We want the funk

Ter­roir-rich rhum agri­cole is the new se­cret hand­shake of the spir­its world.

Esquire (Singapore) - - MaHB -

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,

Mar­tinique, 1946.

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