings. A distillate made from sugarcane or molasses, it is inextricably linked to a conspicuous junction of sailors and slaves. As the Spanish, English and French colonised the Caribbean, ron, rum and rhum emerged, each with a distinctive style and story. The passion and attention required to bring forth these heartfelt libations demands that they be produced in modest quantities.
In the early ’60s, an American artist named Ron Cooper became enraptured by a brew known as mezcal. In the ’90s, after meeting with indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, who were producing the spirit, he began importing it to the US under the label Del Maguey. In doing so, he introduced an entirely different category to the country, raising its profile from unknown to oversaturated in just a decade—from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, you can find bars devoted to the drink.
Paul McGee, r(h)um expert and partner at Chicago’s Lost Lake tiki bar, speculates that the future of agricole may resemble what we just experienced with mezcal. “Mezcal surprised me with how fast it took off. It’s kind of nuts because it can be polarising,” he says. “But people are challenging themselves more to try different things.”
In the Caribbean tropics (and places with such climates), sugarcane can grow tall, upwards of five metres. Long strands of green grass are tethered to thick culms reminiscent of bamboo. At harvest time, they’re chopped near the base by machine or machete. The stalks fold over onto themselves like a freshly manicured lawn and the sugarcane stacks emit a grassy must ascribed to rhum agricole. After they’re harvested, the canes are smashed until all their juices are liberated.
Around the time Cooper was introducing himself to mezcal, Ed Hamilton was drinking rum and living the Hunter S Thompson lifestyle on a sailboat in Mar tinique. Enamoured of the rums of the island, Hamilton decided to write a book about them. A decade later, at the urging of a wealthy Chicagoan who wanted Ti’ Punch on his yacht, he was summoned back to Martinique on a quest for a container of rhum.
There were larger suitors, but leveraging his well-forged relationships in the area, Hamilton secured two venerable rhum brands. In 2004, a container of Neisson and La Favorite left the harbour, and once again an eccentric nonconformist introduced the US to a spirit as r adical as its own.
These are the brands you are most likely to spot in the wild. Hamilton also represents Duquesne rhum (among the most industrious of the Martinique outfits) and a smattering of bottlings bearing his own name. But you’ll see a handful of US distillers dabbling in agricole as well. High Wire Distilling Co, located in Charleston, produces one of the country’s best agricoles (SGD134*), a gorgeous bottling from sugarcane grown from a single source in low-country South Carolina.
Prevailing culinary wisdom suggests that the surest way to a delicious meal is through fastidious procurement of the ingredients. As the spirits drinker begins to adopt similar tenets and language, demand for unheard stories of terroir, of time and place, is heightened.
If we are to apply what we’ve learned about mezcal’s rise to the trajectory of rhum agricole, the best advice we can offer is this: enjoy it while you still can.
Above: making agricole at St George Spirits in California. Facing page: the Grand Hotel and Bar in Fort-de-France,