Rum Run

Paul Blow

Vodka can be made from almost anything—grain, potatoes, grapes, or leather shoes—but rum can be made only from sugarcane and its byproducts. Today, about 95 percent of the world’s rum is made from molasses, an oozy black sludge that, in the early days of sugar production 400 years ago, was merely a nuisance.

“Molasses was industrial waste,” writes Wayne Curtis in his new book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, “an effluent best gotten rid of by dumping it into the ocean.” It was quickly discovered, however, that molasses contains enough residual sugar to allow it to ferment. Through the action of yeast, molasses becomes a frothing brown “wine” that can be distilled. The result is a spirit called rum.

The remaining 5 percent of rum is made from pure cane—either sugarcane syrup or fresh sugarcane juice. In the past, it would have been hard to compare molasses-based to pure-cane rum, but this year we are seeing an unprecedented surge in the number of pure-cane spirits on the market. Spirits companies, buoyed by the popularity explosion of the mojito, are rolling out the premium rums as potential challengers to the throne currently occupied by vodka.

It was quickly discovered that molasses contains enough residual sugar to allow it to ferment.

Flooding the market

Several brands of rhum agricole, which is how pure-cane rum is known on the French island of Martinique, have recently entered the market. These include Depaz, Rhum Clément, and Rhum JM, as well as Neisson and La Favorite. The latter two are the only family-owned rhum agricole distillers on Martinique and are imported by Ed Hamilton, rum expert, author, and self-styled “Minister of Rum.” In the last two years, spirits behemoths LVMH and Diageo, respectively, have brought us 10 Cane, a pure-cane rum from Trinidad, and Oronoco, a cane-based rum from Brazil. In addition, making a push in the market are Leblon and Água Luca, the front-runners in a new wave of high-end (read expensive) cachaça, which is the name for the pure-cane spirit produced in Brazil.

Color Coding

Rum comes in many colors, though a rum’s color is not determined by its base—all distilled spirits are originally clear. The rum you find in a bottle, though, can be clear, amber, or dark. The color depends on the amount of time the rum spends in oak (though some are also darkened with added caramel). Aging a rum in a wooden barrel does more than add color—it makes the rum smoother and mellower, and can impart flavors from toast and vanilla to spice and coffee. White rums can be un-aged or aged in oak (for flavor) and then charcoal filtered to remove the color (for aesthetics). “It’s hard to know whether the color of a rum is due to aging in wood, charcoal filtering, or caramel coloring,” says the Minister of Rum. “The only ones you can tell for sure are the clear rums from the eastern Caribbean that are over 50 percent alcohol. Those are clear and will be straight out of the still.”

Most of the new pure-cane rums on the market are clear or near-clear. La Favorite, Neisson, Clément, and JM—all rhums agricoles—come in three colors—clear, amber, and a deeper brown for the vieux, or old, rums. Depaz comes only in amber. Of the cachaças, Água Luca is clear and Leblon is slightly tinted toward straw, because of short aging in French oak. 10 Cane has also spent a few months aging in oak, giving it a slight off-white hue. Oronoco, though it has had some aged Venezuelan rum blended into it for flavor, is clear.

The window for making rum straight from cane juice is only a few months out of the year, in the spring when the cane is ripe to be harvested. Molasses can be preserved and thus stored, shipped, and distilled at any point throughout the year. Sugarcane syrup doesn’t last long, and sugarcane and its fresh juice don’t last at all; they begin to ferment within hours of being picked and pressed. This is why pure-cane rums are so rare.

Do cane rums taste better than molasses rums? When I asked the Minister why pure-cane rum would be superior to molasses, he simply responded with a question: “Which would you rather drink—fermented pure sugarcane juice or fermented industrial molasses?” Catchy—but not exactly a fair answer, because, for one reason, Hamilton, the author of two books on rum, has professed a deep love of rum in general and has championed the quality of many rums made of molasses. Also, Hamilton’s analogy is flawed; we don’t drink fermented cane or molasses, we drink the distilled versions of them, which are completely different substances.

Where the difference lies

The best answer to the question is that in the category of light or white rums (see sidebar), pure-cane rum can taste different and better than molasses-based rums. And, more significantly, rhum agricole tastes entirely different.

There’s no mistaking rhum agricole when you smell it. The aroma is plantlike, a bit vegetal, herbal, and floral. This scent mingles with what you’d expect from rum—that sweet, round, gorgeous smell of sugarcane. Together, the two vapors create something that is exceedingly complex and wildly different from what most people expect from rum. If a standard white rum and its simple, sugary aromas might summon the image of a white-sand Caribbean beach, rhum agricole is evocative of that beach, but also the tall grass and rain forest beyond it and the volcanic rock that underlies the whole island. Lovely as that is, it might not be for everyone—at least not at first.

Erik Adkins, the bar manager at the Slanted Door, a San Francisco restaurant with an ambitious cocktail program, stocks the Neisson rhum agricole blanc. “When we first got it in, I tried using it in place of our normal white rum in our mojitos,” he told me. “Every single one of them was sent back, just because the taste was so different.” Adkins has since reverted to a more standard white rum for his mojitos. “In the aged versions of rhum agricole, the oak tends to mask a bit of the herbal component and adds a vanilla sweetness, creating a more complex, gentler spirit.” Ed Hamilton recommends drinking rhum agricole blanc in a ti punch, which is the standard cocktail on Martinique—just a few drops of syrup, some white rum, a sliver of lime, and an ice cube. At home, I tried the mahogany-hued Rhum Clément VSOP in a modified Manhattan, with sweet vermouth and angostura bitters to make a smooth and tasty cocktail. I find all the rhum agricoles fascinating and delicious, but they may be an acquired taste.

Drinking on Your Own Time

Ti Punch
The ti in ti punch is a diminutive of the French word petit, the name translating as “adorable little punch.” Pour 1/4 teaspoon of Petite Canne sugarcane syrup into a tumbler (this is highly concentrated sugarcane syrup that is used on Martinque and which Hamilton also imports). Into the glass squeeze a small piece of lime sliced directly from the side of the lime, and drop the lime in the glass. Add 2 ounces of rhum agricole blanc. Stir. Add ice.

Rhum Manhattan
In a mixing cup, combine:
2 ounces of any well-aged rhum agricole, such as Neisson Special Reserve or Rhum Clément VSOP
1.5 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes angostura bitters
Add ice and stir vigorously for about 20 to 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass and serve.
Note: Another specialty of Martinique is pure sugarcane syrup. Two brands are imported to the United States: One is Depaz, and the other is under the label Petite Canne. Both are intensely sweet—far more concentrated and syrupy than typical simple syrup—and also have that luscious sugarcane flavor. Sugarcane syrup is highly recommended for use in rum drinks and is a useful asset to any home bar.

A leap forward for white rums

Less fascinating but still delicious are the white pure-cane spirits that don’t come from Martinique. These spirits—the 10 Cane and Oronoco rums and the two cachaças—all have the veneer of slickly packaged, mass-marketed premium spirits, which the more down-home rhums agricoles do not. The minimal aging in both the 10 Cane and the Oronoco is just enough to create a smoother, slightly sweeter spirit, without giving up the vibrancy and freshness of the cane aromas. Most molasses-based rums need significantly more aging to be palatable. However, because of all the ways these spirits can be manipulated, it’s difficult to say definitively whether the richness of these two white rums is due to the fact that they’re made directly from fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, or that they’re just made with more care and attention than most. My opinion is that in the absence of long aging in the barrel, the pure-cane rums are more flavorful and smoother than their molasses-based equivalents.

Both 10 Cane and Oronoco are inarguably a leap forward in the white-rum category, though, which had not really been taken seriously as a place for well-made, upmarket spirits. Oronoco exhibits a lush note of vanilla, while the 10 Cane smells roundly and brightly of fresh, honeyed sugarcane. The Leblon cachaça has some similarities; it’s also very rich and robust in its cane aromas. All are very smooth spirits and go down easily—they could be sipped neat over ice and still be refreshing. Água Luca cachaça lacks the richness and sweet flavor of the cane and has a bite of raw alcohol. It’s not for straight sipping, but when mixed with lime and sugar, it creates a fine caipirinha.

Photo by Rufino Uribe, under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.