France is a little ahead of us when it comes to appreciating an old school spirit called rhum agricole. Step inside any decent cafe in Paris and you'll find rhum with a "h" displayed prominently on the back bar; it's been this way for nearly one hundred years.
"Rhum, with its grassy, vegetal, garlic, truffle, and just plain funkiness, maybe isn't for everyone's palate," notes Scott Schuder, who helms the renowned tiki hideout Dirty Dick in Paris's hip South Pigalle neighborhood. "But here, where we have close roots to the French islands, it's a tradition," he says. Rhum agricole is a must for booze-forward staples like the Ti' Punch and at Dirty Dick, Schuder and his team regularly use it to add more complex flavor to standard tropical recipes. His preferred preparation, though: neat.
Where many mass-produced rums are heavy and a little one-note, rhum agricole is all about freshness and complexity. Many consider it to be the purest expression of rum—the best rhum agricole is at once delicate and dynamic. Strictly controlled by the French government in the West Indies, it's made from locally grown sugarcane that's cut, ground, and pressed into fresh juice. Over the course of two to three days, this fluid ferments before being distilled and rested in stainless steel or aged in wooden barrels. The result: an intensely grassy, earthy spirit that's a world apart from the syrupy characteristics of many big-brand white or dark rums made from molasses, the by-product of sugar production.
Set side by side, rhum stands tall compared to its cousins in the category. It's generally higher proof, and made with a single ingredient, whereas industrial rum is made with molasses and often additives like caramel. And while cachaça producers in Brazil do use sugarcane, they mix it with roasted cereals before distillation.
"It has a funk that no other rum has," says Miami rum master Robert Ferrara. The head bartender behind The Rum Line in South Beach fawns over agricole for its aromatic and vegetal side, "It essentially tastes like wet earth." If you're wondering whether spirits can reflect terroir, it's time to get tasting.
You'll find unaged rhums as well as a range of aged versions as you explore; we recommend starting with one of these four fantastic bottlings.
Clément VSOP Rhum Agricole Vieux (~ $40)
This is one of the most charismatic rhums you can buy: with each sip you'll discover sparks of nutmeg and pepper accompanied by dried apricot, coconut, and banana crème brûlée. Clément's distillery on the east coast of Martinique uses new oak barrels to kick off a four-year aging process for the VSOP and finishes with retired and re-charred bourbon casks. The double-charring technique imparts extra smokiness and spice to the fresh-cut cane's grassy features without disturbing the beautiful fruit flavors brought on by the oak.
How to Drink It: While Clément VSOP certainly shines on its own, this light copper-colored rhum can radically transform your Old Fashioned from syrupy to sublime. It's bolder and lighter than a bourbon or rum Old Fashioned, and especially tasty if you use a combination of Angostura and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters. Want to get really fancy? Flame your orange peel to complement the smoke from the re-charred casks.
Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc (50%) (~ $36)
Reach for this higher-proof rhum when you want to ignite your palate with a fiery experience. The clear unaged spirit harvested from super-rich soil on Martinique's northwest coast is a potent alternative to mezcal thanks to robust grassy flavors. After a three-day fermentation and three-month resting period, the result is an unadulterated cane rhum with a fresh floral scent and a remarkably clean and dry finish.
How to Drink It: Neisson Blanc's ideal pairing comes in the form of Martinique's iconic drink, the Ti' Punch, or "small punch." This party powerhouse is made with a mix of rhum and sugarcane syrup with freshly squeezed lime juice. The limes are traditionally cut down the middle: one half is squeezed aggressively until the pulp and aromatic oils are released and the other is rubbed along the rim of the glass. Sounds like a cinch to drink, but a Ti' Punch takedown is no small feat, especially with a strong rhum like Neisson Blanc as the headliner. Locals go as far as drinking it without ice, but to be frank it needs a little water to offset the burn of the first sip and fully express the floral nuances. Neisson Blanc's purity, even with ice, can also take light tropical drinks like the mojito and pina colada to a new level of finesse.
Damoiseau Virgin Cane Rum (~ $33)
Damoiseau Virgin Cane Rum of Guadeloupe is the mellowest of the bunch with a curiously sweet and sour composition, reminiscent of floral candies and fresh citrus. It's a light and crisp rhum that truly tastes and smells like fresh grass clippings. While it can't carry the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) seal of approval since France's protected designation of origin for rhum agricole is associated with Martinique, the distillery can point to more than 70 years of history in the Caribbean's French Riviera. The sugarcane is sourced from the northeast side of Grande-Terre, a limestone island where fertile farms and rolling hills meet sprawling white sand beaches beside the Atlantic. After fermentation and distillation, the liquid naps for six months in oak barrels once used for bourbon.
How to Drink It: Damoiseau is a fresh and complex substitute for standard white rum in just about any drink that calls for the colorless spirit (hello, mai tai). Try using Damoiseau instead of tequila in a Paloma or Margarita (okay, we know, then it's basically a daiquiri), and taste how the rhum's grassiness dovetails with the tartness of fresh citrus.
Rhum J.M. Gold (~ $35)
This golden elixir comes from sugarcane cultivated on the steep slopes of an active volcano in Martinique. The area is known for natural drainage and high quality crops—layers of volcanic ash from previous eruptions enrich the soil where sugarcane has flourished since the 1800s. After fermentation and distillation, the juice spends about a year in re-charred former bourbon barrels, which yield a glowing caramel color and an enticingly woodsy smoke on the palate. Lingering hints of gingerbread, vanilla, and hazelnut from the barrels balance the sharpness of the raw sugarcane, and this extra depth makes J.M. Gold exceptional in cocktails.
How to Drink It: Consider J.M. Gold the next time you shake up a Hemingway Daiquiri; (also known as a Papa Doble at Havana's celebrated Floridita bar). The kinship between the rhum and the creamy flavor of maraschino liqueur is show-stopping.
Note: All rhums provided as tasting samples for review consideration.