Not Rum, Rhum!

Paul Blow
Neisson Rhum Agricole

Now that summer's hitting its stride, we're getting squarely into rum season. And if you've been paying attention while drinking, you may have noticed an errant letter showing up on your bottles: Rum has become rhum. This is the way rum is spelled in Martinique.

A famously chaotic category of spirits, rum—unlike, say, tequila—has no rules guiding its production. It can come from anywhere (and it does, including Australia, Massachusetts, and Thailand). And, unlike Scotch whisky, it need not be made in any prescribed way, except that sugarcane or one of its byproducts must be at the root of it. Individual countries may have their own laws, but those laws are hard to keep track of. Most rum is made from molasses.

But rhum agricole, which comes mostly from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, is made from fresh sugarcane juice—a key difference. It's unique stuff: rum with terroir, rum with high character. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one well worth acquiring.

Newly cut cane will begin to oxidize or ferment within hours of being harvested, so the distillery must be in close proximity to the cane fields. The taste of fresh cane becomes a hallmark of the resulting spirit. This also means that it's a seasonal production, with cane season lasting roughly from February to June.

Martinique's mineral-rich volcanic soils seem to add an extra dose of intensity to the rhums. The distilleries are marvels unto themselves. They run on steam power produced by burning the spent husks and leaves of the pressed cane, making the system a closed and efficient one. This is piston-pumping, gear-turning, industrial-revolution-era technology that has somehow managed to survive, largely unchanged, into the modern era. The rhum is released blanc (uncolored) after a few months of resting; or vieux, meaning that it has spent years in barrel, developing a lovely amber hue.

While most rum is confined to basic aromas of brown sugar, vanilla, and perhaps some spice, the defining note of rhum agricole is an herbal brightness. At first it tastes strange, especially if you're used to rum's familiar sweetness. Then it becomes addictive, and conventional rums start to seem boring.

But don't put rhum agricole in a Mojito or, God forbid, with Coke. Instead drink it the way they do in Martinique, in a cocktail so simple that it's hardly a cocktail: the ’Ti Punch. To make one is easy and doesn't even require exact proportions. Simply coat the bottom of a small tumbler with a puddle of fresh cane syrup or a teaspoon or so of raw sugar. Pour in a couple of ounces of rhum agricole (I prefer the blanc here, though you can use aged) and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Then top with a thin disk of lime skin, avoiding the juicy flesh—it's the oils in the skin we're after. An ice cube is optional.

It's a small drink (’ti is short for petit) with a big impact. Almost any rhum agricole is good, but my favorite brands are Neisson, J.M, La Favorite, Depaz, and Saint James—in that order. But there's nothing wrong with any of them. Indeed, they're all extremely rhight.

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.