What the ‘H’ was I thinking about rhum?

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My increasingly deep collection of spirits has long had a weak spot. No matter how interested I’ve become in everything from artisanal mezcals to Islay Scotches, I’ve nevertheless avoided experimenting with rum. It’s no small oversight given that rum is an enormous category, with its sugar-derived spirits distilled in around 80 countries. A drinks enthusiast who ignores rum is like a cooking fanatic who doesn’t bother with pork or chicken.

Basically, I had formed my opinion about this drink long ago, after imbibing one too many treacly Caribbean-style cocktails at college parties. I’m not a fan of sweet beverages or fruit juices and I’ve long relegated rum to an unpleasant ingredient in some overpowering concoction. But as I stocked up the liquor cabinet for the holidays, it seemed wrong not to have any offerings in the rum category should a guest request a “mai tai” or “dark and stormy.”

So my research began — and boy was I missing out. There are, of course, myriad categories of rum. There’s the light, colorless blanc that is perfect in subtle cocktails, golden rums that are good for cocktails and sipping, dark rums that have been aged (or imbued with molasses and food colorings), cheap flavored rums (yuck!), spiced rums and well-aged rums that can rival the best bourbons or cognacs.

I’ll leave those for another day. But what really got my attention was something called “rhum.” Yes, it’s the French spelling of rum, with an “h.” Known as “rhum agricole” and produced mainly in Martinique, this “agricultural rum” even gets a French “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” that certifies that this is the authentic stuff — much the way that AOCs designate the Roquefort cheese or cognac is the real deal. The French government’s seal of approval also imposes strict production standards on producers.

Most rums are made with byproducts of sugar production, often molasses. It was an annoying waste product until some genius discovered that it was far better to ferment it and turn the stuff into booze than feed it to livestock or dump it into the ocean. It’s telling that the French still refer to this kind of rum, which is by far the most plentiful type, as “rhum industriel” — recognition that it was originally made from industrial waste.

By contrast, rhum agricole is made from sugar-cane juices. I started experimenting with them because they are renowned for their grassy, vegetal flavor and their “terroir” — the French word that describes the way that wines capture the essence of their particular terrain. That’s my sort of thing. There are other rums or rum-like products (such as cachaca) that are made from sugar-cane juice, but I’ve started with the AOC-branded distillers because they were readily available at the local liquor store.

My first sip was with Clement’s rhum blanc agricole, an unaged product that is one of the most interesting drinks I’ve ever had. It is complex and, yes, grassy. I’ve sipped it neat and made my own version of a ti punch (pronounced tea paunch), which is the national drink of Martinique. It’s a mix of rhum, lime and cane syrup. I doubt my drink comes close to the real thing, but it was nice. The rhum flavor comes through, but is mellowed out with sweetness and sour.

Then I tried Clement rhum vieux agricole — a golden-colored rum that has been aged in oak barrels. I get a whiff of distinctive vegetal rhum flavor, but it reminded me more of a fine cognac or aged Scotch than a rum. It’s great for sipping and is up there with any whiskey product I’ve ever sipped. And the price-to-delightfulness quotient is high, as prices for these bottles are quite reasonable ($32-$40).

There are oodles of wonderful rums made in the other styles, many of which I eagerly plan to explore. But rhum agricole is a fascinating entree into the world of rum, especially for people who have spent more time with malt- and agave-based spirits than sugar-based ones.


Image by Angela N Perryman

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