Are We Witnessing the Birth of American Agricole?

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High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston, S.C. (image: Peter Frank Edwards)

Rhum agricole is the secret handshake of the rum world—an under-the-radar import spoken about by rum aficionados with reverence but not all that well known by casual consumers. Made from newly pressed sugar cane juice rather than molasses, agricole is one step closer to the cane fields, say fans, and thus rum’s fresher-faced cousin.

Yet it can be somewhat of an acquired taste. The unaged, white rum in particular has the evocative aroma of a freshly cut lawn (sugar is, after all, a grass) and an earthy, funky taste that sets it apart from the more narrow caramel and honey notes of traditional molasses-based rums.

Three mills at Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., carry bagasse (the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane) up conveyors after fresh-pressed cane juice has been extracted.

Agricole has long been associated with the French West Indies, especially Martinique, where it became the standard rum in the late 19th century. (This was in response to a decline in global sugar prices, after which cane growers scrambled to add value to their product.) In the past decade, more agricoles have started to crop up in American liquor stores and bars, including Clément, Neisson, J.M, La Favorite, Saint James, Depaz and Damoiseau. “Today, the term agricole is almost as common as sweet or bad Tiki drinks were a dozen years ago,” says rum expert Ed Hamilton, who imports agricole rums from Martinique.

And now, domestic craft distillers are starting to take note, especially those with ready access to sugar. Several American craft distillers, in Hawaii, Louisiana and South Carolina, are currently making credible agricole rums.

Cane Land Distilling Co. tasting room in Baton Rouge, La.

All rum comes from sugar cane or its byproducts. That’s by federal definition. But agricole rum—or rhum, as it’s spelled in French—isn’t yet defined by the federal government. By generally accepted definition in the industry, it’s made from the fresh juice of sugar cane, which needs to be pressed more or less immediately after cutting and fermented soon after. Cane starts to spoil about 24 hours after being cut.

That adds a considerable logistical hurdle to agricole production, and even distillers in sugar-growing areas of the United States find the quick turnaround daunting. (About half of all domestic sugar is grown in Florida; Louisiana produces about a third less, with Texas and Hawaii together producing less than 10 percent of the nation’s output.)

High Wire Distilling Co.

Walter Tharp is among the undaunted producers. He’s aiming to step up agricole production in Louisiana, where his family has owned and operated Alma Plantation & Sugar Mill in Pointe Coupee Parish since the middle of the 19th century. It’s a sprawling mill complex that not only processes sugar from the family-owned 3,200 acres but from 40,000 acres owned by nearby growers, producing a total of some 400 million pounds of sugar annually, plus 10 million gallons of molasses.

Tharp’s Cane Land Distilling Co. opened last winter an hour away, at the edge of downtown Baton Rouge. He’s making traditional rum from molasses but is also using fresh sugar cane juice for his Cane Lane rhum agricole. His distillery was licensed with just two weeks remaining in the last sugar harvest, just enough to allow him to put up some agricole in a few cognac and former whiskey barrels. (I sampled and can report that these are showing promising results after just a few months.) “We’ll own the entire process, from planting to bottling,” says Tharp. He also plans to make a white agricole available.

Manulele Distillers stills in Kunia Camp on Hawaii’s Oahu

South Carolina is well north of the sugar belt, but a handful of farmers still raise batches of sugar cane as a hobby crop, with no intent to sell commercially. The juice has traditionally been boiled down into syrup to be used as a molasses-like sweetener at home.

Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall, who founded High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston, S.C., tracked down two such cane growers in recent years and convinced them to part with some of their juice after the cane was crushed but before it hit the boilers.

High Wire doesn’t make much. It sources enough cane juice to make only 200 bottles a year, which it ages at a low 101 proof in new oak barrels. (Blackwell, who believes that a liquor producer’s job is to be true to the terroir and agricultural origins of a spirit, takes a similar experimental approach with local heritage grains when making whiskey and in using botanicals in gin.)

Manulele Distillers tasting room

What comes out of his barrel is dense and complex, varying slightly between the farms—the rum made from upland farm cane, notes Blackwell, has a briny note to it, which he suspects may be related to the coast being farther inland during the last Ice Age, leaving salty deposits in the foothills.

Far to the west, on Hawaii’s Oahu, Jason Brand and Robert Dawson, who founded Manulele Distillers, tracked down 34 heirloom sugar cane varieties (of 50 believed to exist on Hawaii before the sugar crop was homogenized) and experimented to find the best to showcase their flavors. Using fresh-pressed cane juice they grow on their 21-acre farm about a half-mile from their distillery, they started producing Kō Hana rum in 2013. They made about 530 cases last year and are on track to double that this year. (The rum is currently available only in Hawaii, but overtures are underway in New York and California through upstart distributor LibDib.)

Kō Hana rum tasting at Manulele Distillers

California has two rhum agricoles on the books but both with asterisks.

St. George Spirits in the Bay Area’s Alameda, Calif., was the pioneer craft producer of agricole. The distillery was launched in 1982 as a maker of eau-de-vie, and agricole rum, which it first produced in 2007, was a logical extension.

“We have a rum that smells and tastes the same way the fresh-pressed cane juice did at the beginning of the process,” says distiller Lance Winters, who sourced fresh-cut sugar cane from an Imperial Valley farm near the Mexican border. “It’s a sugar cane eau-de-vie.”

Sugar cane getting pressed at St. George Spirits

Yet St. George ceased production recently for a couple of reasons. “The last few harvests have ended with a hard freeze, which destroyed all of the cane that we would have pressed,” says Winters. And with the continuing consolidation of the sugar industry, changes in production methods and ownership have made it trickier to get the fresh cane at the scale it needs.

In the meantime, St. George says it’s “sitting on a few barrels and will release more of the aged expression at some point,” the date of which has yet to be determined.

Also in the Bay Area is Raff Distillerie, on Treasure Island, which currently markets a Barbary Coast rhum agricole. But that’s not without controversy—it’s not made from fresh sugar cane juice but evaporated cane sugar shipped from Colombia. “I would like to do fresh-pressed, but we can’t get fresh sugar cane unfortunately,” says distiller Carter Raff. “But I wanted to introduce this to the American public. I’m doing the best I can with what I can get.” Raff argues that the cane sugar conveys the terroir in a way that molasses (or even cane syrup) doesn’t and conveys the distinct flavor of an agricole.

St. George Spirits tasting room

Federal liquor labeling laws don’t define “agricole,” so the category remains somewhat flexible and therefore confusing to consumers. “I hear from time to time from people who say it’s not funky,” says Raff. “But I think it’s plenty funky.”

Agricole’s definition may one day get looked at by federal regulators, who would certainly benefit from a trip to Martinique. On the island, “rhum agricole” is an official designation, with a long list of hoops to jump through in order to wear the name on a label, much like bourbon in the United States.

Until then, it’s worth celebrating that rhum agricole has—slowly, haltingly, increasingly—made its way north to the U.S. mainland.

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