If you’ve been wanting to explore the world of rhum agricole, you couldn’t have picked a better time. As we’re standing on the cusp of a rum explosion, and it’s pretty safe to assume that you can expect to see more rums imported.
Rhum agricole, which literally means agricultural rum, makes up roughly about one percent of global rum production, and most of that one percent comes from Martinique, an island in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean Sea.
As the name suggests, it’s made using agricultural produce, which in this case is pure sugar cane juice. Conventional rum, also known as ‘rhum industriel‘ or ‘rhum traditionnel‘, is actually made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production – which makes it sounds a lot worse than it really is actually, but the key implication here is that rhum agricole is more expensive to produce, but so far, the end product sure is worth it.
Despite rum’s billing as heir apparent to the title of the next big thing in the spirits world, there is relatively little buzz and information available, compared to say, wine, whisky, or beer, for that matter. It’s precisely for this reason that we were invited by Le Vigne to try out some of the rhum agricole labels that they are distributing: we were introduced to French labels Habitation Saint-Étienne (HSE) and Habitation La Favorite, both hailing from Martinique.
These labels carry the certification appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or ‘controlled designation of origin.’ It’s the only region physically outside of France with an appellation for rhum agricole, and the appellation places it on the level of cognacs, armagnacs and calvados.
While cynics will be right to look upon it as merely a marketing tool, the appellation does help to define the taste of rhum agricole and uphold its upmarket status, thanks to strict controls on sugar cane cultivation as well as production methods. Examples of such regulations include limiting cultivation yields of sugar cane to 120 metric tons per hectare, and restricting the use of irrigation technology. This prevents overproduction and ensures a level of quality from the raw material. Likewise, the qualities of the sugar cane juice is controlled as well, with minimum sugar content and pH levels, and restrictions in the use of juicing techniques prevent undesirable compounds from being produced and maintain the nosing bouquet of the rum product.
So that’s all very well and good, but after all that huffing and puffing, will it blow the proverbial house down? If it’s down to my opinion alone then there’s no doubt that rhum agricole does bring something unique to the table with its unmistakable, fresh vegetal, floral notes, and a ja ne sais quoi that regular rums do not have.
On the other hand I don’t mean to say that rhum agricole is the definitive taste of rum and that they are without a doubt superior than rhum traditionnel – there are many quality molasses-based rum that are top notch as well – but rhum agricole is indeed a unique proposition; one that all rum fans should, and will, explore at some point of their journey.
Habitation Saint Etienne
Habitation Saint-Etienne (HSE) was once a major sugar factory in Martinique before it became a rhum agricole facility. These days, under the new ownership of Distillery Simon, the spirit is distilled at the Simon Distillery in Le François, while blending, and maturation are done at Habitation Saint-Etienne.
HSE’s house style is characteristically light and infinitely quaffable, and is especially suitable for people starting out on rhum agricole. HSE has many bottlings available in their core range as well as their range of World Cask Finishes, which in a way makes it easier to find something you will like.
We were treated to a variety of bottlings, but what stands out was its World Cask Finish range. Much akin to what the Scots are doing with their whisky, rum too, HSE too, has experimented with finishes in various familiar casks, running the whole gamut from Pedro Ximenez sherry to Sauternes wine.
Much like whisky, the challenge is in balancing the intrinsic flavours of rhum agricole and the distinctive flavours of the casks it inhabits, and the results range from decent to distinctively interesting. There’s much to explore here, particularly the Extra Vieux Highland Single Malt Finish, which strikes a good balance in integrating two distinct characteristics. From the regular range, the Extra Vieux XO was a standout, and contrasted well with the Highland Single Malt Finish.
HSE Rhum Blanc Agricole
NOTES Generous vanilla on the nose with honey notes delicately enrobe this elegant rhum. Its seductively round and sweet palate leaves an explosion of fruity flavours. (Several versions exist, the difference lies only in ABV strength. The 55% ABV version is shown in the pic)
SIZE 1 litre
Price S$97.50 (retail prices from Le Vigne)
HSE Rhum Très Vieux VSOP
NOTES Saint-Etienne Rhum Très Vieux VSOP ‘Réserve Spéciale’ is a blend of selected ‘Rhums Agricoles’ which have been aged a minimum of six to eight years in Bourbon oak casks. This process confers this exceptional rum a Creole flavor and a spicy, aromatic palate. The nose is rich with candied fruit: apricot, peach, beeswax and cantaloupe, followed by notes of grilled almonds and caramel with buttered coffee and clove. The taste is superb and enhances the nose: a broad, warm attack, admirably envelopes the palate. Its mellow nature and viscosity accentuate the lasting taste of this very old rum.
SIZE 700 ml
HSE Rhum Extra Vieux XO
NOTES Rhum Vieux Saint-Etienne XO ‘Grande Réserve’ is made by carefully blending extremely old rhums from reserves at the Habitation, including those distilled in 1960. It has a beautiful amber colour with a noble aroma presenting warm notes of old leather and sandalwood with touches of black pepper, ginger and nutmeg. The palate is rich with vanilla and woody notes, and finishes long with sweet creamy notes of exotic fruit and spices.
SIZE 700 ml
HSE Rhum Vieux 2005 Highland Malt Finish
NOTES After six years of in oak barrels in the purest tradition of HSE rhums, this extra old agricultural rhum has been finished in Highland Single Malt whisky barrels for over 12 months. The nose opens with aromas of menthol and white fruit, followed by subtle notes of green almond and orange blossom. The palate is fresh, developing flavours of cereals smoke, nectarine, mint toffee and spice characteristic of aged rhums.
SIZE 500 ml
HSE Rhum Vieux 2004 Fino Olorosso Finish
NOTES This rhum is aged for eight years in oak barrels in the pure tradition of HSE rhums, then finished in Fino Sherry and Olorosso casks for six months. This sherry finish confers finesse, distinction, and an exotic touch. The wide nose has aromas of cooked fruit and subtle grilled nuts with cigar box notes. On the palate, it is round and balanced with precious wood, prunes and hints of spice and sugar.
SIZE 500 ml
HSE Rhum Vieux 2004 Pedro Ximenez Finish
NOTES After seven years in oak barrels in the tradition of HSE rhums, this extra old agricultural rum was finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. The nose opens with notes of sweet caramel and prunes, delicately balanced between cool and warm floral notes and cooked fruits. The creamy mouth offers dry dates with notes of liquorice in beautiful harmony with earthy undergrowth and white tobacco flavours.
SIZE 500 ml
Once known as La Jambette, Habitation La Favorite is one of the last few family-owned distilleries on Martinique, and is among the most rustic – think really old school – rum distilleries you can find. Built in 1843, the distillery employs two copper, single column stills and produces approximately 500,000 litres of spirit annually. Astonishingly it’s still steam powered, utilising bagasse (sugar cane fibre) as bio fuel.
La Favorite is well-known for the quality of their aged rum. Aged rum is a rarity because of the tropical climate, which means that the angel’s share for Martinique rum is extremely high – so now you know, when someone pulls out a bottle of aged rum to share, that alone is certainly is an occasion to celebrate in itself.
But the mundane everyday can be celebrated too, with a ‘Ti Punch, which literally means petite, or little, punch. A traditional drink in Martinique that is commonly served as an apéritif, this rum-based concoction is fiendishly simple: rhum agricole blanc, lime juice, cane syrup, and ice if it suits your fancy.
It’s not clear if there is a definitive recipe – bars will likely have their own – but traditionally in Martinique it is prepared a la ‘chacun prépare sa propre mort,’ which roughly translates to ‘each one prepares his own death,’ that is, you do it according to your taste. La Favorite L’Authentique Blanc makes a great base for ‘Ti Punch, and is great on its own; my view though, it’s not a flavour profile that everyone will instantly take to.
The rhum agricole hors d’âge, Cuvée Spéciale de la Flibuste was the highlight, make no mistake. An unbelievably old rum at 30 years of age, it is remarkably intense yet gentle all at once. With rum set to explode in popularity, now might be the best time to land one of these babies when it’s still not stupidly expensive. It’s still quite expensive though, mind you. But oh, so good.
La Favorite L’Authentique Blanc
NOTES The fresh smooth aroma is accented by tropical florals, the body is rich in citrus and pear notes followed by citrus and fresh sugar cane juice in the finish. Distilled in a copper, single column still, then rested and bottled at the distillery. Enjoy La Favorite Rhum neat, in a ti’ punch or with cocktails.
SIZE 1 litre
La Favorite Cuvee Filibuste 1984
NOTES La Favorite Cuvee Flibuste extra old rhum is a tribute to the islands freebooter pirates that used to be very fond of the drink. Gold medal winner in Paris at the Concours General Agricole, this 1984 Vintage elaborated from La Favorite’s best rums, is an extra old rum of incredible complexity. Aged for 30 years in oak barrels, discover its aromatic qualities with complex notes of prune, mango and cinnamon. With its lingering finish, the finale expresses tones of licorice and orange peel. La Favorite Cuvée Flibuste 1984 is released in very limited quantities.
Additional photo credits: La Favorite, HSE
Bottling notes and information: Le Vigne
A Shoutout for Lime House
What’s best paired with rum? Caribbean food, of course. Lime House serves up authentic – and absolutely delicious – Caribbean fare with a local twist. Little wonder, as Hassan Defour, a celebrity Trinidadian chef in the UK, serves as the consultant chef for Lime House.
Even its settings are a reflection of its fare: local colonial architecture, which isn’t that far removed from what you will find in the Caribbean; just about enough to spirit you away in your mind.
Lest we forget, Lime House is also an excellent place to explore rums and rum-based cocktails, so check it out.
Address 2 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore 089260
Opening Hours Monday to Friday: 5pm to 12am. Saturday: 12pm to 12am