We should all just drink more Agricole rum. I’m serious. We’ve been making the Earth less habitable day by day and spirits production isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.
Our convenient lifestyle is mostly reliant on somebody doing the dirty work for us. The soonest we can forget about hardships, the better. We trust the big companies easily, with their well tailored words. But lately we have become more aware of corners being cut for profit. Despite declaring their practices and/or products being more or less, environmentally friendly. We eventually realise, sooner or later, that most of it is bollocks. Because of that, sustainability has become one of the most cried out words, especially in the food and beverage industry. Everyone is directly or indirectly connected to the F&B world. I mean, who doesn’t eat and drink out? Who doesn’t buy bottled beverages and packaged food? Luckily, some people have realized that our constant wanting for convenience is a huge cause of it. I’m not saying that convenience is a bad thing, but as a society, we haven’t been smart about it.
Being a cocktail geek, the topic of sustainability is being discussed more and more. Bar concepts such as Native Singapore and Trash Tiki are some of those who are championing the movement. Vijay, the owner of Native, says he thinks of it as responsible bartending. He makes an emphasis to create less trash, going so far as to return empty bottles of spirits to local distillers. Trash Tiki is an advocate for using the ingredients usually grown by bars, including ingredients like fruit peels and used coffee grounds.
Themes like carbon footprint and being less wasteful of ingredients have been brought up before. Why not just rent dishes and utensils for big events? Why not use stainless steel straws? Those sounds nice, but what about the fuel used for transportation? What about the water that will be used to clean them? What can we do with the fruit peels?
So, why should we drink more agricole rum or sugarcane juice-based rum? Aside from being delicious it makes a good case of being more sustainable than single malt. How are single malt distilleries arguably less sustainable than agricole distilleries? With single malt, there’s more traces of carbon footprint. It’s no secret that a lot the barley used to make Scotch doesn’t come from Scotland. The barley has to be transported from places like Canada and other parts of Europe. Japanese distilleries like Yoichi and Hakushu have to import peated barley from Scotland. For instance, Amrut’s Fusion uses Scottish barley.
With agricole distilleries, the sites are situated close to the main source of sugarcane. They have to be. After sugarcane is harvested, the Martinique AOC, which is often used as the benchmark for cane juice based rum production, dictates that the harvested cane has just 24 hours to be juice, then fermented, otherwise the quality of the rum will suffer. Instead of containers being shipped over long distances, or overseas, agricole distilleries only have to rely on trucks, or animals for cane transport.
The leftover fibrous parts of the cane is called bagasse. Thanks to Inuakena, I learned that bagasse is often used by the distiller to fuel the stills, or boilers. Aside from being used as biofuel, the bagasse can be used to make paper, or as organic ground cover for the sugarcane fields. I know, a lot of whisky distilleries now use steam to heat the stills. But isn’t coal still used to dry unpeated barley? Isn’t peat is just an early form of coal as well?
What about the stillage waste? In bourbon production, the mash from a previous batch is used in sour mashes. I’ve heard it is also used to feed livestock. In molasses based rum distilleries, dunder is the equivalent of the sour mash. Some distilleries spread the stillage over the cane fields after being processed. According to a rum brand representative I met in Whisky Live Manila, a Barbadian distillery also throws their processed stillage into the sea, which serves as nutrients for the sea life. I know, this paragraph isn’t about sugarcane juice based rum, but I thought it was a good to know. I’ve been told the vinasse, stillage waste, of the huge industrial distilleries are bad for the environment.
This article isn’t me trying to prove that the agricole production process is absolutely more sustainable than other production processes of spirits. I don’t have enough insider knowledge for multiple industries to support it. But it certainly does shed more light into the lesser known production process of sugarcane juice based rum. I also feel like the whisky industry focuses too much on its grand points of production. The less attractive details get buried under marketing.
Like many people, I like to root for smaller guys. With this preference, I present Issan, The Natural Sugarcane Spirit from Issan, Thailand. Issan is an agricole-style, or sugarcane juice based rum, named after the region it resides in. Issan, a region in the northern part of Thailand is close to the border of Laos. The owner, David Giallorenzo, is a Frenchman who moved to Thailand in 2011.
They have a sustainable operation. The sugarcane all comes from nearby farmers. Issan’s operations gives livelihood and medical access to the farmers and locals around the distillery by buying cane, at a better price, from them. The cane is harvested and peeled by hand. This eliminates, or minimizes, the use of machines. The cane is all organic, as they don’t use pesticides. They ferment the cane juice with their own yeast strain (wild yeast I hope?) and distill the rum in a pot still. Their use of pot stills is not AOC-ish of him, but I love pot! The Martinique AOC requires the use of a Creole Column still, which is like a repurposed Armagnac (column) still. Another fascinating thing is Issan does not age their rum!
Why does the label say “natural sugarcane spirit”? Because Thailand has some weird law about rum. The most consistent theory or rumor I’ve heard of is Sangsom rum, who also makes Phraya, owns the rights to call a spirit “rum” in Thailand. Another weird and unfortunate law in Thailand, is spirits can’t be bottled over 40%. BUT! You can try an off the still proof Issan rum at the Asia Today bar in Bangkok. Sadly I forget the price as this was a gift to me, but I’m sure this does not go over $40.
Issan Thai Rum – review
On the nose: This was a welcome slap to the face. Brine! Olives, oysters and clam miso soup! Hints of soy sauce, hints of cookie dough, sugarcane syrup, pickled green mango, calamansi, lime peels and pickled plum.
In the mouth: Weak but oily delivery of flavors. Baking spices like cumin and anise. Followed by hints, cookie dough, pickled green mango, mango skin and some incomprehensible sweet notes.
Smelling this was the best part, as I did not expect a pot distilled spirit to be so tame. I was hoping for as much funk as in the nose. The brine vanished. All that funk became mute. Had the sensation in the mouth been more satisfying, I would have given this a 6/10.
Clairin, Mezcal and agricole rum lovers will like this. Spirits like these just brings out the masochist in me. All that in-your-face funky, “dirty” and “unrefined” scents going at you. While this is not mind blowing, it’s nice to see Asia producing more rum. You also have Japan and Vietnam to join Thailand in making Asia to be recognized as a rum producing region. I find it odd that the rum producing scene in Asia has only started recently. Sugarcane after all, did originate in Asia and was brought to the Caribbean.